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Jay Shaft: Voices of the Lost and Forgotten Part 2

Voices of the Lost and Forgotten-Part Two

The Invisible People: The Precariously Housed and Doubled Up Families

The plight of millions of people who lost their homes and now share housing with others. The ongoing struggle to pay the bills that threatens to make millions more homeless. Part two in a five part series on the alarming increases of homelessness, poverty, and hunger in America.

By Jay Shaft- Coalition For Free Thought In Media
See also Part 1



This series of articles is an outlet for the people who are living through an overwhelming crisis. They want to tell everyone how bad it really is, and how terrible their day to day living conditions have become. Their voices will reveal the true depth of despair that many working class and low income families are living with on a daily basis.

I have spoken to over 300 families that have lost permanent housing. They tell horrifying tales of not being able to find emergency shelter for weeks or months at a time. They tell of the long housing list waits of two years or more, and how in many circumstances they don’t even qualify by HUD’s definition of homelessness.

It was really hard to hear them talk about the fear of reporting their true situation because they are afraid their children will be taken away. Many families are losing custody rights after a state agency removes their children when they tell the truth about being without adequate shelter and access to food.

These are some of the voices of the families lost in a world of poverty, homelessness, and despair. Many can not get any kind of help, no matter where the go.

This article highlights the growing number of families who have now lost their homes and are forced to look for alternatives to being on the streets.


Precariously Housed and Doubled Up in Shelter: What Does It Really Mean?

Precariously Housed: Those who are in doubled up or tripled up living conditions of shared residency or spending more than 50% of their total income on housing.

In 2003 and 2004 the number of the so called "precariously housed" has gone up. The federal government uses the term to define those who do not have permanent stable housing. Those who are considered precariously housed include people who are sharing shelter with others, sleeping on someone’s couch or floor, or spending part of the month living in a motel room or other type of temporary residence.

Often those who work part time, or work for day labors and temporary agencies find themselves in this situation. Without sufficient savings, many jobless or underemployed people slip into debt and lose their houses or apartments. Instead of living out on the streets, they often double up in cramped, overcrowded dwellings or become "couch-hoppers", people who go from one friend's house to the next.

A severe lack of affordable housing in the United States combined with growing poverty is largely responsible for a major rise in the number of homeless and precariously housed families over the last few years. Affordable housing is defined as a person paying no more than 30% of income for rent or mortgage payments.

No where in the United States does a full-time minimum wage job enable a family of four to pay fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Based on the national average, a family would need to earn a wage of $15.21 an hour, an income of $31,636 a year, to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the average fair market rent. That is three times the current minimum wage earnings for someone working full time.

If you pay only 30% of income for rent, a minimum wage earner can afford monthly rent of no more than $268. An average minimum wage earner would have to work 89 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit at 30% of their income.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that 65 million low-income workers are experiencing housing problems such as being behind on the bills, or having an eviction notice or utility shutoff notice. 56 million low-income workers are paying more than 30% of their income for housing costs. Fully one-third of the U.S. population, 95 million people, are now reporting some type of housing problem.

Many full time minimum wage and low-income workers cannot afford to pay for housing at all, and they are forced into other shelter options. Many part time, day labor, and temp workers don’t always have steady work, or guaranteed hours, so they are not able to afford an apartment or house without sharing it with others.

There are now record numbers of families and single mothers reporting that they are sharing overcrowded or inadequate accommodations with others. At least 5.3 million people described themselves as precariously housed when applying for food stamps and other forms of public assistance in 2003. (USDA, HUD)

According to recent member agency surveys, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that there are at least 10 million children living in conditions that qualify as fitting the government profile for precarious housing.

Families often have a hard time getting access to emergency assistance programs if they are still in some form of housing. Many shelters have eligibility rules that prevent certain groups of people (two-parent families, those families who still have some form of shelter, families with boys over the age of 12, people with addiction disorders, disabled people, people with no incomes) from accessing shelter.

