The Homeless: Working and Still Living on the Streets

The Homeless: Working and Still Living on the Streets

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Imagine eating Christmas dinner underneath a bridge on the cold dirt because you and your family were evicted from your home. Just trying to find a single meal is what thousands of people, who live on the street, go through each day. They have been kicked out of their houses and apartments because they can't afford rent due to their low paying jobs.

 

Homelessness can be described as a person who lacks a fixed, adequate nighttime residence. To be considered homeless a person must have a primary nighttime residency that is a publicly operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations. It is impossible to know exactly how many people are homeless in the United States. The numbers fluctuate everyday because some find homes, some lose their homes, and most of the time the homeless are in places that aren't counted. The only thing that is known is that homelessness is increasing. A growing shortage of affordable housing has made climbing out of homelessness nearly impossible for someone who lives in extreme poverty ("Homeless").

 

Not being able to afford housing does not mean that the person is completely without a source of income. Almost one in five homeless persons are employed. The connection between impoverished workers and the homeless can be seen in homeless shelters, many of which house significant numbers of full-time wage earners. In a booming economy, job stability and job security have deteriorated. The share of workers in "long-term jobs" (those lasting at least ten years) fell sharply between 1979 and 1996, with the worst deteriorating taking place since the end of the 1980s ("Homeless"). Displaced workers face difficulty finding new employment. When they do find work, their new jobs pay, on average, thirteen percent less than the job they lost. Also, more than one-fourth of those who had health insurance at their old jobs don't have it at their new ones. This makes it almost impossible to stay above the poverty line when a medical illness strikes the family.

 

In 1997, thirty percent of workers were employed in non-standard work arrangements ("HomelessnessÉ"). These consist of independent contracting, working for temporary help agencies, day labor and regular part-time employment. This type of work typically offers lower wages, fewer benefits and less job security. The underemployment rate stands substantially higher than the unemployment rate. Measures of underemployment reflect not only individuals who are unemployed, but also involuntary part-timers that want to work full-time.

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Thus, for many Americans, work provides no escape from poverty ("Homeless").

 

The difficulties of job seeking as a homeless person can be almost insurmountable barriers to employment. Obstacles to employment by the homeless people include lack of education or competitive work skills, lack of transportation, lack of day care and disabling conditions. In 1988, the U.S. Department of Labor set up the Job Training for the Homeless Demonstration Program. This program provides funds for basic skills and literacy instruction, job training, and job search activities ("Homeless"). Some city officials believe that the homeless choose not to work ("Introduction"). This is where the sympathy has been lost when people see the homeless on the streets when they are on their way to work. Ann Braden Johnson argues this point in her book Out of Bedlam: The Truth About Deinstitutionalization, "the homeless people who do work tend to be eligible only for non-skilled, low-paying jobs- jobs that often do not pay enough for rent" ("Introduction"). If homeless persons are to benefit from national employment and training programs, those programs must include specific components to meet a specific person's needs. Successful employment programs must provide access to a wide array of services, including housing. As bad as it is for the twenty percent of homeless people, who have jobs and can't escape homelessness, climbing out of homelessness is virtually impossible for those without a job ("HomelessnessÉ").

 

Declining wages have put satisfactory housing out of reach for many blue-collared workers. In every state more than minimum wage is required to afford a one or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent ("Homeless"). This means that if thirty percent of a person's income is used for their rent then it is Fair Market Rent. In fact, a minimum wage worker would have to work eighty-seven hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent. While the last few years have seen growth in real wages at all levels, these increases have not been enough to counteract a long pattern of stagnant and declining wages. In 1967, a year-round worker earning minimum wage was paid enough to raise a family of three above the poverty line ("Homeless"). From 1981 to 1990, however, the minimum wage was frozen at three dollars and thirty-five cents an hour, while the cost of living increased forty-eight percent over the same period. With low wages and an increase in the cost of living thousands of people were forced out of their homes and had to live on the streets or in the few shelters that existed. In 1996, the minimum wage was raised to five dollars and fifteen cents an hour, this helped to make up only slightly more than half of the ground lost to inflation in the 1980s ("Homeless"). Today, full-time, year-round, minimum-wage earnings currently equal eighty-four percent of the estimated poverty line for a family of three ("Homeless"). Other factors that have contributed to wage declines are a steep drop in the number and bargaining power of unionized workers. Without this organization companies and factories aren't pressured by the threat of a strike by union workers. This gives them an opportunity to cut benefits and wages. Also, a decline in manufacturing jobs and an increase in temporary and part-time jobs has left people trying to live on wages that don't support themselves, let alone a family.

 

Reports of a growing economy and low unemployment mask a number of reasons why homelessness persists in the United States. Due to the passage and implementation of the welfare reform legislation, welfare caseloads have dropped sharply ("Homeless"). However, the declining welfare rolls simply mean that fewer people are receiving benefits, not that they are employed and doing better financially. Although more families are moving from welfare to work, many of them fare poorly due to low wages and inadequate work supports. Only a small fraction of welfare recipients' new jobs pay above-poverty wages. Without a decent income families can't afford the decreasing numbers of low-cost rental units. By 1995, the number of low-income renters in America outstripped the number of low-cost housing by 4.4 million ("HomelessnessÉ"). For the twenty percent of Americans with the lowest incomes rent is increasing faster than their income. The limited level of housing assistance means that most poor families and individuals seeking housing aid are placed on long waiting lists with nowhere to go but the streets ("Homeless").

 

The homeless problem has been forgotten due to the arrival of new national issues such as AIDS and illegal drugs. The public is simply tired of opening their hearts and wallets to a situation that has seen little change (Wilkerson, 156). By avoiding the problem it doesn't mean that it will go away. Bitter cities have turned to eviction to try to solve their ever-growing homeless problem (Cohen, 28). Where are almost thirty-five million people to go when the only home they have known has been a box underneath a bridge that is being fenced off because the city is "tired" of dealing with the problem?

 

Over time, some people will find housing while new people will lose housing and become homeless. This is seen in a New York shelter where a single bed will accommodate as many as six different people in one year ("Homeless"). Only a concerted effort to ensure jobs that pay a living wage and the availability of affordable housing will bring an end to homelessness.
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