Choosing to be homeless… ?

Posted on February 16, 2010

I have asked Katie VanArnam, VSH’s Director of Housing Access Programs, to write this week’s blog. Katie is a licensed clinical social worker with more than 10 years of experience providing direct services and administrative functions  in a variety of non-profit and Government agencies. She holds an MSW degree from Virginia Commonwealth University with a dual concentration in Clinical Services and Administration. Katie directs the A Place To Start program along with two other housing programs. Thanks, Alice

I recently had the opportunity to see some friends from high school.  It had been many years since I had seen these ladies and we have all gone our different ways in life.  One is a school teacher, one a lawyer, one is a successful business woman and then there is me, the social worker.

After a few days of reacquainting ourselves, we started talking about our chosen professions and the challenges we face on a daily basis.  I gave a brief synopsis of the job I do and those who receive services from the programs I oversee.  My three friends listened intently, and then one asked, “What do you do about the people who just choose to be homeless?  Why don’t they get help?”  The question was asked in a very “innocent” fashion and my friend was simply trying to get a better understanding of those I serve.

In formulating my response, it occurred to me that no one really chooses to be homeless.  In some cases, people make choices that contribute to their housing crisis, often resulting in the loss of their housing.  However, I do not believe that these people are really choosing to be homeless.

Encarta Dictionary defines “choosing” as deciding among a range of options or making a deliberate decision.  In the majority of cases, people who have fallen into homelessness do not have a range of options.  While the causes of homelessness are many, the solutions are numbered.  A “choice” may include entering the shelter system, finding new affordable housing or living on the streets.

While the shelter system in Richmond has come a long way, this system is not an ideal option for many experiencing homelessness.  The rules, expectations, communal living situation and schedules can be very difficult to manage.  This can be especially true for those who are suffering from an active addiction, have a physical disability, have male teenage children and/or are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness.   Shelter is not a choice for everyone.

Many believe … ” if they would just get a job, they could afford housing”.  In Richmond, the fair market rent (a rent that is considered to be “fair” and average for a unit) for a one bedroom unit is $832.  This means that a single individual who is working full time and earning minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) would have to pay about 90 percent of their take-home pay just to cover the cost of rent.  Rent does not include any other costs or expenses.  According to Homeward, the region’s coordinating body for homeless services, 25.8 percent of the homeless population IS currently working; 50 percent of these employed individuals are working full time.

What happens when “just getting a job” is not a choice? The fairly recent economic downturn has left a considerable amount of the American population unemployed, making the job market even more competitive. Many people who are homeless have been forced into “choosing” to live on the streets, “choosing” to live in cars and “choosing” to sleep in abandoned buildings and on park benches. They have simply “chosen” from the only option they were given.

As I explained this to my friend, I could see the realization in her face.  The next time you see someone experiencing homelessness, and you will see them if you choose to look, ask yourself, what choice did they have?

It’s rough out there

Posted on August 5, 2009

Last week I got a call from a friend who has just become the latest victim of the economic crisis. The business she had worked for abruptly closed its doors leaving hundreds of people without jobs. With one out of ten people unemployed here in Richmond and in South Hampton Roads, it’s rough out there.

But my friend has a college degree, lots of marketable skills and a great work history. Since her husband works, she also won’t be hurt too severely if she has to collect unemployment for awhile.

It could be worse. What if she hadn’t graduated college or even high school? What if she lacked marketable skills and a solid work history? What if she had a history of homelessness, possibly a criminal background and bad or no credit? “Rough” wouldn’t begin to describe her chances of finding a job.

If you were an employer looking for employees, would you hire someone like my friend, or would you hire someone who has none of her favorable attributes? What is happening right now is that people who are homeless, or those who are stably housed but living on the edge, are getting pushed out of the very low end jobs they normally are able to find.

We are seeing this with individuals and families that live in Virginia Supportive Housing properties. A few VSH residents had steady jobs at restaurants, but business slowed down and they lost their jobs. Another resident’s time was cut from thirty-two hours a week to just six. She was told, “There are just too many people competing for work.”

We have many residents looking to work any type of job. If they are lucky enough to find something, it may be only a few hours a week; not even enough to pay our minimum rent of $50 per month, especially after paying bus fare to get there and back. Those “odd jobs” our folks used to find, such as detailing cars or doing minor home repairs, are no longer available. When is the last time you saw a line outside a day labor place?

Our goal is to keep people stably housed, which is very difficult these days. Our support services staff spends much of their time helping our residents scrape up enough money to pay rent by going to congregations or asking for help at crisis assistance programs like ACTS, Salvation Army, and the Homeless Prevention Program in Norfolk. We even have several residents giving blood every week to make ends meet!

We are hoping that the economy will turn around soon and that the Stimulus funding is distributed quickly. In the meantime, we continue to rely on the generosity of the public to help keep our residents stably housed. It’s rough out there, especially for those at the bottom.

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