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    'Hard, scary, sad': life at a highway rest stop

    Unaffordable rents, says a new national report, keep many Americans homeless. Some who are living in their cars at a rest stop off a major highway attest to the challenges.

    Untitled (NCFH, Boston) 12"x18"

    Untitled (NCFH, Boston) 12"x18" Photograph from "Looking Into Light," an exhibition from the National Center on Family Homelessness

    A highway rest stop in California

    A highway rest stop in California rnair (Rahul Nair)/Flickr (CC)

    The National Low Income Housing Coalition looked at the ability of those earning minimum wage to pay the going rental rate (the "fair market rate" or FMR).

    The National Low Income Housing Coalition looked at the ability of those earning minimum wage to pay the going rental rate (the "fair market rate" or FMR). National Low Income Housing Coalition, "Out of Reach 2012: America’s Forgotten Housing Crisis"

    Lisa lived in her car at a rest stop beside a highway near Seattle from May through early December of last year. With her was her 15-year-old son, a newbie among the more than 21,000 Washington state students who were homeless at that time. The boy and his mother would move into a motel room for two weeks to get clean and well-slept and recover some optimism, then return to the rest stop for two weeks to save money for gas and other necessities. “If I talk about it I get emotional,” she said. “My apologies if I start to cry. It was hard. It was scary. It was sad.”

    Lisa had lost a job she loved, as manager of a 7-11 store in nearby Sea-Tac, when she was disabled by multiple sclerosis. After her landlord died and his heirs sold the home that she and her son had rented with housemates, she “fell short,” she said. She had no savings to cover what it would take to rent a new place: the background screening fees landlords demand, plus first-and-last months’ rent if her application was accepted, plus any deposit for cleaning or security. These requirements add up to a daunting total for poor people, even when they have jobs and the rent won’t gobble up well over half their income.

    But too often the rent does exactly that in America, even to full-time workers, says a report published March 14 by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). The report, Out of Reach 2012: America’s Forgotten Housing Crisis, compares rental rates and working-wage levels across the country and finds that market pay for low- and median-level wage-earners simply can't cover market rents.

    To pay for a modest, affordable two-bedroom apartment at fair market rental rates in an American city — “affordable” defined as costing no more than 30 percent of one’s income — a worker must earn what NLIHC calls a Housing Wage of $18.25 per hour. But wage-earners in urban areas average only $14.15 per hour. Outside metropolitan areas, where affordable rental units require an hourly Housing Wage of $12.21, wages average only $9.97.

    Rising demand for rental housing pushed rents higher when the recession depressed homeownership rates across the U.S., according to Out of Reach 2012. And the supply of low-cost rental units shrank, with landlords either remodeling them into higher-priced units or letting properties decay. The most serious shortages of affordable, decent rental units confront the poorest of the working poor — those earning 30 percent or less of area median income. For every 100 workers in this category seeking to rent a home, only 30 units that they can afford are available, according to the report.

    Washington is the 16th most expensive state in the nation in terms of the Housing Wage required to pay for an affordable two-bedroom apartment, says NLIHC. A renter working here at the minimum wage of $9.04 per hour would have to put in 80 hours, 52 weeks a year (see chart at top right), and a renter earning the average Washington state wage of $14.62 would have to work 50 hours per week all year.

    In short, says the report, even Washingtonians working full time at the state’s average wage can’t afford a very modest two-bedroom family apartment.

    Lisa and her son found the rest stop where they lived for half of last year while driving along I-5 on one of their searches for low-cost housing. They turned off the highway to let the family dogs run around awhile, and Lisa saw a few people who seemed to be living in their vehicles. “It looked like a safe place to be,” she said. “With my ‘handicapped’ sticker I could park the car right across from the rest rooms and the kitchen area where there was coffee.”

    When their laptop and cell phone needed charging, Lisa would take her son to McDonald’s, she said. For his sake “I tried to keep life as normal as possible.” He’d go to school as usual, and then afterward meet up with friends at a community center gym where they could shoot baskets together. When Lisa picked him up toward dinnertime, “he’d pretend to his friends he was going home,” she said. Her former husband, from whom Lisa had been divorced many years, stayed connected with his son as best he could despite working as a long-haul truck driver all over the country, calling nearly every day.

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    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 7:43 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for the great story, Judy.

    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

    Finally, I can read a humna interest story that relates to the abysmal conditions existing in this country for poor people and laid off workers. With half the country scraping by, many unemployed and homeless, and the so called middle class shrinking rapidly due to a downsizing of the economy by the wealthy elite and Wall St gamblers it's refreshing to see someone with the courage to document those who have fallen thru the cracks of this wretched capitalist economy.


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Certainly more and more people are living in their cars in Seattle, too.


