The new homeless: Working, but without housing
That nurse who is taking your temperature may have no bed to sleep in when she goes off shift.
The waiter bringing you your entrée may be schlepping his belongings from an intake center to a city shelter in a black plastic bag.
Homelessness has clawed its way tenaciously into the ranks of the employed, enveloping a growing number of families, couples and working people.
According to a New York City census that is published on the website for the Coalition for the Homeless, the ranks of the homeless have diversified to include:
• More children, 42,888 of the 113,553 who slept in city shelters in fiscal year 2010 were kids.
• More families, 28,977, up 10 percent from 2009
• More working people, about 44 percent of the homeless nationally have jobs.
“There are a lot of new faces,” affirmed Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United. Many of the new homeless are caught in a grinder of cruel, countervailing economic forces: Wage compression, job loss and a trend to shift work while ever-rising rents and housing prices gobble up an increasing percentage of shrinking paychecks.
About 1.4 percent of New Yorkers have spent at least one night in a shelter, said Parque.
Denise Miranda, the project director for homelessness of the Urban Justice Center, recently was greeted as a client when she went to visit a food pantry. The mistake was understandable, she said, as there are more people who “look like me; they’re in business casual.”
Many are women in retail or service industries who managed until their hours were cut. “Companies don’t want to give them more than 30 hours, because then they would have to pay them benefits,” but holding down even two or three of such jobs isn’t enough to afford housing, said Parque.
According to a 2009 survey by Congressman Anthony Weiner, 27.5 percent of New Yorkers pay at least half of their income on housing, with more than 33 percent of Bronx residents doling out at least 50 percent.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories about municipal workers – people with full time jobs – who can’t afford” housing, added Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.
If the Advantage program – which provides housing subsidies to keep people out of shelters – is abolished in June (the matter is in court) “another 45,000 – 50,000 people will be at immediate risk,” for homelessness, said Parque.
Latrell Reagans, 39, an employed registered nurse, wonders, still, what she could have done to prevent her family’s tumble into the unthinkable.
Maybe she could have skimped on school fees for her six kids, not bought them as many toys, clothes or books. But the steep medical insurance co-pays for the nebulizers and asthma medications for the kids seemed non-negotiable, as did the breathtakingly high Con Ed bills that sometimes soared to more than $1,000 a month.
“We had air conditioners in each of the kids’ rooms because they have asthma and we had to keep the air cool and clean,” she sighed.
When her husband, Darren, lost his messenger job in 2009, and was denied unemployment benefits, “there were times we didn’t pay the rent,” and the Reagans lost their purchase on their economic soil.
The marshall “was very nice,” when he came to put the yellow tape on her apartment door on February 26, recalled Reagans, who was at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Office in the Bronx with her daughters, Larren, 8, and Chanelle, 4.
“He waits for you to gather your things. The landlord changes the lock while you’re there” and you are launched into a world of uncertainty with frightened kids in tow, she said.
Two of the older kids went to stay with friends temporarily as the rest of the Reagans bounced from shelter to shelter. Reagans was at the PATH Office because the family was kicked out that morning from their third shelter, having been deemed ineligible to receive housing assistance.
“They want us to go stay with my mother-in-law,” said Reagans. “But there are seven of us (an older son is in college) and she’s in New York City housing with her husband, her daughter and two other grandchildren who are not on the lease. She could be put out, too.”
Being homeless “is very hard emotionally,” acknowledged Reagans. Besides having to deal with the anger and anxiety of her children, her own job has been disrupted by the Kafkaesque exigency of having to respond to “notices that give you no notice,” about her appeal, and emergency after emergency. “Every time I come here, I can’t go to work,” said Reagans, “and I’m per diem,” which means losing a day’s pay each time she is summoned.
Prayer helps, said Reagans, who is Baptist. But the newspaper headlines about the recession resonate like they never did before.
“You never know who homelessness will hit next,” mused Reagans.
“We’ve seen a few Asian people at the shelter,” said Lisa Robinson, 22, with a rueful laugh. “You think they can always go back to their family or they’re good at managing money,” but anyone can find themselves displaced, said Lisa, who is of South Korean descent.
Her husband, Dannie Robinson, 29, was expecting the shelters they’ve bounced around in to be filled with “bummy people and drug addicts and people who couldn’t cope with society, but there are lots of normal, genuine people – they just hit a rock and got a flat tire.
“A lot have been to college,” added Lisa, who began, but didn’t finish a degree.
Dannie, a published poet, and Lisa, were enjoying a life that included gym memberships and beach trips while working as food servers in Sumter, S.C., when they both lost their jobs. Unable to pay their share of the rent, their apartment’s primary lessor kicked them out. They headed to New York in February, hoping that its comparatively robust economy would reward them with jobs.
Jobs they eventually found: They were both recently hired at Chili’s but have yet to be able to amass enough money to put a deposit on an apartment. They rapidly burned through their savings paying off bills to preserve their credit. “If you have bad credit, you’re really screwed” because landlords won’t rent to you, said Dannie.
They were at the Parkview Shelter in Manhattan, but found ineligible for services because Lisa’s previous roommate failed to verify she had lived there. Then they went to the El Camino in Jamaica, Queens and were kicked out again for being ineligible. “They tell us it’s our burden” to provide proof that doesn’t exist, Lisa sighed.
“We’ve had to sleep on the train twice,” said Dannie. “We met another family found ineligible ten times. How can you take care of business and get back on your feet” when you have no place to go at night?
There is one bright spot. The couple married at City Hall March 4 after a long, initially rocky, courtship. They had seen the “worse” in their vows and figured the “better” will be a cakewalk. “You learn a lot about a person when you’re at the bottom,” said Dannie. “We didn’t start at the bottom. We were at the top and fell down."
The most Evelyn Rosa, 48, made in one year was $250,000.
She was earning $90,000 a year when she was laid off from her job as a computer programmer after a series of post- 9/11 bank mergers and layoffs.
A divorce and the sale of her Brooklyn co-op followed. She used the proceeds to pay off the credit card debt she accumulated while searching for an equivalent job. When she gave up on that dream, she tried to hatch a travel business, but it never took flight.
Now, Rosa makes $10 an hour selling Skyride tickets outside the Empire State Building while doing intermittent contract work in web design.
A vegetarian and yoga enthusiast, Rosa visits Sikh temples, Hare Krishna centers and soup kitchens for meals. She keeps her mood steady with meditation while trying to figure out a way to update her coding and programming skills so she’ll be a more marketable freelancer.
“No one wants employees anymore because they don’t want to pay benefits,” she said.
Since February, she’s been crashing with her 82-year-old mother in Harlem. The apartment is a one-bedroom and Rosa lives in the living room. Her belongings are arrayed in stackable cubes.
A counselor told her that the fastest path to housing assistance would be to stay in a shelter, but Rosa says that’s impractical. Shelters, she explained, “have curfews and a curfew wouldn’t allow me to keep my job. Plus, I have a laptop for freelance work. Where would I keep that?”
Even if Rosa’s employer gave her 32 hours a week, $10 an hour “is not enough to get an apartment,” she said. Plus, earning a bit more would make her ineligible for food stamps, Medicaid and the $66 cash benefit she gets in public assistance every two weeks, leaving her even more destitute.
Her experience, she said, has taught her that “nothing lasts. The American dream is out there, but it’s no longer for working class people.”