At a late January Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa, 46-year-old Carrie Aldrich described through tears what it was like struggling to survive on less than $12,000 a year. I watched and shook my head knowingly, having survived on $8,000 each of the past two years. Such low income, combined with a perfect storm of unaffordable rent, incompatible roommates, non-living wages, and an inability to find full-time work, resulted in three bouts of homelessness that forced me to live in my car. And in a few days, it will happen a fourth time for the same reasons.
I was born into a middle-class family, but I've hovered near poverty level all of my adult life because my line of work doesn't pay much. My career consisted of administrative roles in high-tech offices and government agencies, with most of it contract work because it paid more and provided more flexibility and mobility than permanent secretarial work.
I attended college pay-as-you-go for a couple years while working, then left because I couldn't afford to continue and knew better than to take on student debt. My moderate savings was destroyed in my 30s by health care costs that insurance wouldn't cover. Within the past several years, full-time work that pays a subsistence wage has been hard to come by. Now I'm pushing 50, and am aging out of a workforce that for the most part gave me a subsistence-level existence at best.
Three times within the past four years I've lived in my 36-year-old car that has more than 400,000 miles on it, because I could not find affordable rental housing or a job that paid a living wage. Though I reside in the Pacific Northwest, the situation is the same all across the country. Impoverished, working single women without children do not get top priority on long waitlists for subsidized housing, rapid rehousing, or other government services or benefits. I don't have family or a spouse to turn to for help or support. Friends can't or won't help for their own various reasons and circumstances. I am totally on my own.
I never dreamed that homelessness would ever happen to me, let alone multiple times. The first time I was homeless in the winter of 2012, I lost my job and had to live in my car with my cat, spending one month in the middle of winter with $230 to my name. My car heater broke years ago. I remember waking up at 2 am one mid-December morning and discovering my cat's water dish next to my head had frozen solid in the 27-degree weather — inside the car.
The second time I became homeless, in the summer of 2014, I was working a part-time, temporary job for a small municipality while waiting for a full-time position to open up. My roommate gave me notice to leave so her daughter could move into the room I was renting. I had a grand in the bank at the time but couldn't find a rental situation I could afford. So once again, my cat and I lived in the car. This time, we went to a small, wealthy, temperate-climate Pacific Coast town, because the weather was in triple digits where I had come from, which turns the car into an unlivable oven. Each day I was harassed by police and park rangers because of the town's aggressive policies that criminalize homelessness. Though I found a new roommate after that horrible week, I lost the city temp job not long after I returned. I'd asked for a raise from $12 an hour to $13. When the city gave me a 23-cent raise, and when out of sheer disbelief I sought an explanation, I was told I should be grateful for any raise at all, because "temps don't usually get them." Then I was fired. "We don't want you here if you're not happy," they said.
I became homeless a third time last summer — again with a grand in savings — and lived in my car for a month and a half when my part-time, low-paying, temporary job ended and my roommate stopped paying her bills. My cat and I moved more than 500 miles to a cooler climate in another state, and for a month and a half we spent our days at a state park that had free wifi so I could look for work online, and inexpensive showers (50 cents for three minutes of lukewarm water). We spent our nights in the car on residential streets in town or a couple of industrial parks outside of town.
And in a few days, due to the sale of my rental house to wealthy buyers from Silicon Valley who don't wish to be landlords, I'll be living in the car once again — with a grand in the bank — because I can't find an affordable place to live. Since more than half of all Americans have zero dollars in savings, for someone like me to thrice sock away a grand on a paltry four-figure income was no small feat. It took an earned-income tax credit (EITC) from the IRS for being "working poor," and withdrawing retirement money from my last government job — and taking a stiff tax penalty for it.