While the McKinney Act official government definition includes many of the literally homeless population, it allows many people to fall through the cracks. It may or may not include the precariously housed, depending on the interpretation of "fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This ambiguity makes the McKinney definition difficult to use for purposes of getting emergency aid for families sharing housing or those about to lose stable housing.

Children often appear among the precariously housed population because parents who become homeless may place their children with friends or relatives in order to avoid literal homelessness for them. Because some individuals and families choose to share housing as a regular, stable, and long-term arrangement, distinguishing the precariously housed from those in stable sharing arrangements is difficult.

The use of a definition such as doubled up or precariously housed is very controversial among service provider agencies and advocacy groups. The term for people who are living one level above the street brought out some very angry responses from agencies and workers that were interviewed for this article series.

Chance Martin of the San Francisco Homeless Coalition is especially critical of it. "You know it’s a dodge, it’s one of those euphemistic dodges," he stated.

"How do you quantify that?" he asked. "If you’re homeless three weeks out of the month, you’re not 75% homeless, that’s ridiculous. Saying precariously housed is about as ridiculous, and about as useless as saying 50% or 75% homeless. So is differentiating between stable and unstable housing, if you facing homelessness there’s nothing stable about it."

"Many times when people share shelter, they either don’t pay rent, or they don’t get a receipt to prove residency. This makes it impossible to get help at most of the city and state agencies, because you can’t prove that you are even living in the area," he further clarifies. "Almost every agency you go to makes you prove residency of six months to a year, and have all the bills and financial documentation. Without that they can’t even begin to help you, forget about getting utilities or rental help. This whole precarious, doubled up definition is like putting a sheet over a chair, you can still tell something’s there, but you can’t really tell what it is."

He says this is having a definite impact on the ability to develop long range plans to aid homeless families.

"When it comes to planning any kind of reasonable humane response to meeting the needs of people, ‘precariously housed’ is a totally a useless connotation."

"In San Francisco the emphasis of G.W. Bush’s Chronic Homelessness Initiative is on really dysfunctional, very visible homeless people," he explained. "They are missing the really desperate cases among the uncounted families."

The Bush Administration’s Initiative is a campaign to direct federal, state, and local homeless assistance and other resources to people who are unaccompanied homeless individuals with disabling conditions who have either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

By definition, the "chronic homelessness" initiative excludes children who are homeless or precariously housed with their parents; parents who are homeless and who have children with them; youth on their own with disabilities who do not fit the federal definition; and youth on their own without disabilities.

Martin believes this is creating a situation of an invisible section of society. "It’s like they are shadow people. To the public officials, the families have just ceased to exist if they don’t fall into the official categories to be considered homeless."

"As long as we seeing the major government emphasis on the chronically homeless, I don’t think we’re going to make any real progress helping homeless families, homeless immigrants, or people with mental illnesses who don’t fit a recognized criteria," he said. "It’s just not happening."

Trever, 28, and Melanie, 25, have been living with Trever’s brother in Oakland, California for almost a year. Trever was fired from an assembly line job paying $19.50 an hour in 2003, and still has not found another full time job.

Melanie is working for a temporary staffing service, but spends most of her time at home with her two young children. She is lucky to get more than 20 hours of work a week, and some weeks she doesn’t get any work at all.

"For over two years I’ve been working part time jobs at $6.50 to $8.50 an hour," Melanie explains. "I can barely afford to pay part of the rent and utilities here, and I can’t even think about getting our own place. We owe almost $1300 in utilities bills, and we would have to pay that off before we could even move into our own place. I think we’ll probably end up on the streets, and then they’ll take my little girls away."

"I had a good job offer from a bank, but I couldn’t afford day care, and there is no way the state’s going to give us child care, even with a job offer on the line. I would have had a salary of $32,000, but they told me I would make too much and not be eligible for any day care assistance" Melanie says angrily. "I went in making nothing, but they told me they couldn’t help me. We don’t even have our own home, but they said we couldn’t get any kind of emergency help because we live with a family member."

Trever is extremely angry about all the problems he has trying to get help for his family. He has applied for public assistance twenty seven times, and he is completely fed up and exhausted with the very process of trying to get help.

