Raleigh doesn’t lack for “best place to live” plaudits, but that praise obscures another aspect: For the poor, Raleigh is becoming a harder place to live.
As the city and region attract more people and businesses, the cost of living grows, too. It’s especially clear in the rise in rents, the shrinking stock of affordable housing and the rise in homelessness.
And while the unemployment rate is low, wages for low-income people are actually shrinking in North Carolina. The NC Justice Center reports that the state’s lowest 10 percent of earners have seen their wages shrink by 2.6 percent over the past decade.
The News & Observer’s Henry Gargan illustrated the human impact of these trends in a recent story on rising homelessness that focused on the plight of Vanezza Bates and her 11-year-old daughter.
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After separating from her husband, who is not the father of her daughter, Bates lost her rented room in Durham and took to living in her car until it was repossessed. Bates was living in public housing but was evicted for possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. The waiting list to get back in is long.
Now the mother and daughter scramble to sleep at the home of friends or with Bates’ 70-year-old grandmother, who lives in public housing where overnight visits are limited. Bates finds occasional work, but it’s hard without transportation and a regular address. Her daughter is among the growing ranks of homeless children in Wake County schools. During the 2016-17 school year, 3,465 students were considered homeless, up from 2,940 the year before.
The Bates story shows that a rising tides doesn’t lift all ships. Some of them, it swamps. The problem is made worse by tight-spending policies on the federal and state levels. Raleigh’s supply of public housing has decreased from 2,000 units in 1998 to 1,450 today even as the city has grown by more than 185,000 people.
In response, Raleigh has raised its property tax rate to generate about $5.7 million a year for affordable housing. Meanwhile, the city and Wake County have joined to spend $7 million for the Oak City Outreach Center to assess and counsel the homeless and provide for basic needs. It will open in about a year.
These are good steps, but the Raleigh and Wake County governments and the Triangle’s business community have to do more to help people caught in the transition as housing prices rise and wages for the working poor don’t keep up. What “do more” means is part of a debate in every growing city where people are pushed out of homes and to where homeless people gravitate in search of better opportunities and services.
One thing is certain. While there are quick fixes to homelessness – more shelters and free meals – there are not quick solutions. The local governments, businesses and religious communities must address the problem with a united front. That means focusing as much on preventing homelessness as responding to it.
Changing such austere rules as throwing people out of public housing because of a misdemeanor charge would be a start. Providing mail services that give the homeless an address would help. Putting addicts into treatment rather than jail in a key, as is expanding access to mental health services.
Many troubles lead to homelessness. It will take many ideas – and inevitably more money – to reduce homelessness. But the first step is for the city, the county and the region to recognize that growth also causes growing homelessness and launch a united effort to address it.