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. ###


Interviewing Arjun…

A few days ago I sat down with Arjun Collins, a senior here at UMass, and we discussed blogging. He expressed to me his feelings on blogging and where he believes the world of blogging will be in the future. Listen to the interview and listen to what Arjun had to say. And don’t forget to visit his blog, The Gratitude Suite

Prosperous today, homeless tomorrow

This article, written by Kathy Haight for the Charlotte Observer, was an interesting read. As I said in yesterday’s blog, sports bring people together. It really does. However, I’ve been thinking, is homelessness an issue of financial troubles or is there more to homelessness?

Homelessness in America has become a real problem. However, sweeping the issue under the rug is never going to solve it. Homelessness is faceless and can happen to anyone.

Bringing together homeless people to play helps them network with others who may be able to find them employment, housing or other essentials.

In another article written by Rich and Elizabeth Lombino, they look into former pro athletes who are now living on the streets. Back in July they wrote about “Sugar Ray” Williams who played in the NBA for 10 years and is now homeless.

In the more recent of the two articles, they tell us about Iran “The Blade” Barkley, a boxer who fought professionally for 17 years. According to the Lombino’s, over his 17 year career, Barkley was paid over $5 million dollars and yet, today, he’s homeless.

What I thought was more interesting about Barkley was the fact that he RETIRED from boxing. It’s not as if he was forced to retire from boxing because of addictions…he retired a successful boxer. Maybe it was bad financial planning on his part or maybe he was conned out of money by deceitful business partners. Who knows? Fact is that after a fruitful career in b0xing he finds himself homeless today.

However, the story of Barkley just goes to show that no one is immune from homelessness. This boxer, throughout his entire career, had an above average yearly salary and yet, that wasn’t enough to keep him from becoming homeless.

I say that to say this – homeless people are humans also. They aren’t invisible. When you see someone who is less fortunate than you, don’t assume that that person did something to bring the ill-luck upon themselves. Reach in your pocket and give them your change. Don’t have any? Give them your coffee or buy them something to eat. Misfortune can strike anyone and I know you’d like to be treated fairly if you ever found yourself in their shoes.

No NFL season means more unemployed people

I decided that today’s blog post would be a little different than my previous posts. I wanted to talk sports for a little bit. I’m a huge sports fan. I eat, breath, and **** sports. With so many things that are wrong in this world, sports bring fans of all creeds together.

 In spite of its greatness, there’s something that’s bugging me in the sports world right now. And that’s the battle that’s been going on between the NFL and NFL Players Association. As of midnight March 3, the NFL is non-existent unless the labor issues are resolved. The danger of no NFL in 2011-12 is very possible, unless a new collective bargaining agreement is completed.

In a blog written today, Dan Graziano says that both the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to federal mediation. Not a step forward, but at least the two sides have agreed on something.

My problem is that both sides have forgotten about an incredibly important aspect of sports– and that’s the jobs they create. Think about it. No NFL means that the people who are employed at the stadiums, the people who work in the parking garages, hotels, bars, and so on – all these people will be out of a job.

Football cities across the country will see a spike in unemployment rates. Cities like Pittsburgh and, on a more local level, Foxboro will see a loss in revenue due to the fact that there is no NFL season.

But of course, what does Peyton Manning or Jerry Richardson (owner of the Carolina Panthers) care about the unemployed stadium workers? They’re still getting paid.

The impact on the economy will certainly be felt. While the millionaires argue with the billionaires they forget who it is that helps players and owners fill their pockets with all of those dead presidents – the little guy, as Richard Fox puts it. And whatever the end result is, season or no season, no one will stand up for the little guy. They’re left to fend for themselves.

So…you want my suggestion? Quit the bickering and come to an agreement before midnight on March 3. At the end of the day, both the players and the owners will make their millions. There is no reason why the workers whose salary depends on the NFL season should live with uncertainty. These people have families too.

Helping the invisible children

I’m not afraid to admit that I have a weak spot for children. I’m the uncle that jumps around with your kids all day, destroying your house in the process, and then I go home – leaving you the mess. Unfortunately, for my sister and my good friend Nilka, it’s payback time. Now I have my own daughter that they can help destroy my home.

Anyways, I only mention that stuff to highlight my weakness for children. I wanted to write this blog to bring to your attention a cause that I’m dedicated to.

As we know, the homeless population in the United States is very high, one of the highest amongst developed countries. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless website, approximately one percent of the population experiences homelessness every year.

Of that one percent of the population, 39 percent are children. In other words, for every 10 homeless people, about four of them are children. There are well over 100,000 homeless children in Massachusetts per year alone.

These children, through no fault of their own, have been dealt a life that I wouldn’t wish on an enemy. That’s why I’m asking you to volunteer whatever time you can to helping a child by lending an ear and being a friend. Many of them, whether the entire family is homeless or just the child, don’t have anyone to talk to.