"I spend about forty hours a month going back and forth to all the appointments. They cost me at least a weeks pay every month, but they still keep turning us down," he says with a grim look. "I live with my brother in a two bedroom apartment, and it’s not working that well. They keep telling me that I have a stable residence, but I could be out on the street tomorrow. My brother lost his job five months ago, and we are almost three months behind on the rent and utilities. We lost our own place just like this, it’s happening all over again, and I can’t stop it."

"Damn it, I can’t even get on any of the temporary housing lists, because they are all full. I was told that if we get kicked out we can go to a shelter, but that’s only if they have beds," he adds dejectedly. "We’re homeless right now, if you really think about it. That’s what really burns me up, that we just don’t count, it’s like nobody knows what to do with us. These f**king people act like we’re invisible, they don’t even try to help us get a house. I think it’s f**king bulls**t, we’re human beings, and we need help!"

"I watched my whole life just fall apart, does anybody even care if we get back on our feet? Is my family worthless or something?" he asks irately. "I really think that no one gives a sh*t, because nobody could really care and not try to help us. How can you let the children become homeless, how can you let that happen?"

Today more than 28 million people, about a quarter of the workforce between the ages of 18 and 64, earn less than $9.04 an hour, which translates into a full-time salary of $18,800 a year, the income that marks the federal poverty line for a family of four. Overall, 63% of U.S. families below the federal poverty line have one or more full time workers, according to the US Census Bureau.

Nearly 40% of American children live in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, the amount needed for most families to be economically self-sufficient. Low-income families face material hardships and financial pressures similar to families who are officially acknowledged as poor.

In most cases, it is not until a family of four reaches twice the federal poverty level ($37,700) that parents can adequately provide their children with basic necessities, like housing, food, clothes, and health care. After family income exceeds the poverty level, access to government assistance programs is cut off. At the same time expenses such as food and clothing, utilities, childcare and health insurance increase.

This means that parents may earn more without a family experiencing greater financial security. In many cases, because of income ineligibility for food stamps and emergency assistance programs, earning more actually leaves families with fewer resources after the bills are paid.

In this country, 26 million children are growing up in low-income families, and almost 13 million children are living in families with poverty level incomes. More than 84% of them have at least one working parent whose current income is not sufficient to pay for affordable housing. Only 16% of the children in low-income families had unemployed parent(s).

For most of the 1990’s the number of children in poverty was declining. Then between 2000 and 2002, there were an additional 546,000 children who slipped into poverty, and social service agency estimates indicate that as many as 250,000 more children might be included in the poverty figures for 2003. The official Census report does not come out until September, but many private groups have released 2003 poverty reports and survey figures.

Here is something shocking that should really give you an idea of how truly pervasive the poverty problem is in America. In 2002 about one in three people in the US was poor enough to be classified as living in poverty for at least two months of the year, according to recent data from the US Census Bureau.

Charity, 36, and Robert, 35, have three young children. They share a five-bedroom house in Kansas City, Kansas with eight other people. Because of the high housing costs and low wages in their area, it takes four people working full time to cover the rent and all the monthly expenses.

"We all have to work forty hours a week just to keep up with the bills. Every one of the adults living here had a good job and their own home," Robert says. "This was our house for fifteen years, but we were six months behind on the mortgage, and all the utilities got shut off. We had a notice posted on the door that said the house was unfit for human occupation, because we didn’t even have running water. It got really bad for a few weeks, and we had to put the kids in the car and live on the street."

Robert and Charity explain how they ended up with four adults and ten children under one roof. Robert says he stands on a firm belief in family always helping family, no matter what.

"We had to take in Charity’s sister Karen and her four kids because they were living in a truck with a topper on it. Her unemployment ran out and she lost her house and everything else," he chokes out, with a look of weary dismay. "We couldn’t let them stay on the streets, I mean they’re family, we take care of our own. She couldn’t get any help from the government, and they were in that truck for over two months."

Charity still has nightmares of losing custody of her children if anyone finds out how overcrowded her house has become. She has a fierce sense of self-determination and pride, and is very hesitant to apply for any kind of government assistance.

