Saturday, May 7, 2011

Heavy Stuff

Have any of you ever had to worry about whether you would have a roof over your head every night or wonder where your next meal would come from? If you have, then you know just how scary that is. 

I have.... my boys and I were homeless for 2 years. 2 whole years.... and we still sit on the edge of being precariously housed because my rent is anything but affordable. According to federal guidelines, affordable rent should be no more than 30% of your monthly income. Yes, I said rent is actually about 80% of my income and if my rent goes up, which the slumlords that own this dump are trying to do, my rent will be 90% of my income...... 90%...... that pretty much means that I would be able to pay rent, and have about 50 bucks left over..... and *that* is if my child support actually comes in at the amount it is supposed to be...... and that does not happen often.... so in reality, my rent would be over 100% of my income if child support doesn't show up in the amount it is supposed to every month. And before you start thinking 'Well if you would get a job, you could afford a place to live', I do have a job. It is a crappy low wage job that is seasonal for summer. It is all that is available to me as a full time college student and single mother. I get financial aid, but that only goes so far and does not last very long at all. Jobs in my area are scarce and those that are available make even less than my low wage paying job. For me to make a living wage that is enough to pay all my bills on time each month, I need to make at least $15-20 dollars an hour. Yeah, that isn't happening, and this is the low end of a living wage for my area.

Now I know most of you don't really care about this tucked up in your safe and comfy homes you aren't worried about losing, and that is fine. We all bury our heads in the sand when it comes to facing the state of our society today. The reason I bring this up is not for pity or sympathy, but to talk about a prevalent problem in today's society ....  HOMELESSNESS

Homelessness is becoming more common every day. And before you say, "Yeah, but all the homeless are just a bunch of men with drug and alcohol addictions and they live on the streets because they like it, and stay there because all they care about is their next fix instead of finding a job and a house", reread my beginning paragraph. For those of you that know me well, you know I don't even smoke, much less drink and do drugs..... so right there I am breaking your preconceived notions of homelessness. According to HUD (Housing and Urban Development, a governmental agency) the homeless rate is skyrocketing and the largest contributor to that is small families, many of which are single parents, and of those single parent families, a vast majority of them are mother-led households. Here is a link to the HUD website and the section on homelessness

Homelessness is a serious problem with many contributing factors and no easy, set solution. Every homeless person or family has their own unique story and situation and there is no single band-aid that will fix every situation. Most of the 'new' homeless are small families, frequently single parent households, and a great many of them are only homeless because of a crisis or situation. The crisis is some kind of financial crunch.... many people live paycheck to paycheck and are 1 paycheck away from a crisis.... you have a car break down, a medical problem, anything unexpected, and the next things you know, you are facing a major problem.... you have no extra money and must use rent money to fix the crisis, and then, all of a sudden, you are facing homelessness. A great part of this is structural issues that the government and society put in place and approve of. Low wage jobs that pay the minimum wage are a big culprit. Minimum wage is not a living wage at all. By 'living wage', I mean a wage that allows a family or person to live reasonably, pay all their bills every month without deciding what bills will I skip this month to pay the bills I skipped last month, and not face poverty. Minimum wage keeps people in poverty. Here is a chart for the poverty level guidelines for 2011. Where do you fall? I know where I fall for a family of 3..... at about 85% below the poverty level. Here is a chart of one type of poverty level assessments.  
Here is another poverty chart, this one is a little easier to read and understand. I know just how far below the poverty line my family lives, and I know I am not the only family that faces this issue. Minimum wage in the state of Colorado is $7.36/hr. Working 40 hours a week at $7.36 is $294.40 a week, BEFORE TAXES. This translates into $883.20 a month, again, BEFORE TAXES. If you multiply the monthly pay by 12 months, you make $10,598.40 a year. After taxes, you might bring home $700 a month.... do you know what most rents for a 2 bedroom apartment are? $625 for a crappy little one in a bad area and without a washer and dryer, so you have to pay for doing laundry. Now tell me, where is this right? The poverty level for one person is living at or below $10,890; for a family of 2, $14,710; for a family of 3, $18,530; for a family of 4, $22,350. And each of these is a year. So making minimum wage pays $10,598.40... already, just one person working minimum wage is below the federal poverty level, and it just gets worse as the family size goes up. Where is this right in the world?

