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Our View: How working poor end up homeless

Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

If asked to picture a homeless person in our mind’s eye, one assumption we’re likely to make is that the person is unemployed.

In DeKalb County, that’s often not the case.

Lesly Wicks, the executive director of Hope Haven homeless shelter in DeKalb, says most of the people her agency serves would fall into the category of “working poor.” They’re working people who don’t earn enough to afford housing.

“[They are] people who work, but just don’t make enough of a living wage to afford housing,” Wicks told reporter David Thomas. “It is the gap between what people make and how much housing costs.”

Even in DeKalb – where a one-bedroom or studio apartment can be had for as little as $500 a month, some people who work 30 hours a week or more can not afford housing.

How can that be?

For one, most people have to come up with the equivalent of three months’ rent by the day they move into an apartment – one month’s worth as a refundable security deposit along with the last month’s rent at the time of lease signing, and the first month’s rent at time of move-in.

Landlords have those requirements to cover themselves if a tenant decides to break the lease. But in most cases, that’s going to cost a renter at least $1,500 to $1,800, no small amount of money when you’re strapped for cash.

According to “Out of Reach 2013,” a report released this month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, it’s nearly impossible for a low-wage earner to live independently without help, be it in the form of a roommate, a subsidy, or some other aid.

The report, viewable online at NLIHC.org, puts the fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit in Illinois at $885 a month. In order for a tenant not to be considered rent-burdened, e.g. paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent, they would need to earn $35,392 a year – about $17.02 an hour – to afford the fair market rent.

For many, the numbers don’t add up. Michelle Perkins, the executive director of the DeKalb County Housing Authority, says of the 844 households her agency subsidizes, 280 of them have some form of income, whether that is from a job, owning a business, or military pay. 

Meanwhile, the waiting list for subsidized housing has grown to 1,200 people – so many that only elderly and disabled applicants can be added.

“You’d have better luck with Cubs season tickets,” Perkins said.  

Of course, there are many underlying causes for homelessness, and not earning enough money is only one of them.

However, it bears noting that today’s homeless population is not merely those who are out of work or unable to contribute to society.

Many people are doing what they can and still struggling to make it.  

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