Wake County school children are starting a new year in which they will be “rubbing elbows” with more homeless students than ever before. While the annual Point-in-Time homeless count indicates that family homelessness in our area remains relatively flat, it is primarily a count of shelter beds – the number of which has remained flat – along with those “on the streets or in cars.”
You will rarely find a homeless family on the street to “count.” They will find a family member, friend, or even an acquaintance to stay with a night or a week at a time. They might sleep in their cars if they are fortunate enough to have one – but somewhere safe where they are less likely to be noticed, like a 24-hour Walmart parking lot or a park. They will get a cheap motel room when they can afford one – exposing their children to a new kind of trauma (i.e. exposure to drugs, prostitution and violence).
Fortunately, the school system does consider these families homeless – and can provide support such as transportation and an assurance that they can stay in the same school regardless of where their homelessness takes them on any given night. According to recent data from the Wake County Public School System, the number of homeless children and youth in our school system has increased a mind-numbing 56 percent in the past seven years. Additionally, the numbers are increasing more rapidly – a whopping 27 percent in the past two years.
This is not a crisis of family homelessness but, rather, a crisis of housing affordability. Why are more and more families getting evicted or struggling to find a decent place to call home that is within their means? Because, for thousands in our community, these places don’t exist. There is currently a gap of 17,000 units for those considered “extremely low income” (less than $24,000 for a family of four in Wake).
Furthermore, 18,000 households pay more than half of their income for rent, with the vast majority of these being extremely low-income households. At Families Together, three-quarters of the more than 100 families we enroll each year have an employed adult in the household. However, hourly wages average about $10.50/hour – which, even at 40 hours/week, lands them squarely in that “extremely low income” category.
It is easy for a family to “live beyond their means” when half of their income goes to rent and the other $800 has to last a month and cover everything from food, utilities and transportation to clothes and child care (to name a few). Without employer benefits, any missed time is unpaid time, so even when a family is able to obtain housing, they often have significant trouble – and spend an inordinate amount of time on – remaining housed.
A few more facts to bring the point home: Most low-income families rent, but only 1 in 4 receive housing assistance. Of nearly 500,000 rental units in Wake, just 2 percent (less than 10,000) are considered affordable (non-subsidized units that are older/lack amenities) and only 11,500 are subsidized.
That’s the bad news, and unfortunately it gets worse. Nearly 6,000 publicly-assisted properties are scheduled to expire in the next decade – beginning with the recent/impending displacement of families and seniors at Forest Hills, Wintershaven and Sir Walter Apartments. And the rate at which demolition and rehab of older/affordable complexes is occurring – to make way for luxury apartments that price out current renters – is stunning.
The impact of homelessness on children is significant and it is long-lasting. It impacts their self-esteem, their ability to succeed in school, their health and their relationships. At Families Together, we believe that everyone deserves a home and no child should have to wonder where they are going to sleep at night. My hope is that we all believe this.
Lisa Rowe is executive director at Families Together, a 35-year-old nonprofit organization that moves families in Wake County from homelessness to independence.