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 9:15 a.m. Inappropriate

    The UW found regulations related to Washington's Growth management Act added $200,000 cost to the median home in Seattle. The Seattle City Council is considering a rental housing inspection program that is expected to add, at least, $5/month to the cost of rent. For Lisa and many others the Road to Hell (where they now live) has been paved with good intentions.



    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Terrific story, Judy.

    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

    I'm scared, Judy, for all of us! As Ron Paul would say "let them die!"

    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

    whats ron paul got to do with it? we live in a state that has elected a democrat for governor for 34 consecutive years, is utterly dominated by democrats. so some dick wad pops up, spews something about ron paul, then heads off to by a $6 latte. lol


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent piece. Now think about the impact of cutting benefits and delaying eligibility for Social Security and Medicare, and capping and block granting Medicaid, and eliminating programs like the Basic Health Plan on folks in these situations. More reporters and opinion writers need to get out and talk to regular people like this before proposing draconian austerity plans.

    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    Sources tell me that the local offices of Social Security Administration have hired more than 100 Obama bureaucrats and lawyers. Nationwide, there are massive increases in disability cases and 2,000,000 fewer total jobs now than in 2008. There is a move to getting off the employment, unemployment, and seeking employment rolls and obtaining the status of disability. Finally, in a country of 313,000,000 census estimated living and breathing souls, there is a cliche called 'shrinking middle class'. Will someone on this comment forum please state the demographic and monetary dimensions for defining 'middle class'? Net worth, annual salary and benefits range, minimums and maximums will be oh so helpful!!


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    So much of the Seattle "progressive" and media communities care only about the needs of the upscale. To even notice these "hidden" populations is a great service.

    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 12:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    BlueLight makes an interesting point. A little while ago a friend posted this comment on Facebook:
    "Until we look at how we have created housing that is too expensive for a whole segment of our population and rejigger our zoning and building codes to correct this, rest areas, tent cities, and the jungle, along with our short-supply subsidized housing, is our lame solution to "end" homelessness."

    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

    And building on what Ms. Lightfoot says above, our overcrowded freeways and crawling rush hour speeds are a testament to the fact that a tremendous number of people who work in King County cannot afford to live there. We're paying for hyper-regulated housing by spewing far more pollutants into the atmosphere than necessary and depriving tens of thousands of people many hours a week of their lives. Which is the more harmful?


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 2:24 p.m. Inappropriate

    all the while the politicians spend billions on an election they can't win with honesty, integrity or character.


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

    Hyper-regulated, as in giving density away in exchange for "urban amenities," prescribes the problem—new housing too expensive for a whole segment of our population and old housing torn down to make way for the new.

    Far-off, gold plated transportation visions, prescribes the consequences—spewing far more pollutants into the atmosphere than necessary and depriving tens of thousands of people many hours a week of their lives.

    Try and tell a crony lawmaker any of this. Yet I have to say their studious avoidance becomes problem and consequence because topics and discussions like the one started here are too rare, but don't have to be. Talking things over is like mushroom hunting, getting skillful at it comes with the doing.

    For starters, check into Lisa Margonelli's similarly frank insights at The Nation:



    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 3:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks, Judy, for a well-written piece. Unfortunately, homelessness individuals at rest areas are not as uncommon as one might think. Just down the road, at a rest area south of Portland off I-5, a homeless community existed for 17 years. The school bus made regular stops (when kids lived there), and the St. Vincent de Paul Cafe on Wheels went there weekly.

    Our just-published case study of the Baldock Rest Area can be found on the Portland State University Center for Urban Studies website here: http://www.pdx.edu/sites/www.pdx.edu.cus/files/BaldockRestoration.pdf

    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 9:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thank you Judy for a very good piece and thanks for your thoughtful response to BlueLight. When we old guys think "what has gone wrong here" we have to think of our own lives. I moved from a farm to a moderately large city to work for a large corporation when I was still in my teens. Wages were good but my income did not allow for me to rent an apartment so I did what other young men (almost all men) were doing; I rented a room in a house. With "kitchen privileges", i. e., I could keep some milk and cereal in the refrigerator. After some months I found a better place that served breakfast and dinner five days a week; still cheap. It's not hard to see why that won't work now; I was young, Christian and northern European; prospective landladies were reassured. I was just like their sons or nephews. And it would not have worked if I had not had a job. But the need for housing, cheap housing, was met by the easiest means; people rented rooms in their house, made do with a little bit less privacy and got to know some people they did not know before. Sometimes it didn't work out. The government was not involved. People, like me, paid what we could afford and we found space. That is not a solution or even an amelioration of the problems painfully described in this article but it is a reminder of what has been lost.


