Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where will you sleep tonight?

"Living is easy with eyes closed,
Misunderstanding all that you see..."

--Strawberry Fields

Statistics from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition indicate that the average "housing" wage needed to afford a two bedroom apartment in NJ is approximately $23.00 per hour. A "living" wage, which would also include the costs of food, utilities, daycare, transportation, insurance and the other expenses of family life would have to be... how much more? Half again, at least? Considering that the "minimum" wage in NJ is just $7.15 per hour, most of our preschool teachers, home health aides, security guards, accounting clerks, cashiers and receptionists would have to work three full-time jobs just to pay the rent.

Read that again, maybe. There's not enough hours in a week, I don't think.

Is it the same where you live? Do you even care?

I got to do something really fun for work today. Each year, counties in NJ and across the country, conduct a survey of the homeless population. The data gathered includes questions on how long a person or family has been homeless, how many times they have experienced homelessness in the previous three years, what incidents may have led to their homelessness and where they stay during their time homeless (hotel, shelter, on the streets, etc.) The survey asks about the services they may need, what they have been turned down for, and what they currently receive in an attempt to measure gaps in local services. The information gathered is used to justify federal grants for homeless services.

It's a fine opportunity for local politicians to get their photo in the paper serving lunch at the soup kitchen down the street and for social workers like me to do something a little different. I'm asked to help out because I'm bilingual and because we have a good number of undocumented workers in our area that are needy and under-served by community resources.

I spent the day completing silly surveys, handing out donated winter coats, blankets, toothbrushes and interpreting for the visiting nurses who were doing free health screenings. And listening to stories. Wonderful stories from hard-working people who have a lot to offer. Some of my coworkers were out before dawn at the places where illegals gather to find work, in order to connect them with basic services like free clinics and food pantries and legal aid. Others were in mobile units visiting the homeless in abandoned buildings, or along the boardwalk, or in tent communities in the woods.

Yes, people live in the woods. Working people.

Does that surprise you? Anger you maybe, I hope?

A great many of us live with blinders on, I suppose, or imagine the poor to be deserving of the card that life has dealt them. They're mostly lazy and like living off government handouts, right?

Do you know that cash assistance grants to families on welfare haven't increased in more than 21 years? That a mother and child on welfare receive just $322 a month, plus a similiar amount in foodstamps, to live on? How long would $322 plus some milk and bread last you?

Pfft.

I'm faced with these numbers everyday when I do my federally-mandated job of promoting self-sufficiency for my clients. We work on budgets and planning for the future and how to make things better. The best many can hope for is a minimum wage job, which in turn, will trigger a loss of free daycare, free health insurance, free transportation and free or reduced housing. How can I sincerely push them into a full-time job that'll keep them well below federal poverty standards and with no safety net?

None of these people are truly homeless, of course. We'll put them up, if need be and for the sake of the children, in some seedy motel, or a horrible smelly shelter. We call that enough and blame them for it all the while.

Illegal aliens, the general public will be happy to know, receive nothing from the government. Nothing. They are not among the homeless, generally, and are very good about making do. They rely on non-profits and churches, but mostly on each other. Plus, they're gracious and say thank you for this out-of-style-coat-that-doesn't-fit exactly-right and then compliment you on your poor Spanish. All of which feels pretty nice.

;-)

The ones we really need be concerned for are the elderly, and veterans, and the mentally ill. There's no real way to reach them, no program in place for the ones that have truly been wronged by fate.

---End of Rant---

PD: Be an advocate for affordable housing in your area... learn the statistics... speak out!

18 comments:

Jayne said...

So much need and so little caring... it's really very sad. Thanks for doing what you do Laura. I does matter so very much.

Forest Green said...

I am constantly reminded that, there but for the grace of God, go you or I ...

bobbie said...

Thank you, Laura, for what you are doing. It's a sad state of affairs that these things do exist in the US, all over our country. Can we hope that some of it might change under Obama? It's really pretty much a State concern rather than Federal, isn't it? I've seen it in NY and in NJ, and I have a feeling it's a lot worse in southern states. Illegals are people too. Right or wrong, they are here and cannot be ignored as fellow human beings.

NCmountainwoman said...

We have many homeless in our little mountain town. The housing boom is bust and these construction laborers have no jobs during the winter. We have people living in make-shift campsites in the national forests!

Thanks for bringing this to the forefront again. We've all got to help.

Deb said...

It's so easy for most fo us just to forget these people exist. The system is broken, and I don't know if anyone knows how to fix it.

Linda - SE PS said...

Daily reader - hardly a poster - yet always enjoy your wonderful blog. This commentary touched me deeply and I thank you for raising awareness.

This situation is one that could happen to anyone with a loss of job or medical emergency (amongst other reasons). A commonplace answer is that the individual is somehow at fault... yet, looking at the loss of jobs etc. - how does the fault lie with an individual?

Sadly, little that you wrote came as a surprise.

