Sunday, December 24, 2006

Homeless Families Struggle Amid Holiday Affluence

This weekend's USA Today has an gripping article on Christine Fuller, who is homeless despite having full-time employment. Fuller's story exemplifies the social welfare policy challenges for helping the working poor, and is a reminder of the plight of the disadvantaged amid society's affluence:

Christine Fuller finds holiday kindness at unexpected moments, such as before sunrise at a bus stop 7 miles from the White House.

A bus driver sees her switching buses each weekday morning at 6:15 with four neatly dressed children, ages 6 to 10, as she escorts them to a before-school program. The driver lauds their behavior and says he wants to give each child a Christmas present.

Fuller doesn't know his name. He doesn't know hers. She says presents would be fine.

The bus driver also doesn't know that Fuller and her children are homeless. They've been living at a shelter since September. Fuller has a full-time job that pays her $23,000 a year but says she can't afford an apartment in this affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where a typical two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,225 a month.

The problem of poverty and homelessness — and how difficult it is to escape — is poignantly illustrated in the hit movie The Pursuit of Happyness, which stars Will Smith and his son, Jaden.

At least 2 million Americans, many of whom have jobs and families, are homeless at some point over the course of a year, says Philip Mangano, executive director of the White House's Interagency Council on Homelessness.

"It's very traumatic for children," Mangano says.

It can be particularly so in a place like Falls Church and surrounding Fairfax County, one of the nation's wealthiest areas with a median household income of $94,600.

Fuller, 32, tries to ward off any trauma by focusing on routines and maintaining dignity in tough circumstances.

Her day starts at 3:45 a.m., in the two-bedroom, 300-square-foot unit her family occupies at Shelter House, a county facility that can house seven families.

Fuller gets ready for her job as a dispatch assistant at a courier service, then at 5 a.m. wakes her boys, William, 10, and Isaiah, 7. After she gets them going, she rouses the girls, Beatrice, 8, and Jhavona, 6.

"Mom, our life is so boring," she says the kids tell her. "You sound like a drill sergeant."

They're out the door by 5:45 a.m. with a snack in hand to catch the first public bus. They switch buses before arriving at a before-school program that opens at 6:30 a.m. The kids have subsidized breakfast and lunch at school.

"My 7-year-old knows every bus route," says Fuller, sitting on a vinyl couch in her unit's small living area.

After dropping off the kids, she boards another bus to get to her job, which she has held for three years, by 7:30 a.m. She works until 5 p.m. and then takes a bus to pick up her kids at an after-school program. She pays $177 monthly for the child care. The unsubsidized cost for four kids in similar programs in Fairfax County is $1,500.

Being homeless during the holidays can be particularly grim, but this month Fuller and her children have received several gifts from charitable residents, from dolls to firetrucks to a microwave oven. Such gifts reflect both the generosity of individuals and the same community wealth that has hindered Fuller's ability to find her own place to live.

"Apartments cost a lot here," says Fuller, a never-married high school dropout who has six children in all. The two oldest — a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl — live with a family friend in a nearby town and are in their high school's marching band.

Fuller says she can't move to a more affordable city or distant suburb because her job is near downtown Washington and she has no car. Despite the difficulty of living in such an expensive area, she's also reluctant to go elsewhere because she grew up here, and her mother and grandparents live nearby.

Fuller receives child support from the father of one of her children. She doesn't know where one of the fathers is, and another helps out with child care on weekends. But when it comes to finances, she's largely on her own.

Families with children make up about 40% of the nation's homeless people, according to a USA TODAY analysis of government data. Those in homeless families represent about 55% of the roughly 2,000 homeless people in Fairfax, which has about 1 million residents.

More than half the single homeless adults in Fairfax are white, while 65% of those in homeless families are African-American, according to a county report released this month.

Two of every five homeless adults in Fairfax works, says Gerry Connolly, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "A lot of people benefit from our vibrant economy, but others are cut out," he says. He cites the loss of hundreds of affordable housing units during the recent real estate boom.

"When you meet the (homeless) children, your heart breaks," Connolly says, "because they haven't done anything to deserve it."

He says Fairfax, like many jurisdictions across the nation, has stepped up efforts to find more places for the homeless to stay, either through their friends and relatives or churches, motels and shelters. It doesn't always work. He says some people live in their cars.

"We've even had people living in the woods under tarps," he says.

For most of her life, Fuller lived with her grandparents in a three-bedroom house in nearby Arlington County. When the grandparents moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Arlington, officials said it was too small for Fuller and her children to also live there, so she spent six months in a shelter. She moved into a three-bedroom basement apartment in Fairfax County, but officials there deemed it a fire hazard.

Fuller and her four youngest children then spent three months in a motel room paid for by Fairfax County before a unit became available at Shelter House.

"We're helping the working homeless," shelter director Joe Meyer says.

The children "know this isn't their own place," Fuller says. They can't invite kids over for play dates or birthday parties. She adds that like many youths who struggle to cope with the trauma of being homeless, her children have suffered from mood swings, depression and other problems.

"I know I have to better myself for my kids," she says. She tells her kids to "stay in school, … stay out of jail, stay out of trouble."

Fuller says when she sees her 14-year-old daughter, she warns her: "Don't make the mistakes I made" by, among other things, getting pregnant while in high school.

At Shelter House, government workers make sure homeless families get food stamps as well as benefits from Medicaid and mental health and social services agencies. Parents such as Fuller must attend evening workshops on parenting, alcohol and drug awareness, financial planning and job-seeking skills.

Families are expected to stay no more than three months, but they can stay longer if they have no other housing options and make progress toward self-sufficiency, Meyer says. He says Fuller's family will be able to stay until she can get a subsidized apartment.

"They've been a great help," Fuller says. She initially chafed at the shelter's 10 p.m. curfew and visitor restrictions, but says she's learning to manage money better and pay off $5,000 in credit card debt.

Fuller says she's not buying Christmas toys for her children, only necessities. Sometimes they tease her, calling her "the Grinch."

Fairfax board Chairman Connolly's concern about the impact of homelessness on families is reflected in the waiting list for the 32 units the county has available at Shelter House and two other facilities. The list is approaching 90 families.

A report released last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that analyzed homelessness in 23 cities said that in most of the cities, some homeless families have to split up in order to find shelter.

"This is just unacceptable," says Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer, the conference's president.

The Conference of Mayors report says requests for shelter rose 9% last year in the 23 cities surveyed.

Housing affordability is the top problem, says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor of social welfare policy. He says the government needs to use tax credits to push more investors and developers to build affordable apartments. He says it's much cheaper to give a housing subsidy to a homeless family than to put the family in a shelter, which can cost $50,000 for a 14-month stay.

Mangano says federal spending on housing subsidies has risen in recent years, but the number of available units hasn't increased because of rising real estate prices.

Fuller is an amazing woman and I wish her well. She needs to increase her income to be able to afford an apartment in her area. Her job with the courier service is not paying enough, so she'll need to upgrade skills to be competitive in seeking higher paying employment. She'll need continued public and private support in paying for childcare, food coupons, and eventually housing subsidies. She'll also benefit from a large Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which has been a successful, bipartisan policy to help the working poor. The absent fathers should also be contributing more to the well-being of their children.

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