Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Leg to Stand On

I am a visual person and sometimes picturing things helps me conceptualize ideas I'm trying to explain. Employment for the homeless is an issue we have discussed a great deal on this blog, and it is important to see the connection between confidence and competence. If an individual has poor self image, it effects their job performance.

Imagine your self-esteem is a table and the legs represent your health, work, home and emotional support respectively. If one leg buckles, it puts pressure on the others. If another leg goes, the table crashes to the ground. Each one is connected to the other, and while they stand alone, the picture is not complete unless each one works in conjunction with the others. Imbalance leads to collapse. This simple analogy not only helps explain how anyone can become homeless, but also why getting homeless people back into sustained work is a complex challenge. Sadly, we often see just the surface of the broken table without understanding which leg is broken.

Getting homeless people into sustained employment is not just about putting a roof over their heads and bringing their qualifications, interview techniques and experience up to par. These factors are important but, in isolation, do not help solve the problem with lasting permanence. You can give someone a house, but they're still mentally homeless if they don't know how to interact with others. These social and interpersonal variables need to be changed to constants.

Many homeless people people lack life skills that are grown and cultivated by simply living in a stable and fixed environment. These include self-confidence, self-awareness and the ability to structure a day. Things that many housed people take for granted, as part of a daily routine, must be relearned by people who transition from being homeless to having a permanent address. Most people who have a support network of friends, family and work take these skills for granted. But without them, sustaining employment can be incredibly difficult.

Job services and employment counseling are key components in the ready-to-work scheme. Clearly, sustainable employment will be difficult if long-term support in the workplace is not mirrored outside it. If a person has stable housing but has a current mental health or substance abuse problem with which they are not getting any support, it is going to put a strain on employment. Work alone is not enough to prevent people from falling back into homelessness, although the value of sustainable employment cannot be underscored.

An essential step forward in terms of homelessness would be to step back and focus on the skills that can give someone a quality of life. Funding for programs that accomplished this, rather than just those that put a roof over people's heads, are vital for the construction of a lasting and efficient system. Thinking needs to change in seeing life skills as the way out of homelessness. Perhaps then our table will have a leg to stand on.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Just the Beginning

Homelessness is not often synonymous with employment. The very nature of homelessness implies an incredible deficit that must be overcome. It stands to reason that if a person is homeless, they must also be jobless. But these terms are not mutually exclusive and over the years at Samaritan House, many of our residents were employed at various places. It’s impossible to say how many, but it’s likely that a significant number of people experiencing homelessness are employed, have an employment history, or are seeking employment.

Statistics are interesting because you can make them say whatever you want. Polls can be skewed and numbers wrangled to transform majorities into minorities and vice versa. So, while hard numbers were difficult to ascertain for this topic, I hope the sentiment peeps through in spite of the lack of concrete numbers. Homeless people who are employed often face the same challenges as many other workers: low wages, underemployment, and temporary and sporadic opportunities.

Unemployment for the homeless is often due to a combination of obstacles such as lack of experience, physical or mental health barriers, challenges related to re-entry from incarceration or hospitalization, and homelessness itself. And while each one of these, by itself, can be crippling, the culmination of a few of them can be downright debilitating. During times of widespread economic hardship when the job market tightens and more applicants compete for fewer opportunities, homeless applicants are at a distinct disadvantage. We  can take a look at some of these factors in my next blog, later this week.

To combat this problem, programs can focus on a few key factors to help this population achieve economic security. After all, ending homelessness will never happen if we don't address the issues that render a person homeless. Permanent housing is never permanent until employment sustainability is achieved.  For this to work, a few key components of these programs should include:

A coordinated system of training
Employment development
Financial literacy education
Traditional supportive services

Employment services can help people build the skills necessary to increase their income, attain financial independence, and maintain housing. Such services have also been shown to increase confidence and positive mental health outcomes, even for populations traditionally believed to be unsuitable for regular employment. Integrating homeless populations into the workforce is also important for reasons beyond building confidence and self-sufficiency. Employment reduces the burden on social services, broadens the base of taxpayers, and encourages scalable community collaborations and partnerships to address issues of homelessness, unemployment, and poverty.