This is what it looks like when you totally fall off the bottom of the economic ladder, and how it happens:
1) Homelessness is expensive
The longer you're homeless, the more basic expenses such as gas money, car insurance, storage unit costs, laundromats, and gym memberships or park fees for showering deplete your savings. Without car insurance, your vehicle can be ticketed and impounded. Gas hovers close to $4 a gallon in the summer, so just driving around trying to find a safe place to park for the night, or to do routine things like laundry or going to a job interview across town, can rapidly burn up your cash. Laundromats are expensive. So are storage unit payments if you don't have enough room in your car for your belongings, especially the ones you might need again if you find a place to live.
When you're low-income, you have to have excellent money management skills, because you have to survive on so little. Everything is budgeted to the penny. Credit cards? A nonstarter if you're unemployed, low-wage, or homeless. So a simple problem — such as a car repair — that a higher-income person can eliminate with a credit card in five minutes can wipe out people living in poverty and put them on the streets or, worse, keep them there. It is much harder to climb out of poverty than it is to fall into it.
2) People think if you're low-income or homeless, it's because you're lazy or uneducated
In 2010, more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree. According to 2014 census data, the poverty rate for college-educated Americans jumped from 4.4 to 5 percent. And post-recession, many older workers were forced to take positions they were overqualified for at less pay than before. Many government-funded job retraining programs are for trade careers (nursing assistant or pharmacy technician, paying on average $12 and $14 an hour respectively) that pay better than minimum wage but are still not living wages in most areas. Not "wanting" or "choosing" to work several different low-wage jobs for a total of 60 to 80 hours a week just to survive doesn't make anyone lazy: It points to the unfairness and inefficiency of the economic system, and the inequality inherent in it.
People also believe if you're homeless, it's due to moral failure or "poor choices" on your part, rather than a broken economic system, as if nearly 40 years of stagnant wages in America were your own personal doing. Blaming personal failures for your circumstances merely provides an excuse for not responding to the real causes of homelessness.
3) Lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness
After the housing crash in 2008, many people who lost their homes to foreclosure moved into rentals — and stayed. When fewer people buy homes, rental markets tighten. The number of renters across the United States grew by about 5 percentage points between 2006 and 2014, to just over 43 percent. Tighter lending policies, student loan debt, and stagnant wages discourage renters from buying. In the most desirable housing markets in the country (such as the West Coast, where the tech hubs are), population growth has outpaced new home construction, driving up housing and rental prices faster than gains in income can keep pace. When home prices rose, it priced people out of the market, keeping them in rentals. Rents then soared due to demand. All of this, in turn, made it even harder for renters to become homeowners, completing the vicious circle.
Poor households, naturally, took the brunt. I started feeling the rental squeeze in 2010, when at the age of 40 I moved in with a roommate to try to stay above water. Research shows that a $100 increase in rent is associated with a 15 percent increase in homelessness. As the Atlantic recently reported:
The housing-cost squeeze faced by the poorest households is deeply disturbing. The share of income devoted to rent by the lowest-income households increased from an already whopping 55.7 percent to a staggering 62.5 percent. No other income group spends more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Lower-middle-class households saw their rent burdens grow from 27.4 percent to 30 percent. Upper-middle-class households went from 18.5 percent to 20 percent, and the richest households from 12.5 percent to 13.5 percent.
Simply picking up and moving to a state with more affordable housing isn't a solution. Many states with cheaper housing also pay lower wages, offsetting any savings and keeping the proportion of income to rent high. Low-wage workers in places with higher minimum wages, such as Seattle or San Francisco, earn far less than an affordable housing wage for their area, but the situation is similar in cheaper places, too: It's just as difficult to afford $700-a-month rent on $10 an hour as it is to pay $1,200-a-month rent making $14 an hour.
Even if you find affordable housing and a job paying a living wage, you can still end up struggling: Affordable housing is often located miles away from the downtown business cores of major cities, resulting in long, expensive commutes each day that eat away at already sparse paychecks. Plus, it's expensive to move to another state, given the cost of gas money, a moving truck, etc., so it's possible to end up trapped in a bad situation where you are if you can't afford to relocate.