"I try to do right for my family but I wasn’t raised to take something I didn’t work for. My name might be Charity, but I don’t believe in that sort of thing if I can work and do myself right," she states defiantly. "I gave up when it got really bad and asked them for help. That was a big mistake because they made me feel like trash, and then they told me I wasn’t eligible because I owned my house. So the hell with them, I’ll do it by myself and if they won’t help my family, by God I will."

"When Karen moved in she had a just taken a really crappy job, so she was able to put all the power and water bills in her name. If we hadn’t all moved back into the house the state would have taken our kids away," Charity says heatedly. "I think about how close we all came to losing our kids I just can’t believe this all happened. We went to every place we could find, and none of them could give us any emergency help. We just didn’t fit some box they had to check off. We came down to a check mark on a government form. How the hell could they screw us like that?"

She has to take a few minutes to calm down, because the tension of constantly being near the brink of homelessness has taken a huge toll on her emotional well being.

"I’ll tell you, this isn’t easy to talk about, it’s just every day I wake up and know that we could be homeless by supper time," she tiredly continues. "We are still behind in the bills, and if the light bill is not overdue then the mortgage or something else is. Bobby’s cousin Sandy got kicked out of her house because she was almost a year behind on her mortgage. We let her move in with her two kids, and here we all are."

"Let me tell you something, if we hadn’t let Sandy move in we wouldn’t have made it," Robert says. "Between the four of us we can barely make it, and food gets real short sometimes, we really stretch our shopping to feed everyone. We have to live on rice and beans for weeks at a time, but we give them food to eat, our kids aren’t gonna go hungry, even if we have too."

He wants to make one final statement, because he feels so ignored and unheard.

"You know this is really wrong, it’s just not something my parents generation would have let happen. They worked hard, and we didn’t have much, but we had a decent life. There is no way you can call living in this house a decent life. It was for a long time, but now all our kids know is fear, hunger, going without, not ever really feeling safe, a whole lot more things like that, you know, something they should never have to go through."

"Does it sound right that we have to live like this? How would you like to have your kids live like this?" he asks. "There must be a lot of people living like this, so why is it still so hard to get help? I lost my pride and then there wasn’t any help, how do you think that felt? How can I live with that? How can a dad know he put away his pride for his kids sake, and then it didn’t even do a damn bit of good?"

Cynthia Larcom, Director of the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City, MO knows a lot about the frustration of the families seeking help. She was able to explain why so many precariously housed and doubled up families were not able to access HUD shelter and other government emergency housing aid.

She says that not being able to include anyone who is precariously housed in the official HUD Homeless Management Information Strategies (HMIS) survey figures makes it impossible to provide for any unforeseen family emergency assistance needs.

"It’s definitely keeping people from being able to access emergency help. For the HUD grants you can’t count people who are precariously housed, you can’t count people who are doubled up. You can only count the homeless people, the ones living in the shelters and actually out in the streets. Unless a family is in a shelter or on the street, we can’t even grant a request for HUD assistance."

Larcom is the coordinator for the Jackson County/Kansas City, Missouri’s Continuum of Care. The CoC is the cooperative effort of more than 60 local organizations dedicated to creating and maintaining a continuum of care that responds to the complex needs of homeless individuals and families. They have an extremely difficult time trying to develop emergency assistance planning for precariously housed families, because of the lack of proper survey figures.

"We have real good point in time figures from when we go out and do a street count of the homeless, we try to find all the families living in cars and abandoned buildings. Even having those figures does not take into account for all the families that really don’t have permanent shelter," she explains. "We just miss them completely, in many cases the only time we even know they are applying for assistance is when they go through an agency that’s records HMIS figures. Most of the HMIS tracking agencies don’t even really have a way to record a family that doesn’t fit within the homeless criteria and assistance profiles."

"Even if we knew exactly how many families were in precarious housing or living doubled up, we still could not get any funding or assistance. There is just not an official way to deal with the eventualities of the loss of housing many of these families will face. It’s just so aggravating to know there are families that you won’t be able to help until they become homeless. It’s just so frustrating to watch them fall through the huge gaps in the program.