It sounds a bit trite and simplistic, but it is the truth: the entire community wins if there are economic opportunities for the homeless. In all my years of working and interacting with homeless people, one overwhelming theme constantly expresses itself. This is the desire of most people to work. Employment allows a framework for autonomy and an opportunity for the individual to make the proper steps toward permanent housing. But having a job and keeping a job are two entirely different things.

More on that, next.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Minimum in Montana

My previous blog focused on the challenges of what a person living on minimum wage faces.  I'm continuing this theme by examining the issue from our own Montana perspective. It would be great if living wages were higher and people were not forced to exist on the lowest amount possible, but that is simply not reality.

Again, this is not an article advocating for increasing the minimum wage in the United States. There are several people on both sides of the issue who can make sound arguments and I will leave the debate to them. Instead, I am simply going to give some tips on how a person can live on minimum wage because there are thousands of Montanans doing this every day.

A full time minimum wage worker in Montana working will earn $322.00 per week, or $16,744.00 per year. Montana's minimum wage rate as of February, 2015 is $8.05 per hour. So, here you go... Some practical tips dedicated to cutting expenses when every single nickel counts.

1. Find a place to live within walking or biking distance to your job and for less than half of your income. This means a living situation where rent and utilities cost no more than $500 a month. Being able to get to work reliably and for free will contribute significantly to your income stability, both by cutting costs, and by making sure you don't lose hours due to car problems or missed buses.

2. Consider going rural. There are many small towns in Big Sky Country where you can find a room to rent for $100 a month and a small apartment to rent for $200 a month. These areas often have lots of jobs for minimum wage workers – look for an area with lots of "help wanted" signs around these towns and notices inside of town halls and gas stations looking for workers.

3. Spend no more than $200 USD a month on household necessities (food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc). The only way to pull this off is to cook pretty much everything yourself (buy raw ingredients instead of pre-prepared food), or get government assistance. If the store isn't within walking or biking distance, or isn't reachable by public transportation, shop only once a month.

4. Limit leisure spending and learn how to live within yourself means. Perhaps buying clothing at a thrift store can save a great deal of cash. Have discipline and strengthen your character because the more money you can save for a rainy day, the better. Always look for free alternatives. Libraries provide free entertainment in the forms of books, music, and internet access. There are parks, recreational activities, and other things even in the smallest of rural towns. Take advantage of Montana's beauty.

5. Cut cellular and cable costs. Cellular plans usually cost about $30 a month. If you don't use all the minutes in your cell plan, a prepaid or pay-as-you-go phone may save you a lot of money. Or, consider not getting a cell phone at all, if you can function without one. Cable TV often costs at least $20 a month and goes unused. Consider dropping your cable subscription altogether and instead watch TV on free online streaming services. Use the internet in libraries to save money.

6. Save for medical and other emergencies. It is generally difficult to get health insurance through a minimum wage job. These steps leave you with about $170. That's enough for an individual monthly health insurance premium if you're in very good health to begin with, and if you choose a high deductible. But if you have a medical emergency, you'll still have to pay out of pocket until you meet that deductible! This is extremely important because even a small medical emergency can cost a lot of money that you don't have, and make you miss some work.

7. If you're in debt, try to pull the money to pay it off from other categories. Do not use this money for anything other than medical emergencies. That's the only way it'll build up. If there's something else you need (e.g. furniture, appliances) budget for it out of your leisure or food money.

8. Save automatically. Keep some of your money in a checking account sufficient for paying bills, then go to the library and use the internet access there to set up an online automatic savings plan there to withdraw periodically from your main checking.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Reality (Check) of Minimum Wage

Recently, a national fast food chain partnered with a credit card company to make a website dedicated to show its employees how to properly budget salaries. The results were interesting because what it actually showed was that it is nearly impossible to get by on minimum wage.

Sample Monthly Budget for Fast Food Chain
Monthly Net Income
Income (First Job) $1,105
Income (Second Job) $955
Other Income 0
Monthly Net Income Total $2,060

Monthly Expenses
Savings $100
Mortgage/Rent $600
Car Payment $150
Car/Home Insurance $100
Health Insurance $20
Heating 0
Cable/Phone $100
Electric $90
Other $100
Monthly Expenses Total $1,260

Monthly Spending Money $800
(Monthly Net Income Total
minus Monthly Expenses Total)

Daily Spending Money Goal $27
(Monthly Spending Money
divided by 30 days)

At first glance, it might appear the top line was for a part-time employee. After further examination with a calculator, this actually represents what a person would make if they worked full-time at this particular fast food chain: $1,105 dollars a month.

