By Ethan Ward
People experiencing homelessness are often locked out of opportunities to find a place to live, despite working full-time.
Curtis Banks, 29, knows how difficult it is all too well. He’s been living in his car on and off for the past two years while working a full-time job sanitizing patient rooms, restrooms and hallways inside hospitals.
“The whole process of apartment hunting is crazy because your average studio out here won’t be anything less than $900 and they want deposits,” Banks said. “Gotta have gas. Gotta have food. I pay my insurance. I keep my cell phone on so people can reach me. It’s just survival and half my wages are gone with every paycheck.”
This problem isn’t unique to Banks, who is paid $18 per hour at his job. Workers in other industries are affected too. For example, 14% of Kroger workers in Southern California, Colorado, and Washington said they were currently unhoused or experienced homelessness in the past year, according to a study released by the Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles research group that focuses on economic, social and environmental issues.
That report also found that more than two-thirds of Kroger workers struggle to find housing or food due to low wages, underscoring some of the reasons why the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to increase.
Banks, a Marine Corps veteran, knows about struggling to eat as well. For meals, he relies on PATH, a nonprofit that connects unhoused people with housing and services.
“I’ve had gift cards for Instacart to deliver groceries and if I really need it, I can go to the PATH office and they have a pre-packed lunch they provide if I really need it,” he said, adding the nonprofit was able to place him in a hotel temporarily while the vehicle he sleeps in undergoes repairs.
"The best thing I can do is keep myself working and keep myself healthy. As long as I'm working, I'll have some kind of chance to save or pay for the things I need."
— Curtis Banks, an unhoused man who works full-time
Being able to provide nutritious meals presented in a caring way matters, said Steve Fiechter, senior director of Metro L.A. programs at PATH. Feichter says that is key to engaging and building trust with people experiencing homelessness.
Much of the food provided by PATH is rescued from grocery stores and prepared by volunteers and staff. Those needing help include grocery workers. Kroger workers, for example, currently only get 10% discount on Kroger brands, so that means they aren't able to buy produce, according to Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable.
A spokesperson for Kroger disputed the Economic Roundtable’s report saying it’s misleading. The supermarket chain says they’ve significantly raised wages by 22% since 2017, from $13.66 to $16.68. Kroger said its compensation is comparable to their peers in the grocery and retail industries.
Issues among full-time workers struggling with food and housing costs have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Banks was working for a Mercedes Benz dealership as a porter when he was furloughed in January 2020. That was a couple of months before pandemic lockdowns were put in place by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Banks then was unable to find a job until last summer, when he taught swim classes at a center in Orange County and then later, his current role as a cleaner.
But after contracting COVID-19 over the holidays, Banks had to quarantine for two weeks, without pay. He believes he contracted the virus because he didn’t have a place to go where he could properly clean himself after working his shifts at the hospital.
Data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that workers across the country would need to make nearly $25 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment and $20.40 per hour for a one bedroom apartment. And 40% of workers nationwide cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment.
COVID's Impact On Homelessness
According to a study on homelessness and unemployment during the pandemic, loss of jobs and income will cause the number of unhoused workers to increase each year through 2023 in Los Angeles and the United States. The report found that without large-scale government intervention, the pandemic will cause twice as much homelessness as the 2008 Great Recession.
Latinos and Black people will bear the brunt because incomes for this demographic already skew lower than their white counterparts, according to the study. After several COVID-related delays, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority will conduct a count of unhoused people for 2022 next month. The total number of people experiencing homelessness was roughly 66,000 people in 2020, the last time the usually annual survey was done. That number is expected to rise in this new assessment.
Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, said the city needs to figure out better ways to get help to people.
"We’ve seen rents rise very dramatically in the last 18 months here in Southern California. That likely more than anything else is what continues to put pressure on homelessness."
— Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate
“One of the big determinants of homelessness is how housing is expensive relative to income,” Green said. “We’ve seen rents rise very dramatically in the last 18 months here in Southern California. That likely more than anything else is what continues to put pressure on homelessness.”
Green said workers who make $15 minimum wage and have a roommate would still be hard pressed to find an apartment they can afford in the area. Unhoused people looking for roommates are having an especially difficult time.
“Because of COVID, a lot of people don't want people in their house,” Banks said, adding that landlords are stricter about renting as well. “Even if you get a roommate, if something happens to them, especially with COVID, both of you are in jeopardy.”
Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, said wages for workers needs to increase so they can find places to live.
“I think that the smug disparagement of the dignity of work and the value of the heavy lifting people do to do the basic things of our lives is disrespectful,” Flaming said. “Where would we be without people who operate the utilities we rely on, who clean streets, who collect garbage, who deliver stuff, who drive trucks, who do a thousand things that we have to have happen to live our lives? It's disrespectful to those who come from families who did that kind of work.”
Banks said the nonprofit PATH is helping him find a permanent place to live.
“I’m always thinking about what if this doesn't work,” Banks said. “The best thing I can do is keep myself working and keep myself healthy. As long as I'm working, I'll have some kind of chance to save or pay for the things I need.”
The original article can be found here.