Our Community Blog: Karen Olson, Founder/President Emeritus, “In Search of Home”

August 29, 2016

KOlson_Casual2I must have spent an hour online, trying to find the right rug for Jordan, a five-year-old who had just left the Family Promise program to move into permanent housing with his mother.

Finally, I picked out a colorful rug decorated with fire engines, trucks and buses.  It was a small gesture, but I was excited about visiting him and his mother in their new home.

Celebrations such as this one with Jordan and his mom Alison – that is what we are all about at Family Promise —helping families to find homes of their own, and more than 75 percent do upon leaving the program.

Alison and Jordan were fortunate to secure an affordable two bed-room apartment in a two- story house – cozy and big enough for both of them – with a fenced in backyard on a tree-lined street.

And Alison now pays just $750 a month for an apartment that otherwise would cost $1,500, thanks to a partnership Family Promise has with a community development agency.

Yes, Alison and Jordan were lucky. It had been a rough year for them both.  Hours were cut back from Alison’s job as a hospital administrator, and child support payments stopped, creating a perfect storm. Soon Alison fell behind in her rent and ended up evicted and homeless.

During the 3 ½ months at Family Promise, Alison found a higher-paying job as a customer service representative for a local hospital. Still, she earned just $15 an hour, and while that is more than double the federal minimum wage, it is not enough to afford a fair market two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey – without help.

She was among millions of Americans who live on the brink of homelessness every day, facing agonizing choices: whether to put food on the table, repair the cars they need to get to work — or pay rent.

The sad fact is that for every three low-income renters, there is only one affordable unit available, pitting one family against each other in a vicious game of musical chairs. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NHLIC) tells us in its annual GAP report that there is a shortage of 7.6 million affordable housing units in America today.

In fact, there is no state in America where a minimum wage worker can afford a fair-market two-bedroom rental. It would take an unrealistic 90 hours of minimum wage work to come up with enough money to rent a modest apartment.

There is no getting around it – affordable housing is critical to solving homelessness. While there may be many precipitating causes to a family’s homelessness, few would actually result in homelessness if housing were made affordable for low wage earners.

Ending homelessness is within our power.  Affordable and successful housing models abound. Yet what we lack are the financial resources to invest in what works. To meet this critical need, Congress created The National Housing Trust in 2008 to provide a permanent, ongoing, dedicated source of income to build and rehabilitate housing for the lowest income households. However, it was to be funded by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Recession of 2008 stalled the program for nearly a decade.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recovered, and this year, the first funds of The National Housing Trust, $174 million, are to be divided among 50 states and released. While this is a start, it falls woefully short of the estimated $1 billion the trust was to receive annually before the Recession intervened.

A long-time friend in the fight to create affordable housing has been Representative Maxine Waters (D-43, CA), who in 2016  proposed the Ending Homelessness Act, which aims to appropriate $13 billion over five years. Five billion dollars of that funding is slated to go to the National Housing Trust Fund. Yet, as of today, the bill is still working its way through Congress. In the meantime, a decent and affordable place to call “home” remains elusive for too many.

Yes, home. It is something we can so easily take for granted. But it is where everything begins. It is where we nurture and care for our children, find respite after a long day, share laughter and create memories. It is where we gather with family and friends, enjoy a home-cooked meal and feel safe as the night closes in. Alison and Jordan now have this; however, the struggle goes on for millions of others in search of this dream.

We know how to end homelessness. Yet the question of whether we have the political will to ensure that every family can have access to a safe, affordable home remains unanswered.

For more information, follow these links:

Gap Report

Out of Reach 2016


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