4) Lack of a living wage means you won't be able to afford housing
"Since 2000, rents have grown roughly twice as fast as wages, and you don't have to be an economist to understand why that is hugely problematic," says Stan Humphries, a chief economist at the real estate website Zillow.
Thirty-seven years (and counting) of wage stagnation and decline compounds the problem significantly. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not been raised since 2009. Had it risen in connection with productivity over the past four decades, the minimum wage would be more than $18 per hour today. Gains in productivity were previously tied to increased wages, but now those gains go to CEOs and shareholders instead. Combined with horrible trade agreements unfavorable to workers such as NAFTA, weakened labor unions, global competition, and a high cost of living that has far outpaced wages, people are left struggling to make ends meet.
Most jobs created post-recession are in low-wage industries, with 44 percent of new jobs paying no more than $13.33 per hour. The same type of administrative work that I was paid $15 to $20 an hour to do in 2000 now pays only $11 to $12 an hour — without benefits, holiday pay, or sick leave. If you don't work, you don't get paid, period.
Full-time work at minimum wage is not enough to lift someone above the poverty line, let alone afford housing. Critics argue that a higher minimum wage will discourage companies from hiring, but studies have shown that two-thirds of all low-wage workers are actually employed by large corporations. Those corporations are earning profits much higher than their pre-recession levels, but those gains go to executives and shareholders rather than to employees. Low-wage employers such as Walmart and McDonald's won't hire older, college-educated workers anyway, because they are overqualified and will quit when something better comes along. Without a living wage, working people will continue to live in poverty and rely on public assistance such as SNAP and Medicaid — and be blamed for their predicament.
5) Even if you do have a job and savings, landlords can make it impossible for you to get a lease
More than half of renters in America pay over 30 percent of their income in rent. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) via its excellent housing study "Out of Reach," there isn't a single state in the US where a full-time, minimum wage worker can afford a fair market rate one-bedroom apartment while paying less than 30 percent of their total income. In 2015, the hourly wage a person would need to earn to afford housing is $15.50 for a one-bedroom unit (assuming a fair market rate rent of $806 a month) and $19.35 for a two-bedroom unit (assuming a fair market rate rent of $1,006 a month). In two of the West Coast states where I have lived and worked most of my adult life, those wages are far above the sub-$9.50 minimum wage of both states.
Because the tight rental market is so heavily stacked in landlords' favor, many of them now require proof that you make a certain percentage more than the rent when you submit your rental application. Here are examples from some current ads in my area:
- We require documentation of income such that the monthly rent payment is no more than 35 percent of monthly gross income.
- Our one-bedrooms start at $820, and our two-bedrooms start at $870. To qualify, we do require an income of two and a half times the rent or a minimum of $10,000 in a US bank account.
- Your gross monthly household income must be no less than three times the amount of monthly rent.
- You must have verifiable monthly income, and your net income amount should be approximately three times the amount of rent per month ($2,700 total/$900 month rent).
Those requirements — just for apartments with three-figure rents — put the upfront move-in costs at well over $2,000, far more than I have in savings. Even when I was working full time, whether at $12 or $15 an hour, I didn't gross, let alone net, $2,700 a month.
Landlords don't care that you have no debt or criminal history and a good rental history — if you are unemployed or homeless, you are out of luck. And you absolutely cannot tell a potential landlord (or employer) that you are homeless, let alone that you were three times prior. Homeless people are so routinely discriminated against by both landlords and employers that several state legislatures have passed a Homeless Bill of Rights to try to protect them from discrimination because of their status.
"Landlords think that just because a person is poor they will be a bad tenant, but there are no studies to show that they have worse outcomes as tenants," says Michele Thomas, director of policy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA). Discrimination against homeless job applicants prevents them from breaking out of poverty and from obtaining housing. It's worth noting that 25 percent of homeless people are employed but just don't earn enough to afford rent.
