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US working poor struggle with housing costs

In some areas around the US captial, some workers earning minimum wage say they can't afford basic housing.

Last Modified: 24 Sep 2013 14:16
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The number of the US working poor living in shelters is rising at an alarming rate, advocates say [Reuters]

Arlington, United States - Ashley K defies many popular stereotypes of homeless people. But her story is far from unusual in Arlington, Virginia, one of the top 10 richest counties in the US.

She earns $13.80 an hour running the front desk of a physical therapy clinic, where she has worked 36 hours a week for a month. That is nearly double the minimum wage, yet she said it is not enough for her to rent a place on her own. Instead, the 31-year-old mother of two shares a room with her children at an emergency shelter run by a local charity - the same one her own mother stayed at decades ago.

Elegant in a black and white dress, Ashley explained that she is expected to move out next month, when her initial six-month tenure at the shelter is finished. "Hopefully I'll have a raise soon so I won't have to worry. Because I have two kids, I'm thankful they don't eat a lot," Ashley told Al Jazeera.

"My son's two, he doesn't eat much. Eventually there comes a time to pay for food. I'm trying to get him potty trained quickly. Diapers cost $16 every two weeks. Everything counts for me."

'New face' of homelessness

Ashley represents what the UN's housing rights expert, Raquel Rolnik, described as "a new face of homelessness" in America. Call them the working homeless. Unlike the typical drifter, they keep low-paying jobs in sectors like retail, construction, and food service, often working at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

The number of extremely-low-income renters is almost twice as large as the number of housing units in their price range.

But because wages have stagnated or declined for the poor, even as the cost of living has increased, these workers struggle to survive.

Ashley would need to make $20.72 an hour to afford a two-bedroom home in Virginia, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group.

"Increasing numbers of working families and individuals finding themselves on the streets, or living in shelters or in transitional housing arrangements with family and friends," wrote the UN housing expert/ 

The latest homeless population census in metropolitan Washington DC found that a fifth of homeless adults without children were employed. Service providers in northern Virginia report that most people living in emergency shelters or transitional housing have jobs.

After the Great Depression, the US started a public housing programme. Up to the 1970s, the federal government took the lead building homes for the poor. Emphasis shifted to the local level during President Richard Nixon's administration, with vouchers and tax incentives underpinning the bulk of low-income housing programmes since.

Rising rents and eroded earnings turned the US affordable housing surplus into a deficit after 1970. The least privileged suffered disproportionately, activists said. More than three-quarters of unsubsidised units affordable for the poorest renters were lost between 1970-1989, professors Marybeth Shinn and Colleen Gillespie note.

Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies reports that America's "affordability problems" have today reached "staggeringly high levels". The number of extremely-low-income renters is almost twice as large as the number of housing units in their price range. Half of the renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, making them "cost burdened" under federal guidelines.

Poverty amid plenty

Ashley is struggling to find a cheap place to live in Arlington, a town made rich by federal largesse from neighbouring Washington. She scoffed when asked if she will be able to survive on her current earnings when she leaves the shelter.

If you get a job, you have to pay rent. Will that job help me pay rent and get me food? It's very expensive around here.

-Sandra Rock, homeless person

"No, not at all," she said. "I call apartments and they say the waitlist for affordable units is 2-3 or 4-6 years. People ask for $1,400 - $1,600 for a room. This is just amazing to me."

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Arlington county housing director David Cristeal said the county had "6,640 committed affordable apartments with long-term restrictions in place to guarantee affordability".

The number of available units is "not known".

Cristeal added that "the majority" of these units are affordable for households of four people, earning $62,400 a year, equal to 60 percent of the area median income. That sum is about four times more than the income of a single, full-time minimum-wage worker, and $10,000 more than the national median income for families.

The poorest have few options. Mark Moreau is director of operations at the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless, the organisation that runs Ashley's shelter. "Wages have just not kept up with the price of housing," he told Al Jazeera. "Most of our people are on the edge when they leave, even with subsidies."

Candice Lopez of Arlington-based Doorways for Women and Families, said poor credit, criminal records, poor education and unstable work hours add to the burdens of the working homeless.

"I think the reason we’re seeing more employed people in shelters is because of all the barriers family face to get housing. It’s not just about being able to pay the rent. The barriers to getting there are really high," she said.

Wage concerns

On a recent summer evening, Omar Rahim sat waiting for volunteers to arrive with free meals at a park near the Potomac River. Like many homeless people in Arlington, he said it is often more profitable to survive on charity and begging than working for a low hourly wage.

"I'd rather be outside with money in my pocket than indoors and broke all the time. I could get a place, but I'd have to hustle and bustle to pay rent," he said.

Sandra Rock, a slight woman with dirty blonde hair and an easy smile, said she can usually make $80 in a few hours of begging on Washington's Canal Road, across the river from Arlington. It is humiliating work she said "people throw money at you, [and] swear at you" but "easier" than her old jobs in fast food, she told Al Jazeera.   

"It's not worth it. If you get a job, you have to pay rent. Will that job help me pay rent and get me food? It's very expensive around here," Rock said. 

Arlington has made modest progress in reducing homelessness and length of stay in shelters with its 10-year plan, activists said, which includes programmes to expand affordable housing options. As the project enters its sixth year, Ashley is adamant that her daughter will not become the third generation of her family to end up at the same shelter.

"If I have to get a second job, I will. It will only be for a few hours so I'm at least home before 9pm to make sure my daughter's done with her homework," she said.

"Every day when I wake up, I say I want to hurry up and get out of here. But on the other hand, to survive, this is where I belong."

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Al Jazeera
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