Perceptions

10/15/21

It is a Friday morning, the end of another school week for me.

A week filled with a lot of thunderstorms, rain, doctor’s appointments, and therapy.

As I was making my breakfast this morning and waiting for the coffee to get done, a few thoughts came into my mind that I wanted to put to paper.

The other day, my son and I were discussing all the “things” in my new apartment that still need to be unpacked. We had just finished laundry and I was hanging up my clothes. 

In that moment I had the realization of how far I have come.

In January of 2014, I made the decision to leave the life that I had been living for almost 17 years. The differences between myself and my then husband could not be reconciled.

I essentially was starting my life over and facing the daunting task of being a single person again. That first year was the hardest.  I literally had nothing. The constant fights over household items and some of my own personal items was still ongoing with my ex-husband. He would not let me even take a pot or pan to cook in. 

I was living in a two-bedroom apartment that I could not afford. I had no heat sometimes.  I only had a desk, couch, and a bed. I had little clothing, and no beds for my own children.  I was managing with the assistance from local food pantries and donations from my family.

It was after an intense conversation with my then husband, on the night of what would have been our 17th wedding anniversary, that I realized that I was truly alone.  It was overwhelming and I was in emotional crisis.  I made a promise to myself to keep going and not to give up which was hard to keep.

Afterwards, over the course of the next 2 years, I continued to struggle. I bounced between jobs, homes, and homelessness.  I had been hospitalized twice by that point for the major depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.  It was a hard road I was walking on.  I never gave up completely.  A sliver of hope was still there somewhere underneath all the pain, trauma, and spiraling thoughts.

I had one more episode of spiraling downward into the darkness in March of 2017 when I finally started rising back up again.  We were still going through the trauma of losing my ex-husband. Living in the grief and mourning. 

Now, 4 years later, I am feeling somewhat happy again.

I just moved into a new apartment that is much nicer than my last one.  I am in school pursuing a field of work that I wanted to go into when I first got married.  I am learning so much. A little too much at times, it is overwhelming, but I keep pushing through it. 

As I was putting away my laundry, I looked at my now closet full of clothes, shoes, and bags.  I had not given much thought about how fortunate I have been. I was just living the day to day and managing whatever came along.

The perception of life itself was somewhat altered when we moved my daughter to another state.

It was an exciting mini vacation for me.  We traveled to the west coast of the United States from the middle of the country.  I had never visited some of the western states we would drive through, and I was looking forward to the mountains and the ocean I would see.

After the 3 days of driving, we finally arrived in her new city.  It was upon entering into this new city, after marveling over the mountain scenery we had just driven through, the stark reality of a larger city was thrust into view.

There were homeless encampments, everywhere we looked.  It was overwhelming and saddening at the same time. I could not fathom that many people not having a home to go to. It was disheartening.

I had heard about the growing homeless populations in the western states. It made me a little nervous about my daughter living there. I knew that she would be okay.  She is level-headed, not a risk taker and always aware of her surroundings.

As we drove through the city, making our way to where her new home would be, the encampments became bigger. 

In the middle of this ever-growing bustling city, nestled among the beautiful pine trees, mountain ranges, and flowing rivers were makeshift lean-tos, tents, and broken-down vehicles.  There was debris and litter everywhere. The inhabitants of these makeshift homes were congregating or panhandling in the streets.  Even now, thinking back at what I saw, seems unreal to me.

Over the last year with this pandemic, the world has seen how chaotic the “American Dream” can really be. There has always been this misperception that the life we live here is this wonderful thing and that we have the freedom to do whatever we want.  In real life, it is a constant daily struggle.

In the US, our national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour which equates to $906.25 after taxes per month for a single person. The average studio apartment by state varies from as low as $577 to as high as $1625 per month.  That wage does not fully cover, rent, food, utilities, clothing, gas/maintenance of a vehicle, and especially does not cover more than one person.  That is why there is debate over the hourly wage.  The pace of inflation has overtaken the wages being earned and our government has turned a blind eye to it for decades now.

Yesterday, I was reading a news article from a local news station about the growing homeless encampments developing along the river here in my city.  They were estimating that there were at least 30 that were hidden away in the underbrush and trees, along the walking trails near a local favorite spot for outdoor activities.

The question that came to mind, for the second time the past month, “How could we let this happen?” but it was replaced with “How could one, let this happen?”.

I previously worked with an organization that assisted homeless veterans to help them gain the skills needed to find a career and housing.  The purpose was to help them find employment that was meaningful to them. It was the idea that if a person was doing something they truly liked, then it would become a lasting solution that would solve most of the issues with being homeless.