6) Politicians won't help
Poor people don't vote, so most politicians ignore them — especially at the federal level. The homeless constituency is invisible. With all of their time spent on day-to-day survival, the homeless don't have time to advocate for their own needs.
Most cities still throw money at social services instead of building low-income housing and housing for the homeless, failing to understand it's called "homelessness" and not "servicelessness" for a reason. The mostly nonprofit providers of social services are known as Continuum of Care providers, whose mission is to secure federal, state, and local money to provide services that deal with the result of homelessness, such as shelters, day-use centers, etc., rather than prevention. Addressing and solving the root causes of homelessness is not their job, mission, or focus.
This misdirected focus creates expensive bureaucracies to administer the programs, and drains funds away from addressing the problem directly, for example, by building more affordable housing.
In the past decade, national homelessness experts figured out that the best way to end homelessness was to give the homeless a permanent roof over their heads first, rather than services. The approach, known as Housing First, has been independently vetted and declared a success, because it is far more cost-effective to provide housing than having the homeless population drift through shelters, jails, emergency rooms, and the streets. Direct-housing programs work, but cities have been slow to either enact or fully fund successful programs like Housing First or Rapid Re-Housing, because the decision-makers are slow to realize that only housing solves homelessness.
7) Living with a roommate is the fastest but most problematic way out of homelessness
Living with a roommate will often cost far less than a private apartment or house, and will get a roof over your head for protection from the heat or cold. But you can end up scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as living conditions go. Not once, but twice, I was offered the "opportunity" to sleep on rugs and furniture reeking of pet urine for "only" $400 a month! No, thanks, my car is free and isn't nearly as disgusting and uncomfortable as that.
Also, living with roommates at middle age to escape homelessness is far different and much less benign than generally congenial and flexible college roommate scenarios. Just because a person has a roof over her head — and you don't — doesn't mean that she is sane or safe to live with. Whenever I place classified ads looking for a room to rent, I always get sex-for-rent offers from men. And dealing with someone else's drama, such as drug or alcohol abuse, can be far worse than living in your car. You already have enough problems and trauma of your own; you don't need other people and their issues adding to your vulnerability.
One of my roommates had a mental episode and stopped paying her bills. My next roommates, a retired couple, would snoop through my papers and personal belongings while I was at work. Another roommate became unhappy with me because I didn't want to become her drinking buddy. The bottom line is that your roommate is the leaseholder with all the legal rights to your living space, and can give you notice to move out at any time for any reason. This means you can be tossed back out onto the streets in short order with essentially no recourse, and your problem of trying to find an affordable place to live begins all over again.
8) People who are uncomfortable with homelessness in their communities want you to be invisible — and the penalties are stiff if you aren't
Seventy-one percent of San Francisco's homeless population were once residents with homes, but that didn't stop a young tech worker in the city, Justin Keller, from writing a brutally insensitive open letter to the mayor and chief of police about the "riff raff" homeless in his city. Keller stated: "We live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn't have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn't have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place."
Homeless people try to stay invisible to survive, because if someone complains to the police, the homeless risk being jailed or fined for violating "no overnight camping" laws or having their vehicle towed and impounded if they are living in it. It's exhausting and stressful trying to find work, stay clean, and keep the car running, especially when many people don't want you in their neighborhood, their parks, or their libraries, the last bastions of the homeless.
It's hard to sleep at night due to street noise, all while remaining vigilant that no one notices you are sleeping in your car (window condensation from breathing is a huge tip-off). It's difficult to hide the fact that you live in your car, because people will see you come and go, and if have a pet with you, it's a dead giveaway when you take it out for walks. My old beater car doesn't blend in at all with nicer, late-model vehicles that line the streets of the neighborhoods where it's safest to sleep.
Living in a car is a step up from street homelessness, but isn't much safer: Homeless people are 13 times more likely to be the victims of violence than housed people. And homeless women are inherently vulnerable, with higher personal safety risks than men.