Now let’s say that the “second” job that budgeted in here is also minimum wage. That would mean someone was working about 62 hours a week, on average. Oh, wait... Did I mention this only applied if they live in Illinois, where the minimum wage is $8.25. The national minimum wage is $7.25. That translates to 74 hours a week. That’s almost a whole other full time job.

And what does a person get for working 74 hours a week? Not heat, clearly. In some buildings, there are separate checks for gas and electric. This means mean that the person does not get to heat and cool their home. It also that demonstrates they do not get to heat their water, or cook on their stove, if they have a gas stove.

Also noticeably absent in this budget? Food. And gas. There’s a line for a car payment, but not for gas. This is criminal, because if an individual is working two jobs it’s possible they will pay more for gas than they would pay for their car.

Also… health insurance for $20 a month? There is really no such thing as health insurance for $20 a month if you’re buying your health insurance on your own. I think the least amount is going to be about $215 a month– and that only covers hospital emergencies.

And herein lies the great disconnect. Charts and graphs fail to adequate represent real people. Arguments rage over bottom lines and decimals but the reality of the matter is that too many people are too busy working too many hours for too little money. Creating a feasible and realistic living wage means more than altering the minimum one. It means we take into account the worth of a person and try to provide compensation that allows them to live more than a minimalistic lifestyle.

Information courtesy of

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Homeless and Pregnant

Here is some additional information regarding the challenges facing homeless teens who become pregnant.

Although the teen pregnancy rates continue to decrease, it still remains an issue of great concern. Studies have shown that approximately 850,000 U.S. teenagers became pregnant and nearly 475,000 babies were born to these teens. One population at increased risk is homeless youth; research indicates as many as 20% of homeless young women become pregnant.

These pregnant, homeless teens are at increased risk for low-birth weight babies and high infant-mortality because of inadequate health care, poor dietary habits, and a lack of prenatal care due to their poor economic and social resources. Their problems are exacerbated by a high risk for psychological problems, often as a result of abusive and/or neglectful relationships, victimization, and housing instability. This study investigates predictors of teen pregnancy among a national sample of runaway/homeless youth.

Among youth who experienced pregnancy, 80% were females and 20% were males reporting they had fathered a child. Youth averaged 16 years of age and 90% remained single. Those reporting pregnancy had significantly lower rates of returning home to their parents upon shelter exit as compared to non-pregnant peers.

Studies showed that youth who were older, non-white, had dropped out of school, or reported gang membership, were more likely to be pregnant or have fathered a child. However, those who abused or sold drugs were less likely to report pregnancy. Among family variables, youth who had been emotionally abused by mothers or lived with someone other than parents before shelter admission were significantly more likely to report a pregnancy.

Pregnancy presents a challenge for any teenager; but for runaway/homeless youth, difficulties are amplified. With housing instability, runaway/homeless pregnant teens often seek shelter services; these youth are likely to have multiple difficulties often impossible to address during short-term shelter admissions, such as academic difficulties, parental abuse, and problems associated with gang involvement.

Beyond immediate medical care and basic services, shelter providers must be aware of the various difficulties associated with entry into the shelter system among these highly vulnerable pregnant teens. Discharge from shelter must include attention to housing stability as well as safety for the youth and their child. Over the longer term, findings strongly suggest the need for post-shelter care that provides educational and emotional support to this vulnerable population. In addition, coordination between shelters and teen pregnancy programs appears warranted.

*Thanks to NCH and NHA.

Monday, February 16, 2015


Joanna* enters the urgent care clinic and pauses to survey her surroundings. The waiting room is dimly lit and sparsely populated. The matted carpet has more stories to tell than any library and she's certain there are no magazines within 4 years of the current year.

Her health teeters back and forth between marginal and undernourished. She is five months pregnant and understands she needs to make decisions in the best interest of her child. It is difficult finding a ride from the shelter to her appointments. Everything in her life seems accelerated and wishes time could be reversed and permit her to make different decisions.