During the summer of 2009 I was a volunteer at a program called Horizons for Homeless Children.  My official title was a ‘playspace activity leader,’ or a PAL.  My job was exactly that – to jump around with children and make a mess. That was something I knew how to do well. My only problem was the fact that I only got to play with the kids for only two hours one day a week. Regardless, it was rewarding work and I hope to have made a lasting impression on at least one child.

So I’m encouraging you to give your time to these kids. Many times all they need is someone that will listen to them and acknowledge them. Contact your local YMCA and inquire about volunteer opportunities or become a Big Brother or Big Sister. Trust me, you won’t regret one minute of the experience. Neither will the children you spend time with.

If you’d like to volunteer some of your time to Horizons for Homeless Children you can visit their website to get more information. The only requirement they ask is that you make a six month commitment to volunteering two hours per week. That’s it.

Hanging with Tim: unemployment rates improve but homelessness does not

Homelessness is not biased and the media keeps telling us that unemployment rates are on the way down. According to a article published just a week ago, of the nation’s 372 metropolitan areas, 238 have recorded improvements in their jobless rates. One would think that a decrease in unemployment rate would mean a decline in homeless rates. Well, tell that to “Tim”.

On my way home, while stopped at a red light, I see an older white man leaning against a pole, shivering, and holding a sign that read “I’m a veteran and hungry. Please help.” You could barely see the man’s face because, in an attempt to stay as warm as possible, he stuffed his face inside of his thin jacket. The thermometer in my car read an outdoor temperature of 2 degrees.

After parking my car, I walked up to the man, introduced myself and asked if he would like to eat a warm meal in a warm setting. “That sounds great,” I remember him saying. We drove to a nearby McDonald’s where we sat down, ate breakfast and talked for about 45 minutes.

 Even with an offer of food, “Tim” said that he’d only answer my questions if I promised not to use his real name. In reality, he was pretty reserved about the information he gave me and he generally only answered the questions with obvious answers. Frankly, I don’t blame him for being reserved. In “Tim’s” opinion, Americans have let him down.

According to “Tim,” he enlisted in the army in 1969, as soon as he turned 18. He never met his father and his mother had passed away when he was 12. He had been raised by his grandmother who, from what I gathered, was uncaring for “Tim’s” well-being. He joined the army knowing the likelihood of him being sent to Vietnam, hoping that he would be able to better his life.

“When I came back home in ‘74 I had an awful addiction to heroin and alcohol. I cleaned myself up and got a job” he tells me.

When he returned to the U.S. he landed a job in the auto industry. Eventually he found his way to Ohio where he worked for Ford for 13 years manufacturing auto parts. However, with soaring fuel prices, the auto industry took a hit and began laying people off – “Tim” was laid off in 2005.

I asked “Tim” how the economic downturn had affected his homelessness. Jokingly he responds, “Boy, my economy has been downturned since 2005.” With people being more frugal, asking for change has become harder than ever, he says. “I never know when my next meal is coming.”

With the layoff came a reintroduction to drugs and alcohol. “I was so depressed,” said “Tim” who has no education beyond the 10th grade. He made his way from Ohio to Massachusetts to live with friends from the army to see if he could turn his life around, but things have only gotten worst. His friends abandoned him.

“Tim” has a pessimistic view of his future and doesn’t see a life outside of homelessness as possible. “I’m almost 60 years old, who’s gonna give me a job at this age,” he asks as he takes the final bite of his meal.

The past, present and future: A look at the connection between unemployment and homelessness

It’s no secret that the economy in the United States is in a poor state. Living below the poverty line seems to have become the norm and the job market continues to shrink, even as I type this. A college degree or experience doesn’t guarantee you employment anymore. For millions of people across the country, there have been no harder times in their lives than these.

In a article, Michael Thornton, the content author for Rochester Unemployment Examiner, posted a letter he had come across written by an unemployed man. The man, simply named Mark, wrote in his emotional letter about his battle against unemployment and his bleak future as an aged homeless man.

The part of Mark’s letter that stuck with me was when he wrote, “It’s the end of November and cold. A diabetic homeless older person will experience amputations in the winter months. So I will be raiding garbage cans for food, as my body literally falls apart, a foot here, a finger there.” Homelessness doesn’t distinguish between race, gender, sexual preference  or health conditions.

Just like Mark, over the last few years many Americans have made that transition from settled with a home to homeless.  According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, between 2008 and 2009, 31 of the 50 states saw an increase in their homeless population.

In a Patch article written by Wendy Foster, she writes about a man, George Chapp, who has been homeless for two months. A printer by trade, Chapps says, “There is a lot of competition out there and they can get you for nothing. I used to make $25 an hour. Now I’d only get $14. That’s what I was making back in the ‘80s but it’s take it or leave it.”

The competition within the job market which Chapps refers to seems to be a recurring theme in unemployed homeless people. With few jobs to offer and many applicants to apply, the homeless population will only continue to rise.