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Friday, March 11, 2011

Homelessness and Poverty In An American Town

(a fictional account based on actual cases with names changed) - Part I in a series

In March, 1987, Ben Roberts and his three children, aged 13, 15 and 17 were evicted from a Section 8 apartment because Ben was not there when a worker from the Section 8 office came to inspect the apartment. He had called the housing office at 8:30 a.m. to say he wouldn’t be at his apartment due to an emergency hospitalization of his youngest boy with a bad asthma attack. A clerk promised to relay the message to the worker when she came in. Nevertheless, Roberts’ government housing subsidy was terminated, and he was subsequently evicted for non-payment of rent. He had had no knowledge that a free lawyer might be available to him and no notice that he had a right to a hearing before the termination of his rent assistance for alleged “non-cooperation.” After the eviction, Roberts lost his job as a school custodian in large part due to the many hours he had spent at the welfare office to get his family “placed” in emergency housing. He also suspected that his supervisor did not want a “homeless” man working at the school. The Roberts family was “placed” by the welfare department in a motel in a town some 25 miles distant. After three and a half months of searching for a job and an apartment, Roberts found work in as a maintenance man in a hospital. Roberts remained in a motel, because without housing assistance, his income was insufficient to enable him to rent an apartment. He would need at least two bedrooms, and in his search, he found nothing for less than $800 a month, and very little below $950 a month.

The kids used to be pretty happy about getting out of school, especially as the days lengthened. Play time now doesn’t exist for them, neither can they go out for a team, rehearse for the school drama or even get some extra help. If they come home by taxi, like the other motel kids, they must leave at once, the taxis don’t wait for extra curricular activities. Anyway, they don’t like the other kids seeing them get into those taxi, and the drivers can be pretty nasty. The Roberts boys take the public bus back home. It’s a good hour or more, but at least they have that option. Many children do not have a choice, living in motels fifty miles to the north. For those placed in out-of-county motels, it’s an hour or an hour and a half by taxi each way to school. Younger kids often fall asleep in class.

The boys get off the bus near a Grand Union; with no refrigerator at home, they shop often. From there, it’s a good half hour walk alongside the stream of traffic to get back to the motel room. They hate that walk, there’s no sidewalk, not much shoulder and no way to get off the road in some stretches. They pass mothers driving baby carriages as they go, but it’s the honking that infuriates them, gets to them the most, more than the dirt and fumes and squeezing by baby carriages. When they approach the motel in late afternoon sunlight, the grocery bags have to be hidden in a nearby culvert until dark, as though they were contraband. It used to terrify Mark to bring the bags into the motel after dark. In time, he got to think nothing of it; they had a system down pat with Benny keeping lookout for the security guard. You could always lie about what you had, say it was deli or cereal, milk whatever. But people were forever getting caught cooking and getting kicked out, “replaced,” they call it. So far, the Roberts had not been replaced. (To be continued)

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