Affordable housing often gets associated - regretfully - with the word projects. Clearly, it should be what it is meant to be - housing that is priced accordingly to availability of income that the average person earns.

Many things concern me in my own predicament so I am very thankful to you Laura for posting this and hopefully, more people will "get it".

Linda - SE PA said...

meant SE PA

Mary said...

Sometimes it really gets to you, doesn't it? You must spew...rant...because inconsistencies and injustices are what this country is made of right now. All we can do is pray for a bright future.

I don't know how you do your job, Laura. Self control and is the key, I guess.

My daughter was a More at Four Pre-K Teacher assistant for two years in Wilmington, NC. It paid below the poverty level. That's WRONG.

Good post and thought provoking.

bunnygirl said...

Do those welfare amounts vary by state and city? I ask because of the wide variance in housing costs across the nation. A one-size-fits-all payment would be absurd.

Here in Houston, a single person could get by on minimum wage if they had to. It would be a tough life, though, and would work better with a roommate or two to share costs. One would have to be crazy to think one could do equally well in NY, NJ, or many areas of California, though.

Dr. Know said...

Whoah, Laura. A political/social condition post? Isn't that a bit out of character?

Yet what you say is true. I've been there for short periods of time and, given the current economic conditions, we could all end up that way again. When I left the south a decade ago due to threats from criminally collusive lawyers, judges, and politicians, I did so in a moments notice. Ended up in New Jersey with the clothes on my back, slept in the car, and showered at the T/A Truck Stops until I had garnered enough money to find shelter. Technical or IT jobs were out of the question. No phone? No permanent address? Ha - good luck! Ended up working for some crazy TV repair shop where even they shortchanged the help. When you have no leverage in this country, people will abuse that fact to get more work, less pay, and little change of retaliation against abusive conditions. Money is Power. And everything in this country revolves around aquiring more money and power - at any(ones) expense.

Ever try getting a job without a phone, a car, or a permanent address? Or smelling like 2 day old body odor? Unless you enjoy humping wheelbarrows full of construction debris or chopping the heads off of chickens is some salmonella infested meat packing plant, you ain't gonna work - even with a MBA in BS, which is primarily what the economists in this country possess.

Faced with trillon dollar bailouts, 151 million dollar salaries for executives who run companies into the ground, and severance packages from failed banks that exceed many of these people's cumulative life earnings, it makes you wonder just what kind of country we have going here. The wholesale gutting of the manufacturing infrastructure in this country is pushing ever increasing numbers over the precipice of poverty. While China has seen a steady 8-14% growth rate and a burgeoning middle class develop over the past 15 years, it has done so at the expense of "middle class" workers in this country. Trillion dollar trade deficits, defective and shoddy, short-lived products, poison food, pet food, toothpaste, vitamins and toys. And while the Chinese have, in some instances, been guilty of providing inferior products (and were put to death by the Chinese Government for doing so), this is primarily the result of bottom-line oriented marketers in this country who get what they order; Cheap and on credit. Their profit margins have grown from 8-12% to 80% simply by moving manufacturing offshore. No environmental concerns, no OSHA, no worker rights or health care. And the offshore tax-shelters and bank accounts haven't hurt them any either. Just ask Bernie Madoff and his ilk.

NAFTA/CAFTA allowed AgriCorp to strangle many previously independant farmers in Mexico and SA and take their lands, thereby promoting an increase of immigrants into this country (they have to eat) - which were then hired by the BuilderCorp bubble; which then displaced American workers in the construction industry. Until it all fell apart.

But I digress - yet there is a good reason for doing so; these issues are all interconnected. You have best prepare yourself - you are going to see more of this in your line of work and more of them are going to be your former neighbors, not just the undocumented workers and the uneducated poor.

The Robber Barons have been un-tethered and we will be paying back what they have stolen for decades to come. And short of pitchforks, speedy trials, jail time, and retribution, they'll just keep scamming new ways to make something for nothing - at your expense. We're being had - just like the homeless people you mention. It isn't fate, it's well-planned, unbridled avarice.

FWIW

matthew houskeeper said...

Wonderful post!!!

Dr. Know said...

Sorry, Laura, for the rant (and the multitude of non-proofread grammatical errors). You may delete it if you like. Caught me before my first cup of coffee, but after reading the paper. ;-)

Grrrr....

Susan Gets Native said...

I read this earlier, but had to leave it for awhile and come back.
I've been thinking about it all day...and have resolved to help. How, I don't know yet.

I don't know how you do it, Laura. How do you NOT come home every day and want to beat the Hell out of someone?

LauraHinNJ said...

Jayne: Yeah, thanks.

Forest Green: That's a real problem for me in this job, I think. One can't help but see how easy it would be to fall into the same situation.

Bobbie: I don't have an answer, of course, but hope that more people can find compassion.

NCMountainWoman: I wouldn't expect that... I have this idea that living is much less expensive down your way.

A lot of people here seem to think that. I have a half-dozen clients planning a move to Virginia or Georgia or N. Carolina with the idea that the living will be easy.

