Affordable housing key to easing poverty
Early in her rebirth from substance abuse, Josette Ruiz found salvation at Ashby House in Salina.
"It's like a miracle, a godsend," she said. "You have those helping hands in front of you."
A nonprofit shelter for homeless women and their families, Ashby House provided the food, shelter and job training Ruiz needed after she emerged December 2007 from drug treatment in Hoisington.
The shelter put a roof over the heads of Ruiz and her three daughters, who had just been reunited with their mother after three months in foster care.
Within a month, Ruiz was working at Burger King and training to become a certified nurse's aide. Today, she rents a home from the Salina Housing Authority, is employed as a certified nurse's aide at Windsor Estates nursing home in Salina, and is still thankful for her second chance.
She plans to join the staff at Ashby House on Jan. 29.
"It's something I'm following my heart with," Ruiz said.
Ruiz was homeless only a short time before receiving help from the agencies in Salina. Her's could be considered a success story, but others aren't so lucky.
Tonight, some 167 people are likely homeless in Saline County; 197 in Reno County; 83 in Ellis County; 121 in Finney County and 81 in Franklin County -- 18,000 in Kansas -- according to estimates derived from a national study provided by Lisa Davis, Topeka, director of the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition. The nonprofit group aims to end homelessness in Kansas.
What put most in this desperate state were situations out of their control, she said.
Poverty has many more faces than the stereotype of a homeless person, especially in Kansas where rural homelessness is vastly different than in urban areas, Davis said.
"People think homeless people are transient, drinking Mad Dog 20/20, sleeping on a steam grate and pushing a shopping cart, talking to themselves," she said.
Instead, she said: "It's mostly families, women fleeing domestic violence. It's economically based."
In fact, only about 20 percent of those without shelter in Kansas can be considered among the "chronic homeless," Davis said. The other 80 percent temporarily become homeless because of a variety of circumstances and are served by family, churches and other local organizations.
For Kansans like Ruiz who are working to ascend from poverty, being able to find good quality, affordable housing is a key rung for climbing up the socioeconomic ladder, social services officials throughout the state say.
"The answer for homelessness is housing, providing whatever level of rental assistance they need and wrap-around services, like counseling, substance abuse treatment, job training, child care, transportation, anything someone needs to earn a living wage and have affordable housing," Davis said.
In many communities, though, housing isn't just a problem for the homeless. Because of high housing costs, many working families must spend too much of their income on shelter and utilities, said Shara Gonzales, president of New Beginnings, a nonprofit organization in Hutchinson.
Gonzales' group provides housing, job training, life coaching and other services to the homeless. She is also on the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition board of directors.
Federal cost of living guidelines indicate no one should spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and utilities, Gonzales said.
To stay within the 30 percent guidelines, housing costs for someone making $9 an hour shouldn't exceed $450 a month, said Gary Allsup, Topeka, the executive director of the Kansas Housing Resources Corp., which administers federal housing programs for Kansas.
Gonzales said that if your cost is higher, it's possible that other essentials are being compromised, she said.
The financial commitment is set at 30 percent "in order for you to afford everything else that you need to have; not what you want, but what you need," Gonzales said.
"Let's say we're at 50 percent. We still have the basics -- food, medicine, health care, transportation. You're going to eat less. Your kids are going to have less nutrition," Gonzales said.
Choices have to be made between feeding your family, buying the medicines you need, or paying the rent, she said. Then, what if the car breaks down and you can't get to work?
"Sooner or later, that whole house of cards comes tumbling down," she said. "Homelessness is the bottom end of the cycle of self-sufficiency."
In fact, many times, the difference between a struggling family becoming homeless or not depends on whether you have a network of friends to lean on, Davis said.
Even decent rental housing can be difficult to afford for many low-income workers, who often earn salaries that meet or only slightly exceed the minimum wage.
In order to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in Kansas, Davis said someone needs to make a minimum of $12.08 an hour.
"If somebody's working for ... ($5.85 an hour), they'd have to work 83 hours a week," she said.
There are 17,000 people in Kansas who make even less than that, such as some farm workers and companions for the elderly, Davis said, quoting state labor statistics.
The federal minimum wage, which covers most workers in Kansas, is $6.55 an hour and will increase to $7.25 an hour July 24, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
As a result of their low incomes, newer housing is often priced out of reach of poorer workers and they must typically look to a community's aging housing stock, which can be deteriorating and poorly insulated.
"What we're building now is not affordable to a lot of people," Gonzales said. "You have to either bring housing costs down or pay people more for the work they do."
However, depending on employers to simply pay more probably isn't the most realistic approach, she said.
"There are always going to be employers who can't afford to pay higher wages," she said. "We can build housing so people can afford to keep those jobs, so that those businesses can remain competitive."
A 'disaster' away
For Ruiz, who recently emerged from homelessness, home ownership would be her "dream." But at this point in time, that goal is still a ways off as she works to graduate from subsidized housing.
Although housing isn't the only factor, it is a staple in the recipe for curbing poverty, Allsup said. Putting someone like Ruiz back into their own affordable home points them back to the mainstream of society.
As a result, housing is a key to recovery, whether it be from substance abuse, a tornado or job loss. He said there's a "true connection" between housing and other vital aspects of life, such as health care, transportation, employment and nutrition.
"Once you get into that house, then you are able to address those other issues," Allsup said.
Homeless kids don't do as well in school, which affects graduation rates and employment, Allsup said, and those issues can become "a self-perpetuating cycle" that needs to be broken.
"We can spend all the money we want to in schools, but if children don't have a good, safe, secure home, all the money we spend in education is virtually useless," Allsup said.
In fact, dealing with the problem of providing affordable housing may save money in the long-run, some experts contend. The cost of managing chronic homelessness is more expensive than providing places and services to previously homeless tenants, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness reports.
In a November address at the National League of Cities 2008 Annual Congress of Cities and Exposition, ICH executive director Philip Mangano said the bill for a chronically homeless person is $35,000 to $150,000 a year to communities "to maintain the random ricocheting through public health and law enforcement systems".
By contrast, it can cost just $13,000 to $25,000 annually "to house and stabilize the same individual." Mangano's claim is based on 65 cost studies from around the country, according to the ICH Web site.
The model for lifting someone out of homeless starts with housing, said Davis, director of the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition. Gonzales said that other help must come later.
"You start with housing," Gonzales said. "It relieves some of the pressure. If they don't have the skills for higher paying jobs, they can still live in affordable housing and obtain those skills."
Too many people choose to ignore the homeless problem, Davis said, thinking it's due to mistakes made by the homeless or it's by choice.
"If people believe that, it absolves them from doing something about the problem or caring," she said. "The truth is, there are people who are one economic disaster away from being homeless. For the majority of folks who are homeless, it's from factors that are not in their control."