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The invisible tragedy: homeless families in Beaufort County

(This is the second installment of a two-part series on homeless women and children in Beaufort County.)

A single mother named Brittany moved to Beaufort County from Tennessee with her two children when she lost her job as a cashier at a grocery store in Nashville. The chain that owned the store decided to close it as part of a consolidation. Brittany moved to Washington because a family member had assured her that she and the children could stay with him in his two-bedroom apartment. But once they got to North Carolina, Brittany discovered that he had changed his mind.

Brittany did not have enough money to return to Nashville or rent a motel room. Without any other options, she decided to join others families in similar circumstances and sleep in her car in a local mega-store parking lot. During the day, she visited local churches and other nonprofit agencies in search of assistance. A local nonprofit agency gave Brittany a voucher to stay in a local motel, but it was only good for three nights. When that ended, she and the children were back on the streets. In the absence of a home or an apartment, Brittany relied on the goodwill of Washington dockmasters who allowed her and the children to take baths at the Dock House on the waterfront.

One day, a local merchant noticed Brittany and her children on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant in downtown Washington and hired her part-time as a dishwasher. She tried to save enough money to rent a place of her own, but soon learned that most landlords in the area require the first month’s rent and a damage deposit in advance.

“It’s hard to save money when you’re living in a car,” Brittany explained.

Several factors outside the control of individuals like Brittany have made it increasingly difficult to purchase a home or rent an apartment in Beaufort County.

 

  • Monthly rental payments continue to increase while low income wages have been stagnant for several years, forcing renters to pay more with less income.
  • The number of housing units affordable to the working poor has decreased so that it is more difficult to find and keep shelter.
  • Investment in government affordable housing programs has not kept up with demand. The number of apartment owners who accept government subsidies (like Sub-Section 8 vouchers) is many times less than the number who need to use them.

 

In addition, across the county, there is a deficit of rental apartments for both low-income families ($23,600) and extremely low-income families ($20,420). Despite high demand, developers aren’t racing to build affordable housing units because, according to most developers, it’s difficult to make money on that kind of project.

What about public housing?

The Washington Housing Authority is the government agency licensed in Beaufort County to award Sub-Section 8 vouchers for rent assistance and to place persons in apartments owned by the agency. This is not a “free ride,” however, as some might imagine. Rental Assistance only provides subsidies that pay a portion of a renter’s monthly rent and utilities. Renters are responsible for the remainder.

In addition, applicants for Sub-Section 8 and Washington Housing Agency units are usually forced to wait years, not months, to be awarded a voucher or subsidized apartment. The waiting list for agency-owned apartments is currently 537; the list for Sub-Section 8 vouchers is 444.

Housing as a universal human right

Homelessness is especially harmful to the physical and mental health of children. Maybe that’s the reason why housing has been explicitly set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other widely adhered to international human rights treaties and declarations as a fundamental human right. Despite widespread recognition of the right to adequate housing, however, many residents of North Carolina and Beaufort County continue to suffer the deleterious consequences of the absence of shelter.

Several local non-profit agencies and churches offer assistance and give generously to help men, women and children denied the right of shelter. Find one; volunteer your time and treasure. Speak or write to local councilpersons and commissioners and state and national senators and representatives. Ask them to increase the amount of money available for programs that assist the homeless and that build subsidized housing units.

It’s often said that charity begins at home. If so, I can think of no better opportunity for charitable engagement than helping our fellow county and city residents who, often through no fault of their own, are forced to endure the indignities and shame of homelessness. Working together, we can make a difference.

Polk Culpepper is a board member of the Open Door Community Center, a homeless women and children’s shelter opening soon in Beaufort County.