Outside, the torrential downpour relents for a few minutes and she watches the water collect in slow-forming drips on the end of her umbrella. Methodically, they bombard the carpet in a steady rhythm as she sits and waits for her name to be called. Raising a child alone will be daunting and her lack of a support network exacerbates an already inflamed situation. As the abuse grew more frequent, she needed to make a choice between being housed and in jeopardy or becoming homeless but safe. One day everything would calm down and she would get her bearings.

But that day had not yet arrived.

Joanna kept a faint smile pursed on her lips and avoided eye contact. And while no one else in the room judged her, she was her own constant critic. She used to believe in fate and destiny and all the trimmings that accompanied a million other sunny dispositions. But as the events of the past 2 weeks unfolded, she wasn't sure about anything, anymore. Her only certainty was the notion that she had little to count on. Her parents told her not to get involved with him and cut her off as soon as she got pregnant. At 19 years old, she felt much older.

All of her possessions were at his place but she knew better than to try and retrieve them. She burned every bridge by sneaking out in the middle of the night. And she knew he was honestly relieved when she left because he wanted all the benefits of a grown up relationship but none of the responsibilities. The abuse began shortly after she presented him with a cigar and the news.

The shelter had family housing and told her she could stay until after the baby was born and Joanna could get back on her feet. But with only a GED, it would prove challenging to find work that could sustain her and the child. And she felt like an absolute failure for bringing a baby into the world, straight to a homeless shelter. The odds were stacked against her but she knew she could still write her own story. And just before her name was called for her checkup, her eyes caught a glimpse of a quote in a tattered and worn out paperback she had been skimming through while she waited:

And for all his life it would be kindness and love that made him cry, never pain or persecution, which on the contrary only reinforced his spirit and his resolution.”

She smiled an authentic grin, closed the book, and then stepped into the rest of her life.

*Not her real name

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Devistating Effects of Stress

We all experience stress. Some of it is legitimate and other times we court it ourselves. Different problems can produce specific levels of stress and fatigue. As adults, we learn (hopefully) to cope and move on. But what about the effects of stress on kids.

Homeless children are confronted with stressful and traumatic events that they often are too young to understand, and this leads to severe emotional distress. Homeless children worry about where they will sleep on a given night, and if they have a place to sleep, they are afraid of losing it. Older children worry about being separated from friends and pets, and they fear that they will be seen as different among new peers at school. Honestly, these are all things that kids should not have to deal with.

They also worry about their families: their parents, whose stress and tension is often shared with the children, and their siblings, for whom they see themselves as primary care givers. More than half of homeless children surveyed also said that they worried about their physical safety, especially with regard to violence, guns, and being injured in a fire. One-quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence in the family. These have lingering affects and, sadly, can seem normal to children. The more they view violence, the easier it becomes to accept.

Homeless children also experience stress through constant change, and these stressful changes accumulate as these children grow older. The average homeless child moves as many as three times in a year. As a kid, I moved but had the loving support of a family and a house to move to. Homeless children are seven times more likely than other children to be placed in foster care. Twenty-two percent of homeless children experience foster care or living with relatives, compared with three percent of housed children. Feelings of abandonment can reside with children long after the grow up. It is difficult to shed the notion that no one wants you.

These conditions manifest themselves in the behavior of homeless children. Often, boys exhibit aggression, while girls exhibit depression and passive or withdrawn behavior. Most often, homeless children can develop extreme indifference at school, and overt anger with their parents. Despite significantly more incidents of mental illness, less than one-third of these children actually receive professional help. In fact, as the severity of the mental illness increases, homeless children are less likely to receive adequate health care. It makes me reevaluate my own situation and what I call stress.

I am not trying to minimize what we all go through because people handle things differently. But the conditions leading to the stress in homeless kids are formidable for any person, let alone children who lack a stable support system. We frequently deal with kids at Samaritan House and helping families is chief among our concerns. If you would be interested in donations items specifically for kids, please feel free. Toys and arts supplies are just two things that are greatly appreciated and can provide a brief respite from a chaotic and stressful life.

Kids should be allowed to be kids.