When Personal Responsibility Paves the Way to Homelessness

Many accounts of homelessness focus on personal financial crises — a job loss, for example, a serious illness or injury that results in huge medical bills, an eruption of domestic violence that impels a spouse or partner to flee the breadwinner.

Others cite less sudden crises due to mental illness and/or substance abuse, both ultimately leading to lack of money for housing. Still others take a different tack — rising housing costs, with no commensurate wage increases to cover them.

But sometimes families become homeless for altogether other reasons. Here’s a still-unfinished true story and some untruths it exposes.

I’ve written before about Peter,* who does occasional work for me. Now he and his daughters are homeless, though not (yet) eligible for federally-funded assistance as such.

Peter must depend on earnings from short-term jobs with flexible hours because he often must drop everything to tend to his chronically ill younger daughter. But between what he makes and her Supplemental Security Income benefits, he’s had enough to cover the family’s housing costs.

Seems his landlord didn’t have enough for the mortgage payments, however. So the lender repossessed the building and evicted the tenants.

Shortly before and after, a series of untoward events diminished Peter’s earnings and, at the same time, forced him to come up with extra money. His daughter’s new medication caused drastic side-effects. So he had to stay home with her for some days.

Then his car got towed because he’d parked it illegally, seeing no other way he could sell the newspapers he’d already purchased, as all vendors of our local homelessness paper do. No way for Peter to get to other jobs unless he paid the fine and the hefty towing-storage fee.

His sister then borrowed the car and got arrested for drunk driving. Immediately thrown in jail because it was her second such offense. Peter felt he had to bail her out, which, of course, meant a fee to a bail bondsman. And he had to bail the car out too because the authorities had impounded it.

Now, none of these things or even all in combination would have left Peter with nothing to spend except what he could earn day by day if he’d had the emergency savings that financial experts advise. But he could just get by when everything went smoothly.

So at this point, he, his daughters and his sister are holed up in a cheap motel while he waits for the tax refund that will cover the upfront costs of a new apartment lease — or so he hopes.

He’s thus far found no apartment he can afford. In the family’s home county, a two-bedroom apartment — very snug for them — costs, on average, $1,625 a month. And he sure won’t get help from the local housing authority. He’s been on its waiting list for some considerable time.

As I put together the pieces of this story, I recalled part of Tolstoy’s frame for Anna Karenina. “[E]ach unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But the story has other, more pertinent lessons.

Right-wing policymakers and the gurus they listen to often trace poverty to a failure of personal responsibility. Well, who exercises more personal responsibility than Peter, who could have left his daughters with their egregiously negligent mother — and his sister miserable in jail and then alone to struggle against her alcoholism?

More specifically, the Republican Presidential candidates at the recent “expanding opportunity” forum seemingly concurred on three ways our public policies and programs could reduce poverty.

First, they have to do a better job of promoting marriage — not only of getting people (of opposite sexes) to marry, but of inducing them to stay married and in the same home. Hard to see how persisting in a failed marriage to a persistent substance abuser would have made life better for Peter and his kids.

Second, public policies have to get people working for enough pay so they can support themselves and their dependents. Peter could do that if his younger daughter had neither a chronic illness nor developmental disabilities. He has in-demand technical skills and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As things stand now, however, he can’t responsibly delegate care for the daughter to a home healthcare aide or anyone else. Too many emergencies. Too many judgment calls only a parent can make. And too much time needed for his role in the education she’s receiving to develop independent living skills.

Third, our major federal safety net programs should get rolled into block grants that states can spend pretty much however they see fit. I’ll leave it to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein to explain (again) why this is such a bad idea.

I’ll merely note that the programs Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and forum moderator Paul Ryan would replace with super-block grants expressly include major federal housing assistance programs.

If Peter’s got problems getting back into an affordable apartment now, imagine how he and his family would fare if states had no obligation to provide vouchers or public housing — and had less in real dollars to fund any of the block-granted programs that now serve low-income people’s needs.

And imagine what would happen if he couldn’t rely on Medicaid for the services that keep his daughter alive — a distinct possibility if the program were block-granted, as Ryan and his House Republican colleagues intend.

* As before, I’ve changed his name to protect his and his family’s privacy.

2 Responses to When Personal Responsibility Paves the Way to Homelessness

  1. Wendy Wyatt says:

    I am sorry all that happened to him šŸ˜¦

    I found a way to get in a bigger bind than I already was…by getting married.

    The following is an email that I wrote to the governor of NY when he sent out a letter about marriage equality in June 2011.

    Iā€™d like to talk about the kind of marriage equality that affects my husband and I. He has a traumatic brain injury and is blind from it. I have a whole boatload of diseases that make me very ill and cripple me. We were both disabled young and therefore are on SSI. When we got married, our income was cut by almost half! Most disabled couples remain unmarried for this reason. The people at Social Security even told us not to get married because of the cut in money. For us, it was a moral issue. We wanted to marry legally. That marriage license is making it very hard to get by financially. As individuals, we got $761/month cash and $185 food stamps each. Rent was $135/month in a subsidized apartment. As a couple, we are now getting a COMBINED income of $1090/month, $91 food stamps and the rent has increased to $292/month. I do not understand why there is such a steep penalty for very low income people to get married. We are having a very, very hard time financially now. Our electric bill is higher for 2 and our food certainly does not cost a quarter of what it did before marriage šŸ˜¦ To spell it out, we have lost $711 in buying power plus have to pay $157 more in rent for a financial hit of $868 per MONTH just for getting a marriage license šŸ˜¦ It is soooooo not right to do to us as we were struggling big-time to live on regular SSI. We married in January and this month has been horribly difficult with the price of gas, food and anything else we buy going UP!


    Gee…..and I thought it was tough then. Now I get $733/month SSI, my rent is $525 of that and I get $91/month SNAP. It sure is lots of fun living on the edge…NOT! There are no margins of error. Way too many choices feel like life or death.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thank you for sharing your finances. Very thought-provoking.

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