Homelessness, housing, and the safety net

Ian Frazier's in-depth New Yorker article on homelessness in New York seems especially timely, coming after a government shutdown that demonstrated how quickly low-income workers can fall into homelessness if their paychecks suddenly stop. (The shutdown also demonstrated some things about Congress, but I won't get into that here.) Here in DC, contract employees who serve food and clean offices in federal buildings were abruptly out of work. John Anderson, a line cook at a Smithsonian Museum, told the Washington Post's Jim Tankersley he had to work out a deal with his landlord because he couldn't pay the rent when his paycheck stopped coming. In his case, he was able to go back to work after the shutdown ended, although he wasn't sure how he'd feed himself and his son while waiting for his next paycheck to arrive. And Anderson's struggle is not unusual: A recent Bankrate.com survey found that half of respondents had less than three months of living expenses saved, which means that a layoff or serious medical problem could easily lead to homelessness.

Here's Frazier's summary of how hard it is for low-income workers to live in New York:

Manhattan is now America’s most expensive urban area to live in, and Brooklyn is the second most expensive. Meanwhile, more than one in five New York City residents live below the poverty line. Nearly one in five experiences times of “food insecurity” in the course of a year—i.e., sometimes does not have enough safe and nutritious food to eat. One-fifth of 8.3 million New Yorkers equals 1.66 million New Yorkers. For people at the lower-middle and at the bottom, incomes have gone down. The median household income in the Bronx is about thirty-three thousand dollars a year; Brooklyn’s is about forty-four thousand. Meanwhile, rents go steadily up. A person working at a minimum-wage job would need 3.1 such jobs to pay the median rent for an apartment in the city without spending more than thirty per cent of her income. If you multiply 3.1 by eight hours a day by five days a week, you get a hundred and twenty-four hours; a week only has a hundred and sixty-eight hours.

The number of market-rate rental apartments available to those of low income is extremely small. A metaphor one often hears about the homeless is that of the musical chairs: with such a small number of low-income-affordable apartments, the players who are less able to compete, for whatever reason, don’t get the chairs when the music stops. Every year, more and more chairs are taken away. The existence of so many people who are homeless indicates that a very large number of renters are close to that condition. Housing advocates in the Bronx report that some of the people they try to help are paying seventy per cent of their income in rent and that others are living doubled up and tripled up and in unimproved basements and in furnace rooms—conditions that recall the days of Jacob Riis.

Patrick Markee [of Coalition for the Homeless] has said that any real attempt to take on these problems will involve the restoration of Section 8 and public-housing priority, creating a new rent-subsidy program, passing living-wage laws, and building more low-income and rent-supported housing.

New York may be the least affordable city to live in, but according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nowhere in America can a low-wage worker afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment.

Diana, one of the homeless women Frazier met while writing his article, told him this:

“Every month, I get a paper from Welfare saying how much they just paid for me and my two kids to stay in our one room in this shelter, and I can tell you the exact amount,” Diana said. “Three thousand four hundred and forty-four dollars! Every month! Give me nine hundred dollars of that every month and I’ll find me and my kids an apartment, I promise you.”

Spending upwards of three thousand dollars per homeless family each month for temporary shelter is not an efficient use of tax dollars. Investing to create more affordable housing is one obvious solution, but that's an uphill struggle and can't happen overnight. A minimum-wage increase would certainly help, but I'm not seeing much action on that at the federal level. Lucky for us, there are safety-net programs like unemployment and food stamps that can be scaled up quickly to ease the financial strain on families who can easily slide into homelessness if they miss a paycheck or face an emergency.

Actually, at this point it'll probably be a struggle just to maintain the safety net in its current state, let alone expand it. The increase in food stamp benefits passed as part of the 2009 stimulus legislation is scheduled to end on November 1, and meanwhile the House has passed a $39 billion cut to food stamps over the next 10 years. The temporary federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, also established in response to the fiscal downturn, has allowed laid-off workers to receive unemployment benefits for longer than they normally would, but its funds have been reduced by sequestration budget cuts.

Healthcare and homelessness have a few things in common. As a country, we're not comfortable saying an uninsured heart attack victim should be denied emergency medical care or a homeless family be denied shelter when it's freezing outside -- and I'm glad that's the case. But we respond by requiring our city governments to provide shelter to homeless people while under-investing in the things that could prevent a great deal of homelessness in the first place. Reading Ian Frazier's article is a reminder of what a bad idea that is.

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