(I'm just trying to convince them to find a job there first!)

I know some of those people who live in the woods do so by choice and consider their lives pretty comfortable.

MojoMan said...

I've recently come to understand a largely-overlooked way how we all contribute to homelessness: Zoning laws.

Bear with me here. Think about the vast majority of new construction in America today: Duplexes? No. In-law apartments? Nope. Apartment over the garage? You're kidding. Low-income apartments over the newest Target? Fugeddaboutit.

We need to get back to sensible, practical, compassionate mixed-use zoning. We can't all live on 2-acre lots in 5-bedroom, 3-car mansions. We need to let people live near their work so they don't have to drive everywhere. We need to get back to rich, diverse, living communities, and stop building vast, wasteful, soulless suburbs.

Hey, my verification word is "Valiun." I'm not sure what it is, but I think I'll take one.

Rabbits' Guy said...

It is true that we are in some real hard times and many qualified people are not able to find jobs ... the economy and the resultant current psychological stance of business to "tighten the belt" being the major cause. Perhaps Federal Goverment intervention through the "stimulus" will help.

However, the fundamental idea of minimum wage was that it is for work that requires almost no skill other than that of a typical 16 year old or so. As you gain more experience on the job, and hopefully train up in a few more skills, you improve your capability and value, and gain a higher wage.

Our society for long has had ways for people to avoid the above scenerio and still "get by", and my sense is that too many people do this and that soaks away the social services that are needed for the truly unfortunate.

Still, it is a sad thing to see such hardship and be able to do so little, if anything at all.

We have a large and extended family and it is pretty much understood that somehow we will all try our best to provide basic care for any member who should need it. There are some family members however, who have, time and again, made poor life-decisions, despite counseling and support. Those are pretty low on the list to help, and some of them, or like them, are probably what you deal with a lot. God Bless You!

LauraHinNJ said...

Deb: Hey!

Broken yeah, I guess. It works pretty well for some people, tho, like Rabbit's Guy pointed out.

Linda: Hi and thanks for coming out of the woodwork!

Lots of people have no safety net... no money set aside to pay a couple months worth of living expenses so when some tragedy befalls them they lose everything.

I think that type of loss is really hard for some people to recover from, I guess.

We have investment brokers coming into our agency to apply for foodstamps these days... can you imagine?

Communities fight *affordable housing* for exactly the reason you mentioned, but anymore such housing bears little resemblance to projects, at least where I live.

Real estate is ridiculously overpriced... let's face it... and what many people consider should be standardly available in a home is quite luxurious, as Mojoman said.

I think we're all paying now for our love of excess, really.

Mary: I guess, then, you know how ridiculous the federal poverty level is, even.

I don't have the numbers at my fingertips anymore, but a few years ago, for a single person, I think it was at about $900 a month.

(Which is, by the way, the amount that many of our mothers, or grandmothers who were of that generation that didn't work much once they were married, are receiving from Social Security and trying to live off of each month.)

Bunnygirl: Welfare grants don't vary by state because it's a federal program. Nor do foodstamp grants (also federal), but at least foodstamp grants take your housing costs into account.

What's the minimum wage in Texas, btw? Or the cost of a typical two-bedroom apartment?

Dr. Know: As if I write nothing but fluff.

(Snark.)

I avoid it because I've no real ability to analyze the whys behind it... I get caught up in the details and the individuals and lose any sort of logical perspective.

(A social worker disease, I suspect.)

And I appreciate your rants and (mostly) well-informed pre-coffee comments.

;-)

Matthew: Thanks. Feels ok to rant every so often.

Susan: The oven... I want to stick my head in the oven some days.

I'd like to do something to help, also. My job isn't often about helping, exactly, more like enabling or having to say no when a real need presents itself.

There's lots of little non-profits out there looking for volunteers... all you need do is pick your cause.

;-)

Mojoman: Well-said and something I'd not considered.

Those zoning laws are meant to do what, exactly, besides let some people feel like they live in their own personal park?

It kills me to drive through those developments, with their ridiculous names; you never see a single kid out playing or anything to make all that space hospitable to anything, save for the impressive view from the street.

Rabbit's Guy: Yes, yes, yes.

But.

Without anything but the meagerest of skills and no way to afford more education, a couple kids whose father has forgotten them, etc - where's the way out?

Granted, that situation is about life choices, but...

Truly unfortunate? I think we'd probably all define that differently.

Me? I'm hardest on single women who make foolish choices in life and have kids they can't support with men who can't support them either. That's my bias.

Maybe you could get past the women and see the children who do without because of their silly parents.

My personal soft spot are the elderly, those without children to care for them or families who turn away.

Dr. Know said...

Hey, what do you mean, "(mostly) well-informed"? What I don't know, I make up - just like the TeeVee news. ;-)

And I never used the phrase fluff. Pleasant innocence comes to mind, but never fluff. Phtt.. ;-)