The New Americans-Why it’s Not Working

Rosalyn and her husband William Ford are in their fifties. She’s a certified school teacher and he’s a machinist. She is wearing a hat and glasses. So is he. If this was a soccer game they would be the attractive grandparents on the sidelines.

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Today I find them at the corner of an awning on a very warm November day occupying a bench at Mary’s Kitchen. He is still wearing his I voted sticker. They are eating a give away meal of chicken pot pies, salad and corn bread in Orange County, California. “It’s good food. They give you enough so that you’re not still hungry.” This particular kitchen also offers showers and haircuts. There’s no religious requirement to access services and to the Ford’s that’s important.  William says they’ve seen some things since being homeless they didn’t expect. “Most places it’s just one small thing to eat, hardly any fresh food. They make you wait a few hours before they feed you so you can listen to their minister and pray. That doesn’t feel Christian to me. Especially when you have people really hungry. It’s not right to make them do that for a little food.” William says this as he breaks the crust on his pie. His wife is trying hard not to break down. He looks at me with a resolute numbness. He begins to speak and changes his mind.

They came back to California from Arkansas. “Rents are cheaper there but there’s no jobs.” She continues, “I was born here. I thought I could figure something out once we got home. But it hasn’t worked.” She begins to quietly cry under her ball cap and glasses. The tears can’t be held back now. A woman who went to school, had a work history, never committed a crime, Rosalyn says she still struggles to believe she and her husband are out here–on the street–in their car hoping to hang on.

Rosalyn and William are part of the story of the West now. Every major city on the west coast is dealing what many mayors refer to as “an economic refugee crisis.” While the economy has apparent improvements in decreased unemployment numbers and fewer homeless people in the south and mid-west, the opposite is true in the west. The couple are among many who suppose that they will find jobs here and better weather in case they don’t, and remain homeless.

In every major recession or depression this phenomenon occurs. People head west hoping for opportunity and often find themselves stalled and stuck. The great depression sent people seeking infrastructure jobs, in the dust bowl it was agricultural jobs, now it is work in the weed fields and technology. But the memo they didn’t get is the few jobs really available and the extreme cost of housing which makes that urge to go west largely a dead end for millions of people.

The bottom line: jobs don’t cover the rent even if you can find a job or a place that will rent to you. Vacancy rates are low and homes go for top dollar. Incomes have not kept up. According to a UCLA poll in 2014, keep in mind the problem has become worse since then, the Los Angeles area had the highest housing burden in the country with 47% of people paying nearly half their incomes for rent. Affordable housing units are quickly becoming unaffordable. The only possibility, say experts, is demand outstripping supply.

It’s been bad since the 1970’s but now the squeeze is significant enough to see rises in homelessness. People can’t hang on any longer.

47 thousand people are living in tents or encampments in the city of Los Angeles. Orange County just to the south of LA has seen increases of 15% annually since 2010. The same is true of every major American city on the West Coast of America. The numbers are calculated in a very sketchy way, a one night count of homeless people called a census. It misses everyone doubled up at a friend or family members house, it misses those who sleep in their cars and vans. It misses everyone trying to hide their homelessness and still it points to large increases and individual numbers of suffering that have yet to be tallied.

Since the 2008 banking collapse and mortgage crisis the numbers of those living in situations where they are burdened by rents of up to 50% of their income continue to dog millions of Americans, 11 million according to a Harvard study in 2014. Those numbers are likely to be higher now.

“There’s no privacy. The hardest part is trying to keep clean.” She tells me. Rosalyn describes the effort to get showers and the fact that public bathrooms are locked at night so those thousands of people living in cars have nowhere to use a restroom. “People don’t want to act that way, to go to the bathroom outside, it’s disgusting but when no one is willing to even provide a bathroom, that’s what happens.”

William speaks. He jumps around while trying to describe what’s happened to him. “I’m a journeyman machinist. My brother is too. Our dad was a master machinist. We learned from the best. If I could get a small business loan, I know I could be successful. I raised two successful girls.” His eyes briefly lose their numbness. He is making a case for his future. Then he looks down at his plate and seems to remember where he is.  “The rents out here are stupid. People are greedy. You can’t find a reasonable rent.” His wife steps in. “You lose three weeks on a job and you’ll be out here. That’s all it takes.”

They describe their ordeal. He will get a short term contract thinking if he works hard they may hire him. They keep him on as a probationary employee and let him go before the three months. “That way I don’t get unemployment or any kind of benefits and I start over. I just got a job in a warehouse. It pays almost nothing but I am hoping not to get laid off in two and a half months.” She had a teaching job. Class sizes expanded again and she was the last hired and first fired. Now she works at the Goodwill. Between them they are hoping for a place to live where they can cook warm food they choose and shower and sleep laying down. They are hoping for a flush toilet, warm water, electricity and normalcy.

They are surprised they’ve survived and sometimes it’s been on a thin edge. They recently had their car, which is also their home, hit by a driver who left without offering help. Their radiator was destroyed. The one thing they had was wrecked. “I cried for three days.” she says. Eventually someone helped them fix the car. They also had to pay so that check which could have been saved to eventually pay rent was gobbled up. That happens a lot. Like the times they fill out rental applications and have to pay 100 dollars and don’t get the place. Or the number of times they’ve had items stolen. “Some of the people you meet…” her voice trails off.

“You don’t know what you can do until you have to.” William says. “If I ever get money. I’ll give back.”

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