An invisible tragedy: the plight of homeless families in Beaufort County
Jennifer (not her real name) stuffed as much as she could into two large black garbage bags. Her older child, Randall, 6 years of age, didn’t understand why they had to leave the only home he had ever known. Cindy, the baby, was too young to comprehend what was going on but sensed, as children often do, that something was amiss.
Jennifer was not a “lazy welfare queen” (as some insist on stigmatizing poor single women with children). She had worked consistently since graduating from high school as a waitress and convenience store clerk making just enough ($2.90 plus tips and $8 per hour, respectively) to afford a two-bedroom apartment, food and a monthly car payment. So, when the restaurant in which she was working closed, she was left without income, unable to pay the rent. Her landlord evicted her soon thereafter.
For the first five weeks of homelessness, Jennifer, Randall and Cindy stayed with her grandmother. She then moved in with an aunt. But when the aunt died, they were left without a roof over their heads. Homeless. Shelter-less. Adrift in a world that did not seem to care.
The number of homeless families in the nation and county
Out of an estimated 550,000 homeless people in the nation, about 35 percent are homeless families (192,500), according to 2016 federal data. That’s the number that could be found and counted. But many more are “invisible” — tucked away in seedy motels and doubled up in friends’ or relatives’ homes. About 2.5 million American children, half of them under the age of 5, experience homelessness at some point each year.
On the local level, according to Greg Singleton, executive director of federal programs for the Beaufort County School District, in 2017, 124 county students were without permanent housing.
The consequences of homelessness to children can be life-changing and lifelong. Children need stability to develop into productive adults. Many, according to Singleton, struggle to attend school regularly. Most are not able to get a good night’s sleep, making it difficult to remain alert in class. Some have higher rates of mental health issues, behavioral problems and delayed development.
Good times for some
The United States has enjoyed an unusual stretch of economic expansion over the last 10 years. Until recently, the stock market was at record levels, and wages increased for many workers.
Like the nation as a whole, Beaufort County and the City of Washington have enjoyed economic growth as well. But their poorest residents have not shared in that success. The lowest 10 percent of earners in North Carolina have seen their average wages diminish 2.6 percent over the past decade. Meanwhile, top earners — those in the 90th percentile — have enjoyed the biggest wage increases since 2007.
Adding insult to injury, for the poorest county citizens, wages have not increased enough for them to afford adequate housing. Simply put, wages have not kept pace with mortgage payments and rent.
For example, as of 2016, the per capita income in Beaufort County was $22,979 and the median gross monthly rent was $632, which is 35 percent of gross income. According to state studies, the average county renter can only afford a rent of $415 per month.
When an apartment renter spends over 30 percent of his or her income on monthly rent payments, the rent is said to be unaffordable. Forty-two percent of renters in Beaufort County fall into that category. In other words, 42 percent of the county’s renters are technically unable to afford a two-bedroom apartment, because their housing expenses (including utilities) comprise more than 30 percent of their budgets.
In addition, to afford a two-bedroom unit at $632 per month, a worker would have to earn $12.46 per hour which far exceeds the state’s minimum wage of $7.25. This means that a person earning the minimum wage would have to work 69 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom unit.
The implications for poor families are clear. In an environment where rent alone can account for 30 to 50 percent of income, evictions are becoming commonplace.
Next week, we will examine how the shortage of affordable homes and apartments in Beaufort County adds to the difficulties of single parents in finding safe and secure housing for themselves and their children.
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