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 9:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    Animalal, your "sources" are wrong. Social Security does not hire lawyers, and certainly 100 people have not been hired locally. However, SSA has hired more clerks to process claims in Washington because of the imminent end of Disability Lifeline, which used to give about $650 month to people temporarily unable to work, and since November has not given any cash. People are applying to get qualified for Social Security Disability. If you think it's easy to get on SSDI, you're wrong again. My developmentally-disabled daughter has been totally disabled since birth and it took her 9 months to qualify. She'd been turned down completely years ago. It is not a pleasant process.

    Now if you'd rather have people go completely without food, shelter, and medical care than receive Social Security Disability, just say so, and we'll know you for who you are.

    Another great article, Judy.


    Posted Tue, Apr 3, 9:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    I appreciate this interesting, informative dialogue among readers. Kieth, your comment reminded me of a past Crosscut article by "neighborhood Yoda" Kent Kammerer, in which he mentions the trailer parks of the old days - http://crosscut.com/2009/09/16/social-services/19124/For-some-of-our-homeless%2C-why-not-managed-campgrounds-/

    Posted Wed, Apr 4, 1:44 p.m. Inappropriate

    With the topic of Social Security in the story and the comment thread, a reader wrote to clarify the difference between two kinds of SSA disability payments:

    "There are two types of SS that people with disabilities may receive. SSI (Supplemental Security Income) is generally received by people who don't have extensive (or any) work history because of their disabilities, most often mental illness or addictions. They receive about $600+ a month in cash and are on Medicaid, which provides complete medical care. People who have had work histories receive Social Security Disability (SSDI) which stems from their tax deductions over their worklife, and their cash benefit is higher -- sometimes around $1,000/month. However, they are on Medicare, not Medicaid, and M'care does not provide the complete medical care that M'caid does. If people on SSDI are extremely low-income, they may get combined M'care/M'caid (called "Extra Help"). People may receive either SSI or SSDI and still work what's considered a "nonsubstantial" amount."

    Just another example of how complicated and confusing it is to be poor and disabled in America.

    (Thus Rick, the man in the story with spinal deterioration, has probably applied for SSDI.)

    Posted Thu, Apr 5, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

    sarah90, I stand by my source, business card in hand, who has many years in the SSA legal world.


    Posted Thu, Apr 5, 7:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    As I sit in my not palatial but comfortable home, my heart goes out to those members of our society that live where they can, parking lots, highway rest areas, etc. I wonder, how can the politicians and those in other decision making positions which affect the homeless, justify their decisions and how do they sleep at night? Thanks Judy for another provocative article.


    Posted Thu, Apr 5, 10:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    Animalal, name your sources (who apparently have only one business card). Hearsay is not credible unless there's a cite.


    Posted Fri, Apr 6, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Seattle University and Seattle City Hall -- You have until April 27 to see this show.

    Looking Into Light

    In 2009, more than 170,000 American families spent the night in a shelter—a 30% increase since 2007. Homeless families can be found in every state in our nation and in many communities.

    Looking Into Light documents the experience of family homelessness in America. The National Center on Family Homelessness and its Campaign to End Child Homelessness are presenting this unique photo exhibit from its archive of more than 20,000 images. The exhibit will tour the nation over the next two years.

    To commemorate the national tour of Looking Into Light and provide a one-of-a-kind way to help homeless children and families, The National Center is offering high quality digital reproductions of selected photographs from the tour.

    Each image is meticulously printed and can be framed to join your most prized art work or wall hangings. The proceeds directly support our work to end child and family homelessness in America.


    Amazing, that this compelling story would pit republican against democrat, as if there is much difference when it comes to "the economy." Amazing that this turns into a place to yammer on about GMA and zoning.

    Absolutely amazing. Let's see, a national minimum wage of $10 is a start. Then, rebuild America by getting real tax reform -- offshoring corporations, tax dodging corporations, the entire mess of those Fortune 500 companies NOT part of the solution.

    One Apple executive -- read it in Time -- basically says this: "It's not Apple's role to solve America's problems." Hmmm, so, so compelling how this statement is the reality of vulture capitalism, disaster capitalism.

    I have been teaching homeless students since 1983, in El Paso. Some were the offspring of the heroes of the society -- migrant farm workers who keep the food coming at those One Percenters and 99 Perenters. This story is tied to the social contract that corporations and political class folk have been tearing up and smearing with greed. Yet, these students, young and old, somehow make it.

    Here's an amazing person who is an economist who worked and lived in communities of poverty. Very power interview, if ya'll have time:

    DEMOCRACY NOW: Acclaimed Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. He won the Right Livelihood Award in 1983, two years after the publication of his book Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics. I began by asking him to explain what barefoot economics is.

