Thursday, July 30, 2009

From Poor to Homeless

The National Alliance to End Homelessness and Enterprise Community Partners commissioned a review of the existing research on family homelessness. Marybeth Shinn of Vanderbilt University wrote the brief, released on the 27th - Ending Homelessness for Families: The Evidence for Affordable Housing.

Just one of the many insights in the brief is about the differences between the families that became homeless and poor families that never became homeless.

Homeless families resemble poor families in many ways. They have limited education and work histories – only about half have a high school diploma or GED. Both groups experience high levels of depression and are exposed to high levels of community and domestic violence.

A major difference though is that the homeless families are younger. Having a baby can stretch resources even for middle class families. About a quarter of all episodes of poverty begin with the birth of a child, so it isn’t surprising that having a baby can coincide with homelessness.

As a side note, “Nationally, infancy is the age at which a person is most likely to stay in a homeless shelter. Risk of homelessness remains high in the preschool years, when parents struggle to juggle child care and jobs, but is lower during the elementary and high school years than in adulthood.”

The three most important differences between homeless families and poor families are: (1) they have extremely low incomes, which is less than 30% of area median income (2) they have less access to housing subsidies, and (3) their social networks are not able to provide sufficient help.

So what does all of this mean? First, homeless families have far too little income to both rent housing at the market rate and provide for any other needs. Second, they many never have had the resources to rent their own place. They are more likely to have doubled up, moving frequently among friends and family to avoid literal homelessness. Finally, their community of friends and family are smaller and poorer, so they are less able to help the family prevent homelessness.

A final variation in the rate of homelessness is geographic, because of varying availability of affordable housing. For example, a high rate of homelessness in California coincides with few vacancies and costly housing.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the 2009 “housing wage” in Kansas City is $15.21 per hour. That is the hourly wage a household must earn (working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year) to afford the fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of income. It requires 2.2 jobs per household at minimum wage.

In 2009 extremely low income in Kansas City meant the family made less than $21,120. Affordable housing should be no more than 30% of income, or $528 per month. Fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in Kansas City is $791. A family needs to make $31,640 per year to afford fair market rent. Obviously, families with extremely low income can’t afford fair market rent.

Because there wasn’t enough affordable housing in Kansas City, about 14,000 people became homeless last year. We know there will be more this year.

Next time, I’ll share more from the brief about ending homelessness for families.

- Laura Gray

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Changing Demographics

As a staff, we discussed our midyear results on Monday. The biggest surprise was the possibility that changing demographics are impacting our transitional housing program in an unexpected way.

As I’ve mentioned before, in the first six months of this year, twice as many two parent families have been part of the program than have ever been here over a whole year. We also have had fairly rapid movement in families during the last six months. We wondered first if there was a correlation between rapid turnover and two parent families. Second, if there is, does it mean our program is not effective for fathers or two parent families?

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with rapid turnarounds. We want families to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

However, our program is built on life change, not just the removal of barriers to housing. A few weeks isn’t long enough to repair badly damaged credit, pay down debt or accumulate savings that will create stability after the family returns to permanent housing. It also isn’t long enough to build the supportive relationships that are key to permanent life change, to adopt life skills, and to change lifelong behaviors that contributed to homelessness.

So we were concerned that if two parent families leave more quickly than single parent families, our supportive services may be less effective for two parent families.

It turns out that a greater percentage of single parent families than two parent families left during the first six months of the year. Half of the single parent families left during the first six months and only a third of the two parent families left. However, the single parent families who left had been here for an average of nearly seven months. The two parent families that left stayed only about a month and a half and were among our least successful families.

Happily, none of the families that exited in the last six months became homeless again.

The program is clearly working well for two thirds of our two parent families. Our challenge is to keep our eyes open for signs that we need to adapt as things change.

- Laura Gray

Friday, July 17, 2009

From Curb to College

One of our favorite residents, Myeshia, got some great news on Monday. She got her GED!

More than a year ago she was put out of her weekly motel when she couldn’t pay her bill anymore. She and her two year old son were literally sitting on the curb with all of their belongings in trash bags. We were already working with her through our outreach case management, so her case manager called to get her an interview for our transitional supportive housing program. She had to go to a shelter first, but she and her little boy came to live at Community LINC last February.

She’s had a tough year and a half with a bitter divorce and custody battle, but my how well she’s done.

Myeshia found a job almost immediately and has methodically tackled the barriers that made life so very difficult. She paid off or negotiated down over $5,000 in debt (in part from her marriage) and she was able to eliminate the traffic warrants hanging over her head. She learned how to budget and has a savings account now. She received a certificate to participate in the Ways to Work program (an alternative to predatory auto loans for working poor families) that will help her get a car loan at a reasonable rate. She is also applying for a Habitat for Humanity house.

She walked in with a sense of personal accountability – she said that it was her own decisions that caused her troubles (homelessness). She set her goals and took advantage of the opportunity to learn new life skills. It hasn’t been easy, but she stuck with her commitment to work her program.

Her next goal is to get a better job, so she is enrolling in college this fall.

- Laura Gray

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Our Little Corner of the World

A week of less than encouraging news about the slump in employment. In our little corner of the world, our supportive housing program has proven to be a microcosm of the economy when it comes to employment.

A third of our families are two parent families now. That’s a remarkable percentage for us - the highest ever in our history. Only 85% of our adults have found jobs – a requirement in different economic circumstances - and only 20% of our teens have summer jobs. In at least one two parent family only the mom had a job for several months.

In the July 7 Business Intelligence Brief from Armada Corporate Intelligence they observed that “Men have experienced this unemployment situation differently than women as two of the hardest hit sectors have been construction and manufacturing – both traditionally male dominated… There has been a sharp rise in the number of women serving as the primary wage earners in the household. This has had some social impact as well as economic…Adjusting to this new employment reality will be very hard for many people and their families.”

“The issue of youth employment will be a festering problem for years…There has been less job exposure in this group than any previous cohort as many parents have chosen to keep their kids involved in various activities while paying generous allowances. That practice has faded as the recession has deepened but now these kids are having great difficulty getting summer employment. Studies have shown that lack of exposure to the work world at an early age makes it harder to transition to the workforce later.”

“For those kids that come from lower income neighborhoods the lack of work is even more problematic. This is not discretionary money for the most part ...”

Having a home at Community LINC lessens the necessity for our kids to contribute to the household income, but we know the need is very real. The teenage son of one of our favorite graduates is deferring college to help support his family.

As bleak as all of this might sound, at Community LINC we have faith that things will get better. For the last 21 years, we’ve seen people overcome the circumstances that so many are experiencing because of the recession. In our world, personal circumstances rather than the economy pulled our families down to the bottom rung of the economic and employment ladder. Eight out of ten rebuilt their lives. Things do get better.

-Laura Gray

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hard Work and Dedication

A quick success story from our Director of Programs, Jeannine Short.

Great things are happening at Community LINC. We’re moving families toward self-sufficiency!

Take the Clegg family for example. When they came to Community LINC they were both unemployed and living where ever they could find a bed (or sofa) for a night. To make matters worse, the couple had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl. Imagine, an infant daughter and no place to live.

Fortunately, they were referred to Community LINC and their progress has been phenomenal!

Not only are they gainfully employed, but they are also pursuing other educational interests that will supplement their income. Too, they are within weeks of obtaining permanent housing.

This family is a testament to what hard work and dedication can bring!

- Laura Gray