Society's message to the homeless is abundantly clear: You don't matter, because you don't have money. There are so many ways to get down on your luck, or become homeless, and so few means to escape. Economic inequality and a system built to perpetuate it is the problem — homelessness is the result for people without a safety net. A rising economic tide doesn't lift all boats — it merely drowns the poor. It's understood that most people in life aren't going to be high-wage earners on par with doctors and lawyers, but that doesn't mean working people should have to live on the streets or in vehicles.
In a few days, I will yet again put the key into the car ignition and have no place to go, not enough money for housing, no job or prospects, and $1,000 in savings to survive on until it's gone or I somehow find a job and a place to live — whichever comes first. It looks like this is going to be the new normal for me in this economy. It's not about the prime of life or possibilities anymore; it's about what will I have to learn to live with from now on.
Sadly, I'm far from alone in working-class poverty. Even more sadly, in one of the richest countries on Earth, some people are choosing suicide rather than enduring the oblivion of poverty. The poor and the homeless are not looking for luxury. This is about meeting basic needs. It's not living — it's survival, and it's miserable.
Veronica Harnish is the author of the book Car Living When There's No Other Choice. Visit her blog.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the simple solution to poverty
For years, officials have dubbed the city of Los Angeles the "homeless capital" of America. They used the
total number of homeless for the entire County of Los Angeles, that includes 87 other cities plus the city of LA, as their scorecard.
People in other cities, however, have disagreed. On Trip Advisor,Portland was called the homeless capital. Others have given San Francisco this distinction. A city councilman
in Dallas thinks his city could be the homeless
capital. And besides Los Angeles, there is New York City as a contender
for the title of homeless capital of America.
So who has this sad distinction? Let's look at some different approaches to score this.
Total Number of People Who Are Homeless.
The HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) 2013 report to the U.S. Congress stated that New York City (with 64,060 people who are homeless) was
the top city for homelessness, followed by Los Angeles County (53,798). This LA number, however, did not include three cities within the county that
counted on their own. The total LA County number is actually 58,423. Winner: New York City
Total Number of People on The Streets.
Offical homeless counts include people in shelters, in uninhabitable places (like cars), and on the streets. The total HUD number reflects all of these
people. If we were to look just at the unsheltered homeless population, then the city of Los Angeles would be on top with 25,136 people living on its
streets. Of New York City's homeless population, more than 50,000 are living in shelters. Winner: Los Angeles County
Highest Percent Increase of Homelessness.
Since the previous homeless count in 2011, the City of New York increased their homeless population by 25 percent. Los Angeles increased by 16 percent from 2011 to 2013. Surprisingly, however, these two
cities do not report the highest increase. The entire state of North Dakota reported a dramatic increase in
homelessness from 2012 to 2013 by a whopping 200.7 percent increase. Winner: North Dakota
Highest Percent of Homeless Among General Population.
Some people claim that it is not fair to compare mega-cities and their millions of people with smaller cities. Of course, mega-cities will have a higher
number of people who are homeless.
Instead, let's compare the percent of homeless among the total population. The County of San Diego, California has 8,879 people who are homeless but their
homeless population only consists of 0.28 percent of the total population. Seattle and King County is the third highest total homeless population in the country
with 9,106 people, but their ratio is only 0.45 percent. The mega-city of Los Angeles has 58,000 homeless, and their ratio is 0.58 percent. The city with the highest
number of homeless, however, also has the highest ratio of homeless to their total population. New York City has a ratio of 0.77 percent. Winner: New York City
So, who is the winner of this sad human tragedy? Who should be deemed the homeless capital of America? Given the assessment listed above, the Big Apple takes the crown away from the City of Angels.
But should we be really calling this competition a derby for winners? Sadly, the real losers in this country's breakdown of social care are the people who
are still struggling on our streets. No matter what city or state they reside.
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