    MANFRED MAX-NEEF: Well, it’s a metaphor, but a metaphor that originated in a concrete experience. I worked for about ten years of my life in areas of extreme poverty in the Sierras, in the jungle, in urban areas in different parts of Latin America. And at the beginning of that period, I was one day in an Indian village in the Sierra in Peru. It was an ugly day. It had been raining all the time. And I was standing in the slum. And across me, another guy also standing in the mud — not in the slum, in the mud. And, well, we looked at each other, and this was a short guy, thin, hungry, jobless, five kids, a wife and a grandmother. And I was the fine economist from Berkeley, teaching in Berkeley, having taught in Berkeley and so on. And we were looking at each other, and then suddenly I realized that I had nothing coherent to say to that man in those circumstances, that my whole language as an economist, you know, was absolutely useless. Should I tell him that he should be happy because the GDP had grown five percent or something? Everything was absurd.

    So I discovered that I had no language in that environment and that we had to invent a new language. And that’s the origin of the metaphor of barefoot economics, which concretely means that is the economics that an economist who dares to step into the mud must practice. The point is, you know, that economists study and analyze poverty in their nice offices, have all the statistics, make all the models, and are convinced that they know everything that you can know about poverty. But they don’t understand poverty. And that’s the big problem. And that’s why poverty is still there. And that changed my life as an economist completely. I invented a language that is coherent with those situations and conditions.


    Maybe we need barefoot politics, barefoot education, barefoot urban and regional planning, barefoot finance.

    Big company CEOs? 23 percent raise last year. Corporate profits are at record highs. The minimum wage has less buying power now than in 1956 – "the year Elvis Presley first topped the charts, videotape was breakthrough technology and the Dow closed above 500 for the very first time."

    JPMorgan’s July 11 “Eye on the Market” newsletter put it well: “Reductions in wages and benefits explain the majority of the net improvement in [profit] margins… US labor compensation is now at a 50-year low relative to both company sales and US GDP.”

    The 1956 minimum wage was $8.30, adjusted for inflation.

    Today’s minimum wage is $7.25 – just $15,080 annually.

    CEOs make more in a few hours than minimum wage workers who care for children, the ill and the elderly make in a year.

    Median CEO pay was $10.8 million last year among 200 big companies measured by Equilar.


    Posted Fri, Apr 6, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent article Judy . . . and I've been whining about having the flu for two days and after reading this I think how can I complain about anything! I think it would be helpful if Crosscut can come up with organizations we can donate to/volunteer to help these people. What happened to King County's initiative to end Homelessness?

    Susan White

    Posted Fri, Apr 6, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

    Susan White, thank you for asking. A list of nonprofits where you can donate and/or volunteer to help homeless people in the region is on the Seattle Foundation Web site - http://www.seattlefoundation.org (type "homeless" into the Search box at top right, and beneath the box click on "Search Nonprofit Organizations"). Updates on the Coalition to End Homelessness in King County are at http://cehkc.org/.

    Posted Fri, Apr 6, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate


    As a former reporter, I appreciate the work you had to do to get this story. I remember doing similar stories for public radio and an alternative newspaper in Spokane, working with social service providers to find homeless people living under bridges, in makeshift tent camps along the Spokane River, in shelters.

    Their stories are heartbreaking. Many of these peoples' troubles are due to bad decisions and it's hard to feel sorry for some of them. I always found thinking about the work they do just to meet their basic needs and get through a day. Yes, some people choose to be homeless, but for those who don't, it is a very difficult, often humiliating life.

    Kudos for a great story.


    Posted Sat, Apr 7, 7:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    On the choose-to-be-homeless issue, try to imagine a child thinking, "When I grow up, I want to be homeless."


    Posted Mon, Apr 9, 1:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    In Kitsap County we have approx. 800 known homeless kids, grades K-12. Many of these families live in their vehicles, or in the woods by their schools. When the cash grant portion of DL-U ended with the check in early Oct, hundreds of Kitsappers had no income at all in Nov. If they weren't in subsidized housing, a shelter, or hopefully staying with friends or family, they were in the cold. I remain hopeful that the decisions some of our legislators make in the next couple days to not reduce TANF stand so we don't have any more folks without a home of their own.
    Another excellent article, Judy.

    Posted Thu, Apr 19, 8:12 a.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent article. I am terrified at the end game of the "you're on your own society" under President Romney. I fear this because we the American people voted for Bush (the shrub) twice, and we are fully capable of voting for voting for another multi-gazillionaire who will kick the economy further down the stairs. People blame Reagan for starting this trend of punishing poor people for being poor, but we should blame Clinton just as much, since he signed legislation ending the main federal anti-poverty program and turned the fate of welfare recipients, 70 percent of whom were children, over to the states. Today in the United States about 1 in 5 children live in poverty. This doesn't bode well for the future because bootstraps--those magic tools poor folks are supposed to use to rise out of poverty--are increasingly short supply.

    Mud Baby

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