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Employed, but can't afford a home

Low wage jobs, debt and high rents pushes some workers to live in their cars

By Frank Garrity 

The first night Tony and his partner Justin were forced to sleep in their white 2020 BMW they both assumed it would be for one or two nights at most until they figured out a new living arrangement.

“Thank God I had bought a new car right before this happened because we ended up living out of it for the next three years.” Tony said. 

In July 2020, Tony, 46, and Justin, 31, of Philadelphia (names changed to protect their identities)joined the population of working Americans who are unhoused and uncounted in government data.  Philadelphia counted 4,725 people experiencing homelessness during its annual “point-in-time” (PIT) count in 2023. The count only applies to people on the street or in shelters in certain areas of the city, leaving out those living out of their cars, couch surfing, incarcerated people who were homeless when they entered prison and will be homeless again when they get out, and people who are simply afraid to be counted. 

 Marisol Bello, Executive Director of The Housing Narrative Lab whose mission is to lifts up the stories of people facing homelessness and housing insecurity, said the PIT count is not accurate and does not help the countless unhoused people who lose access to services because they are missed.

 “Here’s why it matters: federal dollars to solve homelessness are based on the need determined by the PIT count,” she said. “So if the number of people experiencing homelessness is undercounted, the federal government won’t appropriate the funding needed.” 

An estimated 40 to 60 percent of people experiencing homelessness nationwide have jobs, according to The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“Rents are skyrocketing and jobs are not paying enough to pay for rent,” Bello said.A new study by Harvard  states that half of people who rent homes are paying more than a third of their income in rent and 12 million – the highest ever – are paying half of their income in rent. This means that every day people who are struggling, working and doing their best, are one health scare, a job loss, or major trauma away from being on the street.” 

For Tony and Justin, all it took was a pandemic.

 “When Covid hit, practically overnight I lost my job,” Tony said. “Foolishly, I had assumed I’d be in that job for life and wasn’t conscious about saving money. It wasn’t long after that we were evicted from our rented house. I only told a few people I trusted what was going on. I figured I’d figure it out.”

A friend of the couple suggested a local shelter for unhoused men. 

“There is no way in hell you’d ever find me in one of those places,” Tony said. “They’re filthy, unsafe and most of the people are drug addicts, mentally ill, or both.” 

Figuring it out meant living out of their car,  he said. The couple had always enjoyed weekend getaways to Atlantic City and decided to park there. 

“Atlantic City is a 24-hour town,” Tony said. “The casinos all have nice bathrooms and we knew where the good free buffets were. So, we could eat and clean up and no one would ever know we were homeless.”

Having spent a lifetime working in I.T. Tony secured short-term gig work. Most were day consulting, but the small amount of money he made would go to a down payment on their next apartment. The couple didn’t expect the extreme difficulty they’d face when trying to rent. Since they were evicted from their prior home for not paying their rent they couldn’t find anyone willing to take a chance on renting to them without putting down an astronomical security deposit. Cutting costs to save for a down payment on a new apartment forced them to make decisions they never dreamed they’d make. 

“ As God is my witness I’ve never stolen a thing in my life. That all changed not long after we became homeless,” Tony said. “We discovered a grocery store outside Atlantic City that was understaffed. We’d go in and purchase small items, but end up stealing enough food to keep us fed for the next few days. This is horrible to say, but it’s the truth. No one suspects two, well-dressed white men of shoplifting. It was ridiculously easy. You do what you’ve got to do.”

In late 2023, tired of keeping their situation a secret, the couple confessed their situation to Justin’s father. He was able to give the pair enough money for them to get a short-term room rental where the couple now reside. Recently they have been informed that the owner is selling and they’d need to find new accommodations and the steady job hunt continues.

“I was hoping I’d have landed a full-time job by now, but have not had any luck,” Tony said. 

The couple were also hoping to get Section 8 housing which provides affordable housing for low-income residents. But the wait for Section 8 housing in Philadelphia is between 3 to 5 years, with roughly 10,000 applicants on the list.

