The Homeless Among Us

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Three articles by former director, Vic Moss, as they appeared in the Ames Tribune. They give a local view of homelessness, an overview of the problem, and a look at solutions.

A Problem in Story County

They are near us every day yet it seems they are largely invisible, living in a world far different from our own. They work in our community at jobs that make our lives better while they themselves have a precarious existence. They serve us at the checkout counters and when we dine. We see the results of their work in cleaned motel rooms and workplaces, the stocked shelves at stores, and in the produce we consume. They care for our children at day care and prepare their food at school. And they may be just a single car repair bill, a rent or gas price increase, or an illness away from disaster. When it happens, and it does, they may well join the multitude of others who have lost their homes and left our community.

We are now confronted by a new kind of poverty, that of the working poor, and the numbers are sobering for anyone concerned about the health of our communities and our nation. A large and growing number of our workers now earn less than a living wage. They, and those who depend on them, struggle increasingly just to meet their most basic needs.

A look at housing expenses illustrates the problem faced by so many. Studies show that close to 40% of all renters in our nation cannot afford their housing, with a somewhat higher figure for Ames. Having a job is simply not enough. A key to understanding the problem is found in a look at the growing percentage of their income that many people must spend to have a home. This percentage acts as a hurdle which, as it continues to rise, becomes insurmountable,

The  most widely accepted housing affordability standard is that rent and utilities should not exceed 30% of income. Applying this standard to the thousands of service sector employees in our community who work within a dollar or so of minimum wage, a huge gap between affordability and availability is revealed. The problem becomes clear if we look at even the best case minimum wage scenario – a full time job with sick leave and other benefits, affordable and dependable transportation, and no child care expenses. After payroll deductions, about $1000 a month is left to budget. An average one bedroom apartment and utilities will easily require $700.   A single parent needing two bedrooms will have to work, at minimum wage, 79 hours a week to afford the average $740 rent for a two bedroom apartment in Ames.

Nowhere are the results of the economic shifts in our country seen more clearly than in our homeless and near homeless population. With numbers that were once counted in the hundreds, now in the thousands, people seek our shelter’s help every year. Their rents alone are usually at least one half of their incomes, and are often much higher. The parents list a multitude of reasons for coming. Sometimes it’s because of lost wages due to a child’s illness, for many of our lower paying jobs are part time and have no sick leave or other benefits. The great majority of those who come to us need long term affordable housing, a commodity that has become so scarce that most will not find it.

All of this has happened, little by little, perhaps so incrementally that we didn’t notice, but its inexorable pace has changed the landscape of our community. A change in course is possible, but not without broad public resolve and support, for large problems require large solutions.  Our action or inaction will answer the question, are we to be an inclusive of exclusive community.

The Price of  Poverty

A single mother of two came to us and, interspersed with tears, she told her story. That  morning a sheriff’s deputy had come to her home and evicted her. All her family’s possessions had been removed from her apartment and placed in a parking area, where they still set. This was the scene her 8th grade son and 6th grade daughter would see when they returned from school that afternoon.

I listened as she detailed the series of events that led to her predicament. Months earlier she had been cited for not having car insurance. Her meager income had forced her to choose between paying the rent or buying insurance. A more recent traffic stop had revealed that she was still uninsured, at which time her car was impounded. The fine, the towing and storage fees, and the cost of insurance, proved insurmountable and she lost the car. Unable to get to work, she had lost her job, and then her home.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this family’s predicament is that losing one’s home, or heat and lights, has become commonplace. The case in point was but one of six requests for emergency assistance we had that day. An average of 329 families a year have been served notice of their eviction hearing over the past five years. Court records, our own and other agencies’ statistics, and reports from property managers indicate that the number of households vacated under duress, whether eviction is threatened or executed, probably reaches 1,000 a year. When all household members are counted, the number of people affected  may well be more than twice that. When other incidents, such as losing one’s heat and lights, are included the numbers rise again. Our shelter alone, in a year will assist more than 2,000 people experiencing a housing crisis.

There was once a notion in our country that an improving economy was like a tide that would raise all the ships. Instead, we see a middle class that became increasingly constricted, with bigger and better housing for some and growing numbers who cannot afford anything. It is here, and with the other manifestations of poverty, that we should be most concerned.

Poverty is the greatest abuser of children in our nation. Children in households with annual incomes under $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be abused than are other children according to an American Humane Association report. The stresses associated with poverty may be the precipitating factor for many of the occurrences. Parents constantly threatened with losing their homes, fearful the next mail delivery or door knock may start the process, experience a stress we can only try to comprehend. Family life suffers as relationships fail due to the  turmoil caused by money concerns. If we are truly committed to reducing child abuse, we must find ways to help families meet their needs. If we truly want children to not be left behind, we must work to see they don’t start behind. The best teachers cannot remediate a childhood of deprivation. We, as a community, can do more. It is time to explore the possibilities.

What We Can Do

Her poem was these words: “America the beautiful, who are you beautiful for”. She was a student in one of Boston’s worst inner city schools. Author Jonathan Kozol, who once taught at the school, related the words as one child’s take on the great American dream.

Ames, with it’s beautiful parks and impressive array of awards, has much to be proud of, but for whom is it to be beautiful. Is it to be an inclusive place where those who work can also live if they so wish. The long lines of commuters coming to Ames every day may represent choice for some, but for many it’s the only alternative.

Even ignoring the concerns over our dependence on foreign oil and the depletion of our resources, the fact remains that the cost of gasoline and of keeping cars that must be driven so much in good repair often makes commuting a burden, and even impossible.  It is axiomatic that the lower one’s wage the more is the need for proximate housing. Instead the opposite has been happening, for much of our lower cost housing has been lost. The reasons may be attributed to market forces and our shift to a global economy, but they are also a result of our failure to see, plan, and react to new realities.

Martin Luther King made great strides toward his dream of racial inclusion, of which he spoke in his “Mountain Top” speech the day before he died in Tennessee. He was pursuing another dream of equal magnitude that day, however, and this one cut across all races. He sought for fair recognition of the great economic diversity in our nation, for he believed that everyone who contributed to our society deserved a place at the table.

If we wish to be on the path toward inclusion we can start with a goal. Simply put, it could state that we will work toward achieving a range of housing prices that reflects the range of incomes received within our community. This goal would speak to all income levels. Should we do less, if we wish to honor those whose work here makes our lives better. With such a goal we would then have a standard for judging our decisions regarding community development. Reaching such a goal will not be easy because the issues are highly charged. This is not a reason to not try.