Some see homelessness is often seen as an individual failure, as something that can be avoided if better choices we made. .
We also believe that homelessness is something that can be avoided. We see that it isn’t the families that have failed, but the economy, the society, and the systems that are supposed to support them. However, we see what families go through, how hard they work, yet still struggle to achieve housing stability. If you have housing, it means that many things are working in your favor. If you are homeless, it means that many things are not.
The next of the recommendations contained in HFF’s 2014 Visioning Day Report point towards the vision and basic principle that we need housing, education, living wage jobs, and affordable childcare.
The specific recommendations based on input from our Visioning Day Report are:
- Create economic opportunities for extremely low income families through education and training programs, increased wages, and asset development.
- Make deep investments in early childhood education programs, with simplified access and recertification processes.
It is crucial that we address root causes of poverty and continue to bridge systems and silos together in our efforts to end family homelessness. On the funding priority ballot, Visioning Day participants ranked employment training fourth, education fifth, and education 6th. As for advocacy, participants ranked children’s issues and welfare reform fourth and fifth respectively. The call to address the cliff effect and for more access to early education and care in the mission to ensure every child has a place to call home is loud and clear.
On affordable housing:
There is a severe lack of affordable housing across the country, and this is especially true in Massachusetts, which is ranked 6 out of 52* in two bedroom apartment affordability at fair market wage. The production of new housing units has slowed, resulting in an increase in housing value and rental prices. According to the Greater Boston Housing Report Card, “Unlike home prices in Greater Boston, apartment rents have continued to rise almost regardless of the state of the economy. With the exception of 2009, asking rents as well as effective rents (taking into discounts such as a rent-free month) have increased every single year since 2003.” Because of the high cost of living, “42,000 families applied for housing assistance from Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development in the last year” and “50,000 very low-income households are on the 5-year waiting list for the federal Section 8 housing voucher program.” Support for programs like Section 8 and the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program are critical to close the rent wage gap, along with increasing the development of affordable housing so that all families have the opportunity for permanent housing. See our blog post “Housing is a Basic Human Right” for more information.
The “Massachusetts Legislature has cut spending for education and training for TAFDC recipients over 85 percent since the beginning of the last decade, from $53M in FY 2001 to $7.7M in FY 2014”. Extremely low income families are more likely to have attained low education; 16 percent have not completed high school, and 34 percent have only a high school diploma or a GED. Because “the majority of jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage in Massachusetts now require higher education; by 2020, 72 percent of all jobs in the state will require at least some college education”, it is critical that we invest in low-income families to ensure that they have access to education that will enable them to work a living wage job.
On a living wage job:
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “in no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent”. “In Massachusetts, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $8.00. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment of $1252, a minimum wage earner must work 120 hours per week, 52 weeks per year”. In addition, “the estimated average wage for a renter is $17.47. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 55 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.” With statistics like these, it is easy to see that low income workers are left with very little flexibility; they must make deliberate choices regarding how to spend their income, and because of high rents, lack of affordable housing and lower educational attainment and opportunities, it is no surprise that many low income families enter the shelter system.
However, as a state, we should recognize our efforts to improve the situations for low wage workers, and celebrate our successes. Each fight brings us that much closer to equality and a more just society. Paid sick days for low-income wage earners was just passed in the recent election- a huge step towards supporting parents in their efforts to balance work, family and personal needs. The recent vote to increase the minimum wage reflects that the people of Massachusetts recognize and want to improve the current wage system. Governor Duval Patrick recently signed into a law a policy that will raise the minimum wage to $11/hour by 2017. However, this will not dramatically improve the situation for low income families because it is still not enough to make ends meet with the current stock of available affordable housing.
On affordable childcare:
According to Child Care Aware, “the average annual cost of full-time care for an infant in center-based care is $16,430 in Massachusetts”, and for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old) that service is $28,606. When “the cost of center-based infant care for a family of three living at the poverty level is 86 percent of their income”, and rent can be over 50 percent of a low income family’s earnings, families are faced with a choice: Do I work, or do I take care of my child? Any family can tell you that there is no right answer. Because of this dichotomy, low income families are required to rely on income eligible child care. Currently, there are 28,000 children between the ages of 0 – 8 on the waitlist for this service, and that number is a severe misrepresentation of the need. To put this into perspective- only 6.7% of children residing in the EA system are on the child care voucher waitlist, when 100% of them qualify.
Attendees at Visioning Day talked about the intersection of these problems, and what drives them. So many of the benefits we offer are tied to the parent’s ability to work, when they should be tied to ensuring the child’s ability to thrive. There is no dispute when it comes to the importance of early education in a child’s life, and our policies should reflect what we know will make a lasting, permanent difference.
How do we push this agenda forward?
Homelessness is what happens when there is a gap between what a family has and what that family has to pay. It is up to us as a commonwealth to ensure that there are supports and programs available to fill that gap.
What can we do as a community to ensure that our systems are working together and not failing our families?