Another structural issue is the complete lack of affordable housing in the U.S. Subsidies for affordable housing programs have steadily been cut to almost nothing since President Reagan began slashing funding for the poor and impoverished. Every president since then has pretty much continued the slashing of funding to assistance programs. And these programs also include programs for Vets, so it isn't just 'welfare mommas' being hurt. And as for welfare.... Welfare is a joke meant to keep people well below the poverty line and unable to climb out of poverty. The TANF payment for a family of 3 is $207 a month. Where is that even enough money to buy groceries with, much less pay rent and meet any other expenses? Not only is that payment ridiculous, but there are so many restrictions on it that it isn't even funny! If you need TANF, you have to sell your car and have a piece of crap worth less than $2,000! Where in the world is it stated that if you need temporary assistance, you must own a piece of crap car or no car at all? So say you have a decent car, worth, oh $12,000 and it is paid off and completely yours. If you face a financial crisis and need temporary aid in the form of TANF, you must literally sell that car, even tho it is completely paid off and either have no car or one that is worth less than $2,000, which means it is very likely to be unreliable. How is this right, and how are you supposed to get out of the system if you are forced to buy a piece of junk that is likely unreliable and get rid of your decent car that works just fine? And this is just one example of how the system is designed to keep people in poverty.

Now, homelessness itself. Say you have a small family of 4, husband, wife, 2 kids, 1 boy, 1 girl, oh, and a dog and cat. Did you know that if you lose your residence and try to stay in an emergency shelter, there is a good chance your family would get turned away because there are no beds available due to funding cuts and shortages? And if you are fortunate enough to be able to stay in the shelter, despite being married, your family is going to be broken up. Men are not allowed to stay on the same side of the shelter as women and children. Men have to stay on a separate side of the shelter and are not allowed to be anywhere near their wives and children, doesn't matter how long you have been married, you aren't given a choice in the matter. If your son is a teenager, he is forced to stay on the men's side of the shelter despite still being a child and terrified. What about your pets and belongings? Nope, not allowed to have them either. Pets are strictly forbidden and personal belongings are not allowed due to space issues. A shelter is nothing but beds, and they are twin bunk beds or cots in most locations. What few belongings you may be allowed to bring in are likely to be stolen while you try to sleep. Shelters are very noisy since they are just open rooms with rows of beds crammed in together as tightly as possible. The programs out there to help the homeless have severe restrictions in place like no pets, you must do this, you must do that, we expect this, we expect that. Some of the restrictions and expectations are understandable. Things like no drugs and looking for a job are reasonable. The people may have become homeless through no direct fault of their own, but they do need to take personal responsibility and do something to try and get out of the situation. Yes, I know I have already stated that many structural issues are designed to keep people from succeeding, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try and be the one who does get out.

Now what should we as a society do about this? What I have discussed is just basic things, I haven't even gone into the humiliation and stigma that are associated and forced on people living in poverty and or homelessness. That is a whole other can of worms that I don't even want to get into, except that society needs to readjust its thinking on poverty and homelessness and do something about the attitude society as a whole has about this serious problem. The biggest and most important thing we can do is change our attitudes and views on poverty and homelessness. We need to see it as something that needs assistance instead of scorn and degradation.  The next thing that needs to be done is to overhaul the welfare system and readjust guidelines to compensate for inflation and price increases. Yes, I realize that I am dreaming on this one, but it is the truth. Another thing that needs to be done is adjust the minimum wage up and compensate for all the inflation over the years. By doing that, we would maybe come close to a living wage. The government needs to stop cutting funds for crucial survival and assistance programs and increase funding. Maybe if they cut their ridiculous salaries, stop taking those salaries after they leave office, and actually pay the taxes like the lower classes pay, there would be enough funding to actually help people. Oh, and lets not forget cutting things like oil and corn subsidies as well as making corporations actually pay reasonable taxes and stop allowing corporations outrageous tax breaks. You want to cut welfare? Then cut the corporate welfare this country supports. Another big thing that needs to be done is stop giving the wealthy of our country massive tax breaks. Make them pay reasonable taxes and you might actually have a little money to fund survival and assistance programs that are desperately needed, especially in today's economy.

Ok, I think I may have ranted enough. This is a topic near a dear to my heart. I want to help the single parents that find themselves in these untenable situations, especially when it is caused by structural issues beyond their control.