Op/Ed

Living Together: Economics tough for unhoused

ABI SESSIONS

Fourth in a series

A handful of us stood on the Middlebury Green on the 12-degree morning of Jan. 18, the first day of Homelessness Awareness Week 2024. We held signs and waved. Some signs conveyed information: “96 HOMELESS HOUSEHOLDS” and “41 HOMELESS CHILDREN.” Some signs expressed support: “STIGMA ENDS WITH YOU” and “DON’T LOOK AWAY.” 

We hoped to educate people as they passed by and elicit supportive honks and waves from the drivers. It was gratifying to think maybe people were being reminded of a big problem that it’s easy to ignore — individuals and families with no permanent place to call home.

One passing driver, however, woke us up to the need for further education. A young man in a white pickup rolled down his window and yelled “GET A JOB!” I’m imagining he was on his way to work, imagining he might be working outdoors on this frigid day, imagining he’s proud of the work he does. I’m imagining his thinking is this: If you are unhoused, it must be because you are too lazy to get a job. And I’m imagining that he’s not the only person who feels this way. 

Susan Whitmore, executive director of John Graham Housing and Services in Vergennes, calls it a “common misconception” that unhoused people are not working. The truth is quite the opposite; 85% of the families served by her organization have one or more working parents. And those not working usually have a disability, physical or mental, which prevents their getting a job. 

This goes even for those transitioning through “low barrier” homeless shelters — places that shelter and support those struggling with substance addictions, mental illness, and the formerly incarcerated — like the Charter House Coalition in Middlebury. Associate Director Tom Morgan estimates approximately 50% of Charter House’s guests are either employed, waiting for seasonal employment opportunities, or in the process of some form of case management or training to prepare for a career.

So let me help you get acquainted with how some folks with steady jobs typically get to be without a home. (No real names are used in these examples.)

Lance works full-time as an auto mechanic. He makes the average wage for this job in Vermont: $48,000. Not bad! After taxes he takes home $40,800 a year, or $3,400 a month. Lance and Marissa got married four years ago and they now have a two-year-old son. Marissa is a full-time mom. Lance and Marissa were living in a two-bedroom apartment they rented for $1,000 a month, about one-third of Lance’s take-home pay. This is the recommended fraction to pay for housing, leaving $2,400 for other expenses. 

When their lease was up last spring, however, the landlord raised the rent to $1,700 — half of their household income. Lance and Marissa cut other expenses and tried to make it work, but finally they just couldn’t save enough on other expenses to make the rent, and in the summer they were evicted. They camped out for a couple of months while searching for an affordable apartment, then moved in with Marissa’s mom in the fall. 

Four people in the mom’s one-bedroom apartment wasn’t working that well, so when a spot opened up at a shelter, they gratefully took it. Lance goes to work every day, making $24 an hour, and Marissa cares for their son. They are homeless, searching for a home they can afford.

Katie fled from her violent and unpredictable husband, ultimately finding a shelter too far away to commute to her job. With the support of counselors at the shelter, she’s gaining confidence and stability while putting together a plan for a new life on her own. Katie has always enjoyed taking care of people, and she thinks she could make a career of it. She’ll register for the Licensed Nursing Assistant Training Program where she’ll earn $17 an hour for class time and training time. Staying at the shelter, she’ll be able to save some money, and she’ll be guaranteed a full-time job and a $5,000 signing bonus. 

With a steady job and a little savings, Katie figures she’ll be able to move out of the shelter in nine months and pay $1,050 for a one-bedroom apartment, the average in her area. She’s homeless now but not for long.

Dan is an only child, so when his Dad was diagnosed with brain cancer he dropped everything and moved to Montana to take care of him. A year later his dad died, and Dan moved home to put his life back together. He stayed with friends while he searched for work, and finally a full-time chef job opened up. 

He’d spent all his savings during the year with his dad, so he couldn’t scrape together the first and last months’ rent and security deposit to rent a place. He landed at the shelter. He’s going to work every day and saving his money. In just a couple months, he figures, and he’ll be back on his feet. He’s homeless now but wouldn’t trade anything for that last year with his dad.

For every person on the street, in a tent, in a shelter, or on the couch at a friend’s there’s a story of how they got there, to a place they never thought they’d be: homeless. Yes, there are stories of substance abuse, stories of bad decisions and bad behavior. But behind every story is a struggle to build a life of dignity, integrity and joy. 

—————

Abi Sessions was a board member of John Graham Housing and Services for nine years, and the chair for six. She is a volunteer county coordinator for HomeShareVT, which matches hosts and guests to share housing for mutual benefit. She hosts regularly at the Gather site on Merchants Row in Middlebury and occasionally cooks for guests at Charter House Coalition. She lives in Weybridge with her husband, Bill.

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