Just so you know...
This is part of a series of posts I have written about working and middle class homelessness in America. The rest are all on my blog: http://www.houseofperpetualdistraction.com/ I am writing these from the point of view of someone that has been there, and is currently going through this system. It is a heartbreaking journey, shared by too many who thought that if they just worked hard and played by the rules, their lives would turn out right. Being derailed by illness, accidents or tragedy was never part of their plan, and the fallout was far worse than they could have imagined.
If I were to paint a picture of the American Dream from 30 years ago, it would be a traditional family, with a father, mother, and 2 or 3 children living in a moderately sized home in a neighborhood with people with similar family compositions, jobs and income levels. They would know their neighbors, as they had all lived there for quite some time. One income, generally the father's, would be sufficient to handle all of the family's needs, and if additional income was needed, Mom would only have to work part-time, and the family would get a few wants, along with the needs. Days are productive, nights are peaceful, and all is well in the world.
Although this is still the goal of so many people in America, it has become more of a moving target, as the cost of living increases, while more and more Americans find themselves with jobs that pay less than their old one. Even those that have achieved a stable home on some level live in fear of the sudden layoff, and know they are holding on to what they have by their fingernails. No one wants to fall into the rental market, where one sudden misstep will land you in court, trying desperately to hang on to someplace to live. Once your credit report shows an Unlawful Detainer and a judgement, the cycle of homelessness will begin.
I went through this quite a bit when my son was younger, as I was working as a temp, and my employment gaps were just large enough to leave me unable to pay rent just long enough to be evicted. A five year stretch of functional homelessness, during which time my son and I couch (and floor) surfed, I had another child, and we lived in a motel for a year, that started with a long period of unemployment, and ended when I found my current apartment, taught me that I did NOT want to ever have to experience that with my children again. I took all the right steps to ensure that my children would have a safe stable place for the remainder of their childhoods.
Then there was a car accident that derailed all of my best intentions, followed by serious mistakes made in trying to keep everything paid (Panicked is not a good state of mind for decision making), followed by trying to work out payment plans for anything I could, to the final failure of the attempts to work out my rent payments and the ominous appearance of the ubiquitous 3-day notice. There is nothing quite as humiliating as the eviction process, if only because it is so very public. If you already felt like crap for having some terrible, income shrinking issue, the eviction process will make you feel completely conspicuous, and about ten times worse, what with all of the notices being posted on your front door, and process servers loudly banging on your door to make sure the entire building knows that you are having financial problems that have precluded you paying your rent.
I had not been through this process in 12 years before I went through it again this past month. To call it dehumanizing is an understatement, and the way the judges, lawyers, clerks and others that work in the entire industry that has sprung up around evictions treat tenants that are already going through some terrible misfortune as if they are some sort of intentional criminal is inexcusable. What hurt, more than seeing the huge number of people also going through this system meant to victimize them further through judgments that include court fees as well as back rent owed (on people that are already broke), is the fact that this is setting these same people up for long term homelessness.
Once you've been evicted and your credit report shows an eviction with a judgement, your likelihood of finding another apartment goes down to zero. With property management firms taking over neighborhoods and buildings that they used to avoid, the prospect of being able to speak with an actual owner who may want to give you a chance narrows, pushing people already on the outside of the rental market to the farthest margins. This can go on for years, while individuals and entire families try to find ways to live as normally as possible, given the fact that they are seen as untouchable in the rental market, living wherever they can find, whether it is meant to be a human habitat or not.
I went back and revisited a motel the kids and I lived at before I found the place I just lost, if only because we may need to return there. It's more expensive now (It's been 8 years, so yeah), but I did not miss the fact that there was only one one bedroom "suite" open. These temporary dwellings provide full kitchens and bathrooms, so that they may be set up to be used as a residence. Those that have just enough money to do this (barely), this is the end of the road before complete homelessness becomes their reality. For those of us with kids, it is our only way of providing some form of normalcy after already upsetting their lives by having to leave the place they called home for so long. Unfortunately, it's also a temporary solution that often becomes permanent, due to a lack of choices available for those who have been evicted before.
Here is how deep the rabbit hole goes: The Santa Monica courthouse, where I met my fate yesterday, had 34 eviction cases, give or take, seen in one courtroom in the morning session. When I was there last week, there were over a dozen in the afternoon. So given that my count is possibly off, they are still processing around 40 eviction cases per day, which would mean that roughly 200 families per week are in serious danger of losing their home or apartment. If we are going to consider this the average, we then multiply that weekly number by the four courthouses in Los Angeles county that hear eviction cases, and we are looking at 800 cases per week, or 32oo per month, all families falling out of the middle class and working class, onto an overburdened safety net that may not be able to help them anyway. I am not surprised in the least that California leads the nation in child homelessness. California might be where the jobs are, but when the open jobs are less than the outrageous cost of living, we fall back into the scenario above, and around and around it goes...
As a first world nation, it bothers me to no end that while we have turned our minds successfully to so many other things, we have yet to deal with the twin issues of affordable housing for the working class, and homeless families. It is being dealt with on local levels in places like Utah and Wisconsin, but it is a sad statement on the rest of the country that we can't create solutions on the scale needed without in-fighting between groups, and unchecked NIMBY-ism. Because Dog-forbid anyone would have to share credit with another group, or, GASP, live next door to someone who works as a mechanic or receptionist. Especially considering that it has been proven, time and again, that having a roof over one's head, is the most important step towards family stability.
So the American Dream has changed then, from a wish for mild affluence, to a fervent struggle for survival. People still dream of a home of their own, but realistically know that if they can at least keep an apartment, they are doing better than a good chunk of the population, who don't have a place to call home. Neighbors rarely know each other anymore, and children bounce from school to school, as their parents try mightily to keep them housed. And we work towards, I hope, real, lasting solutions to these issues.
Maybe. One day.