Many families who would have been able to access HUD Section 8 grants and public housing assistance find that it is no longer available, or the waiting lists are well over two years long, and most local housing authorities are not taking any new applications.

If they can get past all the red tape and actually qualify for any HUD assistance, they are often homeless long before their name comes up on the waiting list. Many families are facing imminent eviction or loss of housing, so the assistance is needed immediately, not in two years.

Martika, 33, is a single mother of three. She had a high paying job, but after she was laid off she had to take a minimum wage job in a grocery store. She lives with her mother, her two sisters, and their seven children in a very bad neighborhood in Miami, Florida. They all sleep on the floor in case any bullets come through the house at night.

"Look at the kind of living conditions we are forced into. All of us living in a four bedroom house, and they call that proper shelter," she says. "Proper my ass, they haven’t tried to live with all these people, much less try to feed and clothe the kids with such a sh*tty little paycheck. We hear gunshots every night, and they killed a boy up at the corner just the other night. That was the sixth murder in this neighborhood in three weeks, and a whole sh*tload of other crimes go on here everyday."

"I had my own house with a good mortgage, and two cars. I could buy everything my kids needed, and they got lots things they wanted. The other day I couldn’t even buy my son a new pair of shoes for school, we found a used pair at Goodwill," she says, with tears running freely down her face. "I always prided myself on being able to dress them nice, and now I have a hard time even buying stuff from thrift stores. I get most of their clothes from the clothes closet at the Catholic Church, and some of the other places around here."

"I have some really good work experience in a management position, but it was in a customer service call center," she continues. "We all know what happened to those kinds of jobs. I think my employer laid off over 35,000 people in the US, but they didn’t do sh*t to make sure we all got new jobs. I know my job went to India, that was in the middle of 2002. I just can’t find any decent paying jobs, and I need the money really bad, we have to get our own place."

"This whole neighborhood is full of people living with their family or friends. No one can afford a decent place, and the HUD housing is not even accepting any new applications till 2007," she states. "Every week you see another family moving in with someone, they say it’s just gonna be for a few weeks, but they get stuck there real quick."

Martika’s oldest sister Dei has found something positive about their current housing situation

"I have a little bit of hope, because this house we’re in is almost paid for. We were going to take out another mortgage, but we can’t really afford the payments right now, so my mother probably saved us from a real big mistake. She wouldn’t sign the papers, but I was so desperate for extra cash I almost fell for one of those slick commercials, then my head cleared when I realized this home meant more than a getting quick fix solution."

"I have a new job that pays $11.50 an hour, but right now it is only part time with about 25 hours a week. I am going to lose most of my food stamp benefits, because I will end up making about $200 more a month, which just puts me over the full benefits limit," she pauses and almost breaks down, but then she gives an ironic laugh.

"Hey I am making progress, yeah well, that’s what my case worker said anyway, progress in gaining significant economic betterment. Wow! I didn’t know whether to shake his hand or cry when he said that. I just knew they were cutting my benefits down, and I haven’t even got a full paycheck yet. Yeah that’s progress, and just wait till I get a raise, then I lose all my benefits, but I am still in debt for over $25,000."

"Just that alone is going to keep me from getting a house or a good apartment," she says with a wounded tone. "I am never going to get it all paid off, but I go back to work for more money but less hours and then they cut my food stamps off. I have four kids to feed, and there is no way an extra $200 dollars a month makes up for that."

Her situation is a prime example of the loss of necessary benefits as a low-income workers pay goes up.

"I still have to pay for daycare, and everything else, and the pay raise is going to affect my child care benefits, which are getting cut by $300 a month. It costs over $600 a month for the kids to get after school care, and that’s with all the TANF help. I just lost half of those benefits with this new job, so it ads up to me losing at least $100 more a month, and I’ll probably sink deeper into debt."

Due to the widespread layoffs and millions of jobs being outsourced and sent overseas, people are being forced to take low paying jobs with no benefits. Many people who used to be in the middle class earnings level have now taken a pay cut when they were able to find another job.