“We have just over a month before we need to move out and have no clue where we’ll go,” Tony said. “We lived out of the car once so I suppose we can do it again if need be.”

People who are employed and homeless, is by no means a new phenomenon. Marjorie Preston knows this all too well after living out of her red Toyota Corolla for 13 months beginning in 2004. The house cleaner and freelance writer from suburban Philadelphia said she decided to flee overwhelming debt by giving up her apartment and the bills that came with it. Preston owed the IRS just under $25,000.

 “I planned it. I chose it,” Preston, 67, said. “There was no way out of my financially sticky situation if I didn’t cut something out of my budget.”

Marjorie Preston

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is currently set at $7.25 an hour which puts decent housing out of reach for most low-income workers. The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania reports that people who are paid minimum wage must work 86 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. They also reported that 50 percent of workers do not earn enough during a 40-hour work week to afford it.

Her combined income from writing and cleaning houses was just enough to cover her expenses. She realized something had to give. Her home would have to go. The $600 monthly rent plus utilities would now go towards paying down her debt.

“I was not looking to achieve financial security, she said.” I was looking to get out from under the clutches of the IRS.” 

Preston rented a Post Office box and used a local gym to shower. But she kept her status a secret.

 “No one knew I was homeless, not even my daughter, “ she said .“I certainly didn’t volunteer it.  I kept a strict routine, going to work every day, and talking on the phone to friends and family, and since I lived alone it was not unusual for me not to see people regularly. As far as I knew at the time, no one suspected anything was wrong.”

Sleeping in her car was not something she easily adapted to.

 “The first night sleeping in my car I felt extremely exposed and uncomfortable,” Preston said. 

Within a few days, she discovered a 24-hour rest stop , The Biden Welcome Center, on the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware that was close enough to work yet far enough away that she felt it unlikely anyone she knew would recognize her.  She noticed that many truck drivers utilized this location to get some sleep before hitting the roads to their next destinations. 

The Biden Welcome Center, on the Pennsylvania, Delaware border is where Preston parked here car and lived. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

“It was the perfect spot,” she said.“I felt safe. There was a bathroom and a couple of 24-hour restaurants. It was close to work and my family.” 

Along with truckers, there was a sizable contingent of people just like her. 

“There were certainly others there like me, living out of their cars, but I did not go out of my way to befriend anyone,” she said. “I think if I did it would be a tacit acknowledgement that I was homeless. I liken it to when someone has a drinking problem and I’ve heard this often, it’s excruciating for them to admit they are an alcoholic. By verbalizing it becomes the truth. I just wasn’t able to face the truth, which was I was a 40-something homeless woman.” 

She lived at the rest stop for over a year. 

“At one point I got really, really sick. I had no money and no insurance so I couldn’t go to the doctor for a diagnosis and treatment,” she said. “I had to sit in my car and wait it out. It was over two weeks of feeling like I was going to die and I had nowhere to go.” 

Out of the blue, her brother called informing her that he was moving out of his apartment and if she knew anyone interested in taking it over. The monthly rent on that apartment was considerably lower than what Preston had paid on her prior house. Without divulging her secret Preston enthusiastically jumped at the offer.  After 13 months of being unhoused her IRS bill was cut down considerably.  Her days and nights of calling her Toyota Corolla her home ended.

“There are a myriad of reasons why people find themselves homeless, many beyond their control,” she said. “In my case, I knew I had it in me to change this. I had my own Scarlett O’Hara moment. I just told myself, as God is my witness I’ll never be homeless again. And I haven’t.”

That was 20 years ago and the issues that Preston, who currently lives in  Brigantine, NJ, faced have not gone away.

 “I’m appalled that some people have to work two jobs just to afford housing,” she said. “Everyone should be able to afford a decent place to live.”

With luxury apartments rising enmass , affordable housing is even harder to find.

“The reason we are in this housing affordability mess is that we have made choices about the kinds of housing we are building that leave so many Philadelphians out in the cold while enriching big corporations who are building, renting, and selling luxury apartments,” Bello said. “As our housing problems worsen, we have to make choices that put people who need affordable places to live first.”

Published on April 2, 2024