The Relationship between a bad economy and homelessness

For Tim, no two days are ever alike. Nothing about his life is average and everything about it is the furthest thing possible from ‘The American Dream.’ Tim is almost 60 years old and homeless.

When he wakes up in the morning, regardless if he slept at the shelter or under the bridge that connects Springfield and West Springfield, Tim goes through a routine he’s become accustomed to.

First he makes sure that his three t-shirts and two sweaters have not been stolen while he slept. He is especially protective of one of his newer shirts. It is a plain blue button-up shirt that he keeps as clean as possible in case he gets a job interview. He keeps that shirt in a secret place which he refuses to tell anyone.

“There’s a hole at the bottom, but the employer will never notice it if I tuck the shirt inside my pants – see?” he said with a persuasive look on his face while he held the shirt up to his chest.

He pulls out a broken mirror from his backpack, perches it against a wall, on top of a trash can, and pulls his white hair into a ponytail. He’s bald on top, but with enough hair on the sides and back to pull into a short ponytail. “My hair’s one of my last few prize possessions. I treat it like gold,” he said humorously.

After making sure none of his possessions are missing, Tim jumps on his rusty Huffy mountain bike, drives to one of many corners across Springfield with high traffic and settles down with a sign that simply says “I’m a veteran and hungry. Please help.” He begs for enough money to buy himself two meals, one during the day and one during the evening.
Collecting enough money for two meals, however, is nearly impossible given today’s economy. Tim says that people are less willing to donate money to him because they have less money in their pockets to give.

“I never know when my next meal is coming,” Tim said.

He then sets out on his daily mission – to find a place to sleep that night.

With the economy in poor conditions and unemployment rates soaring, millions of people across the nation have the same daily routine that Tim has. And that number continues to grow. Homelessness has steadily risen in the last five years according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The website for the alliance states that in 2008, of the 50 states, 31 have seen increases in the homeless rate.

The National Coalition for the Homeless, in 2009, estimated that there were between 2.3 and 3.5 million people in the United States that experienced homelessness per year. In other words, it can happen to anyone at any time.
Just ask Tim. Despite being employed by Ford for nearly 13 years, Tim was laid off from his job as a parts manufacturer early in 2005 and soon went from unemployed to homeless and unemployed. After blowing through his savings, which he used mainly for paying rent and utilities, Tim ran out of earnings and was evicted from his one-bedroom apartment in Ohio.

Eventually he made his way to Massachusetts where friends had promised him a better living situation. Unfortunately for Tim, that plan fell through and he was left penniless and without a roof over his head.

With unemployment rates at extremely high numbers, the threat of homelessness is a viable future for more and more people every day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual average unemployment rates in 2010 rose in 31 states, including the District of Columbia. There was a decline in 18 states and no change in one. Employment population ratios decreased in 43 states and the District of Columbia but it increased in 3 states and were unchanged in 4.

However, there are programs out there that are fighting hard to help those that find themselves in the same boat as Tim.

One program, located on Jefferson Avenue in Springfield, the Teen Living Program, has set out on a mission to end homelessness among teen mothers. Unlike many government funded programs, the Teen Living Program has not seen a decline in aid. According to Nicole Lussier, the director of the shelter, the program is level-funded – meaning that they receive the same amount of funding every year from the government.

However, what has helped the program stay afloat and continue providing their services to homeless teen mothers across the state has been the contributions provided by the community. “When the economy gets into trouble, the community becomes more responsive to our needs,” said Lussier.

“The teens and their children come in with the bare minimum, sometime just with the clothes on their backs. We rely heavily on community donations to help us support these families,” said Lussier.

The program, running since 1995, houses up to six mothers and 12 children on a given day and, according to Lussier, “we are full 365 days of the year.” The teen mothers range in age between 14 and 20. The mothers are required to enroll in school and have to attend 24 hours a month of parenting classes.

According to some numbers acquired by Lussier, there are 173 total beds available to homeless teen mothers across Massachusetts through the Department of Transitional Assistance and the Department of Children and Families. In 2010 there were 435 teen mother referred for assessment with 239 teens on the waiting list. The average time on the waitlist for the teens was 44 days.

From left to right, Jennifer Vijil and her 9 month old daughter and Nicole Lussier, director of the Teen Living Program


Jennifer Vijil, in her second month as a homeless mother residing at the Teen Living Program, said that the poor economy has been a major cause of her homelessness. Originally from the Boston area, Vijil said, “I was living on my own and then I found out I was pregnant so then it became a little harder – you know, a little more expensive – and eventually I just couldn’t afford it.”

Vijil said that if the economy was in better shape that she would not be living at the Teen Living Program.

Typically, when the shelters are filled, homeless families are placed in local motel rooms paid for by the government. However, the number of homeless families living in motels in Western Massachusetts has increased within the last month. According to an article written by Dan Ring for The Republican, there are currently 300 homeless families in Western Massachusetts. This is about a 20 percent increase since January 2011.

Lussier had an interesting philosophy. She is well aware that she could not fix the issue of homelessness with the snap of a finger. All she can do is help as many people as she could, one at a time. “Our mission is to break the cycle. We try to prevent the teen mothers from reentering the shelter system.”

Unlike most homeless individuals, Tim doesn’t see himself getting out of this rut any time soon. “I’ve been in a five year recession and I’ve gotten used to living this way. I’m almost 60 years old; I’ll be gone before you know it,” he says without an ounce of worry on his face.

With his belongings gathered, he says goodbye and pedals his bicycle down the street. He’s in a rush. He was taken off course from his daily routine and now he’s afraid that he’ll have to sleep under the bridge on the hard, frosty ground. Hopefully the overflowing shelter can at least provide him with two blankets for the long, cold night. ###

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    • Jack and Joe
    • May 26th, 2011

    What is the baby name?

    • The baby in the picture? It was so long ago that I don’t recall. The young lady and her daughter, however, were from the Boston area.

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