Local Vocal: Most homeless not addicted, unemployed, mentally ill stereotype

by Bernadette C. Wilson

I was highly disappointed by your article ‘“Homeless But Not Helpless’” [Jan. 11, 2006; by Jordan Green].’  While I had hoped for a balanced profile, the article focused exclusively on the stereotypical homeless, unemployed, substance abusing adult male. Nationally, only about 25 percent of the homeless population are substance abusers. Individuals with mental illness make up 25 percent of the homeless population, and many of them also fall into the substance abuse category. The fastest growing group of homeless in the United States is families with children, and children make up at least 20 percent of the homeless population. While none of the individuals you featured in the article are employed, 30 percent of the US homeless population is employed on a full-time or part-time basis. The Greensboro Housing Coalition can tell you more about how national statistics compare to the Triad experience with homeless.’ 

My experience is much more personal. Five years ago, my husband asked me to come to Greensboro so I could find a house for us to live together while he waited for his job transfer to come through. I arrived in Greensboro expecting to find a wire waiting to cover family expenses. Instead, I discovered that I was alone and solely financially responsible for three young children, then ages 2, 4 and 5.’ Childcare would cost $11 per hour, and I had never made more than $10.50.’ ‘ ‘ 

I was lucky to get into Greensboro (now Guilford) Interfaith Hospitality Network. During the two months it took to secure child care so I could find employment and save up for an apartment, GIHN ensured my children and I would be well fed, sheltered, loved, and together as a family. Every person I met in the program shattered my stereotypes about homelessness. GIHN ‘guests’ were all employed full time, educated, confident and caring parents. Over the years several married couples, widows and widowers have entered the program, in addition to single mothers and fathers.’ ‘ ‘ 

Even employed individuals without children can easily find themselves homeless. A friend of mine spent two months at Urban Ministry after her roommates moved out of state. She continued to work full time, without anyone at work knowing about her situation, until she could afford the deposits and rent on a new small apartment.’ In her book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich had a graduate-level education but still couldn’t figure out how to get her income from a low-wage job to cover basic living expenses.’ 

Full-time employment no longer guarantees access to housing.’ In the Triad, $8.50 is considered a good starting wage. For a single individual, the post-tax paycheck would be about $1,173 per month. According to ‘affordable housing’ calculations, only 30 percent of monthly income should go to rent, in this case $352 per month. But Fair Market Rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Greensboro is $558. It is not possible for individuals or families to achieve economic stability at current wage levels on 40 hours per week. I hope you will consider expanding your coverage of homelessness in Greensboro to cover the non-stereotypical members of the population.’ 

The writer lives in Winston-Salem.