Though this piece is coming out now, due to some particular circumstances, I have been contemplating talking about it for quite some time. In other words, the problem’s been around for a long time — solutions not so much.
Here in Massachusetts, where I work, it is a brisk 21 degrees. When I arrived, it was -1 (yes, one degree below zero — without the wind chill factored in). Winters here can be — and have always been, pretty much, nasty. When I lived in the Rochester, NY area and going through some tough times, I was lucky enough to be able to stay at someone’s house when I — by all rights — could have been homeless. While in this shape, I was asked to do a mission project for Mt. Rise UCC and do information gathering about homelessness and a homeless shelter in a church near there to see how we could best help. The people there were on the other-side-of-the-luck-line. They actually were homeless and they had the bodies and minds to prove it. Among other things I learned: 1) Bathrooms “for customers only” are a problem if you have to go and have no money; 2) Lack of a place to make use of “feminine products” make like on the street difficult for women.. 3) Family shelters for battered women, which let in women and children, don’t allow teenage boys to stay there. 4) Not everyone who is homeless is there through unforeseen or unfortunate circumstances. In other words, some people don’t have a home because they were jerks to the people they lived with. Still, good or bad, they develop hypothermia just the same. 6) Libraries are warm, as are subway heating grates. 5) Getting out of homelessness takes a lot of work and a lot of stubbornness, structure and perseverance that these folks didn’t often have to start with. 6) People commit crimes so that they can go to jail, where they get “3 hots (a hot meal) and a cot”. 7) There is a correlation between mental illness and homelessness. The mentally ill become homeless and the stress of being homeless can cause mental problems where none existed before. 8) The reason for most homelessness? Not poverty or despair or illness. Instead, it’s the lack of affordable housing.
When you become homeless, in Massachusetts anyway, the cost to become “homed” again is first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit. Some places charge more if you have pets, some won’t even rent to you. There is some talk that the “three-part-move-in” thing is illegal and that landlords can only charge two of those three. Nobody asks anymore about the issue because … of the lack of affordable housing. Landlords have the homeless “over a barrel” and if you want a house, you have to look on paper like Mother Theresa and have the credit score of Donald Trump.
So what does this state do? Massachusetts pays for hotel rooms for people who can prove they are homeless and can get into the system. The rent in hotel rooms, according to a former client, is $1100.00 per month, month in and month out, per family or person, depending on needs. Hotel rooms have microwave ovens usually, but if you can’t cook it in a microwave, you can’t cook it. Most places don’t like you to have hot-plates, for fear you’ll burn down the place. And, of course, they’re full of desperate families and mentally ill people of all stripes.
But here’s the rub: If the government is willing to spend $1100.00 per month, wouldn’t it be better to build housing that costs $700 to $1000 to build? Why isn’t there more affordable housing? I don’t know, but this policy simply doesn’t make any sense. More permanent help with housing costs is a thing called “Section 8” for the disabled or chronically poor. With a Section 8 voucher, you pay what you can to your landlord and the government pays the difference, up to a certain limit. The waiting lost to get a Section 8 voucher? It’s 12 years now. Yes, if you started looking for a place to live in 2002, your number is coming up and you just might get Section 8 — provided you didn’t do something during that time to get kicked off the list.
So, knowing all of this, I have a client who has been waiting for a settlement for a long time. The settlement is imminent and she stands to get somewhat more than $10,000, which she is rightfully entitled to. She has known that she will have to move for quite some time, and she has been looking for that same “quite some time”. At the end of this month, she and her children will be homeless — the very homelessness that I just described above. You would think (or I would anyway) that $10,000 is enough to move into a place. You’d be wrong. The latest thing in this area is that landlords will rent to you based on your regular income. Her “regular income” isn’t enough to let her rent (yes, she has a job, but it’s part-time). So there’s a woman out there, who will soon have more than $10,000 and she will be homeless. Our government will pay for resources to let her stay somewhere, hopefully.
Why do they “have to”? Because there is a lack of affordable housing, and landlords want a sure thing. This is insane! We can do better than this. We have to. The costs of homelessness are so great — we pay for exorbitant rents, mental health costs, physical health costs, and we put families with children in danger. (Did I mention mental health costs? There they are — for years!) Or we can break down, spend some money, and build houses for people.
There are wonderful agencies out there that prevent the pitfalls of “affordable housing” projects, like Mutual Housing, which was in Bridgeport, CT years ago. But even if there weren’t, people with hard luck for any period of time would be dying of all the things that homelessness brings. Or they’re going to jail and costing us even more. We need to do something.
In a “pay me now or pay me later”, we should know that paying now is a lot cheaper than paying later. Housing can’t be a commodity, or an investment, with fluctuations as the market can make it. It is a need — and as long as we have people, they are going to need it. We need to do something different.