According to recent US Department of Labor figures, 57% of workers who had found another job after a layoff took a significant pay cut of 10-20%. 62% of workers returning to the job market said they had taken a new job with little or no benefits, and 43% said they had taken a severe cut in pay of at least 30% below their income at their last job. Even more troubling is the fact that three out of every five new jobs pays below the federal median income level.

Melvin, 42, and Brenda, 46, have five children, and they live in Davenport, Iowa with Melvin’s mother and a younger sister and her three children. Melvin and Brenda had worked for a chicken processing plant in Oklahoma, but after being laid off, they moved to find better paying jobs.

"I don’t think it’s any better up here, not really, just a bit more work if you really look hard," Melvin says. "We lost our house in Tulsa, so we figured we’d come up here and start over. We sold all our furniture and a lot of family heirlooms, and then we found out we only had enough money for a tiny one bedroom apartment. We stayed in a motel for about two weeks before we even found a place at all."

"We all crammed in that place for a month, and then we ran out of money. Neither one of us figured we wouldn’t find a job, we thought one of us could at least find something," Brenda says in a troubled voice. "I didn’t find work for almost two months, and it’s part time and only pays $7.25 an hour. Melvin finally found full time work, but it only pays $7.50, with no benefits at all. I don’t really have any benefits at my job either, and I only getting 15-20 hours a week, that’s just not enough to live on, not for a family of seven."

Melvin says that they have never worked for such low wages before. They worked for a company that paid union wages, but then they both were laid off on the same day.

"I made $23 an hour before, and Brenda made $18 and hour, so we were doing alright. Now look at us, we live with my momma and sister, all bumping up against one another in this little house. We probably won’t ever get out of here; there ain’t no way we can even get a decent apartment right now. A house is definitely not in our future, we probably won’t ever own one again."

Despite all this he considers his family luckier than some he knows.

"When the plant laid off, practically everyone I worked with lost their house, and a lot of them took off and are still moving from place to place. We at least have somewhere to sleep, and it’s with family," he says with a thankful smile. "I mean it not all bad, it’s just kinda sticks in my craw to be over forty and have to live with my momma. At least my kids get to be around their grandma, aunt, and all their cousins. We are all trying to make it together, and it has really brought us closer, and really made the simple things seem grand. My kids know we’ll make it, we tell them that all the time."

His eight-year-old daughter Kelly really sums it up for him with her simple statement. "I don’t live in my old house or see all my friends anymore, but I’m still safe with my mommy and daddy," she says with assurance in her voice. "They won’t let anything happen to us, they promised. I know we don’t have much, but my mommy told me we have love and hope. I just want to be safe, I don’t care where we live."

For many families living in precarious or crowded housing, their only wish for is a safe home and security for their future. Unfortunately in these troubled economic times, they have little hope for anything beyond the next nights shelter, and their greatest fear is that they won’t be able to pay all the bills.

Often one missed paycheck, or one unpaid bill, results in a family going out on the streets. For far too many families the threat of a permanent loss of shelter is now an ominous presence in their day to day existence.


Coming Next:

Part Three of this series ‘Single Working Mothers and Fathers in Dire Poverty- Living On the Edge of Disaster: How welfare to work programs have failed many of the most desperate and needy.’


For more details on fact sheets, surveys and information used as background for this article go to the following links.

HUD Homeless Management Information Strategies (HMIS)

NCCP: Low Income Children in the United States (2004)

Questions and Answers About the "Chronic Homelessness Initiative"


65 Million Low Income People Have Housing Problems, 2/12/04 (PDF FILE FORMAT)

National Center For Children in Poverty

The National Center For Children in Poverty Data Wizard provides a good set of tables and figures on poverty and income. Many figures for this article series were either obtained by using these tables, or verified for accuracy using the state by state demographic breakdowns.


Demographics on Poverty on a State by State Basis

50 State Economic Conditions

2002 Facts on Child Poverty in America November 2003



Jay Shaft is the Director of Mid-Pinellas Homeless Outreach in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is also the co-founder/editor of the free speech media group Coalition For Free Thought In Media.

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