A few years ago I was having lunch at a spa and a woman asked to join me. Steamed and soaked into blissful states and wrapped in soft terry robes, we chatted while we ate. She was a physician and I worked for a non-profit. As I shared what my work was like, she asked me a question that shocked me, “How do people become homeless?” When I explained, of course she caught on quickly and I reminded myself how normal it is to be blind to issues that do not confront us directly and how difficult it is to imagine life situations so different from those we experience. Neither she nor anyone close to her had ever been homeless.
Even in this prolonged recession when job losses and foreclosures dominate the news, the facts of life for low income Americans are probably still not clear to most of us. Nationwide, many people in the workforce regularly spend more than 50% of their income on their housing, making them extremely vulnerable and ‘just a paycheck’ away from homelessness. For example, in Pierce County, Washington where Helping Hand House is located, rental vacancies fell to 4.3 percent in February, nearly 2 percentage points lower than the historical average of 6 percent. In the summer quarter of 2008 the cost of rentals rose 2.3 percent and is expected to rise another 6 or 7 points by this summer. (source: Central Puget Sound Real Estate Research Committee, v.59 n.2, p.46-47) When you pair higher rental costs and fewer units available with current unemployment figures, the chief reason for family homelessness becomes vividly clear.
Even when the economy is flush, workers at minimum wage still have to work 81 hours a week to afford the standard two-bedroom unit in Pierce County ($845) and 117 hours for a three-bedroom ($1231). The average income for renters is $11.70 an hour, making decent, safe housing still out of reach for so many families.
There was a time in our country when anyone who worked was pretty much guaranteed a safe, decent place to live. Let’s take a good look at the situation in our communities and do all we can to make that true once again.