I now know that thinking is somewhat flawed.  After seeing the homeless population in that major city, it isn’t always about money or having “things”, sometimes it is about one’s self-perception.  It is about how we view ourselves and our self-worth and the outside influences that affect it.

When I was working with this organization, for some, there was the need to work through addictions, legal issues, or health issues. While others needed additional job skills, their mental health was a big part of it.  The only way these clients were going to be able to gain meaningful employment and sustain it was by working through their issues. To face the issues at hand and overcome the obstacles, but they had to be willing to take that first step.

I understood where some of the discussions with these clients were coming from because I had felt the same way. I had felt hopeless and the thought of “What’s the point?” kept coming up when I was struggling to change my life.

As we were driving through different parts of the city, my thoughts were “Why is this happening?”.  I know there are many programs out there to help, whether it is mental health, medical issues, financial assistance, clothing, food, childcare, housing, and even skills training.  These programs are federally, state, locally, and privately funded.   

Our federal government just requested an increase of 13% to some of these labor programs going from $12.5 billion to $14.2 billion.  If that much is being allocated to increase the labor market and decrease the unemployment rate, then where is the disconnect? 

The estimated number of people employed in the US was 157.54 million in 2019, it dropped to 147.79 million due to the pandemic in 2020 but has rebounded back to 153.7 million as of 2021. 

The 2019 workforce distribution indicated 78.74% of those jobs were in the service industry with the median wage being $10.22 per hour.   

The homeless population count was 567,715 people in 2019. The count was 580,466 people in 2020. The count in 2021 was affected by the pandemic with a report pending for 2022. These indicate the homeless count is staying roughly .2% of the US population. 

All the statistics and numbers still do not give a clear picture of the overall problem.

The two big factors that I see affecting the homeless rate are affordable housing and wages. 

As I mentioned earlier, the minimum wage, which is still being used for unskilled laborers or those with little job experience, does not cover the basic needs to include food and shelter.  

A household of two workers making a wage of $7.25 per hour each, equals $29,000 annually or $2230.00 monthly before taxes. The monthly take home pay drops to $523.00 per paycheck per person, bi-weekly after taxes.  I am estimating these numbers using the state income tax rate in my state of Oklahoma. Each state has their own income tax guidelines.

That amount equates to $2092.00 per month after taxes. This may seem substantial but if a family of 3, two adults and one child were to live on this, the estimated average cost breakdown for living in my home city of Tulsa, Oklahoma would be:

Rent = $760 per month average for a 1-bedroom apartment.

Daycare center = $550 per month average for a child under age 5, if both parents’ work, and no other means of care

Groceries = $387 per month average, does not include fast food or restaurants.

Utilities – Electric = $119 average and does not include phone, cell phone, or internet.

Utilities – Water = $35 average

Utilities – Gas = $71 average  

Vehicle payment = $397 per month average for a used vehicle, US estimate.  Not all US cities have mass transit or it is limited.

Vehicle Insurance = $54 per month average, estimated for 1 driver in Oklahoma and is mandatory.

These are the basics related to employment, food and shelter. These estimates do not include anything beyond that such as medical care, savings for an emergency, clothing, or personal care. Nor does this include pets, entertainment, or hobbies. It also does not consider any debt.

The fictional family is already in the negative balance category of $-281.00 without any added extras. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and do not reside in major cities, they live in rural areas and smaller towns.  

This is the reality of living the so called “American Dream”.

The programs I mentioned earlier that provide aid also have a cap in how much income can be earned before taxes to qualify.  Take for example, the state of Oklahoma’s SNAP program (Food assistance) income cap is $28,548 for a family of 3.  That means the fictional family income/budget listed above would leave this family of 3 not eligible for assistance, despite the negative balance. Their gross annual income before taxes is too high.

I too have been caught up in this system of needing assistance but making too much money. In one instance, I made $86 too much in before tax wages. I was astounded that there was not any exceptions to those rules.

This insecurity as it relates to wages, affordable housing, and meeting basic needs means this family would require one of the individuals to obtain a second job just to cover the gap. One option would be for one of the individuals to stop working to qualify for assistance. The last option being, one of the individuals would need to find a higher paying job. If the person does not have additional skills, education, or experience, finding a secondary or higher paying job may be difficult.

That is where skills training programs come into play, but once again, there are eligibility requirements and prerequisites that must be met to enroll into the programs. The biggest factor being the individual’s willingness to change the skill set, to allocate time to training, and to stick with a program to completion.

These programs were established to help with underemployment or unemployment, food insecurity, finding affordable housing, and medical/mental health issues. These are great resources but getting past the red tape included with gaining access to these programs, needs to change.  Raising the minimum income guidelines up from the current gross monthly income or changing it to a net monthly income would help many families.

Setting a cap of how much assistance can be obtained while permanently fixing the need, as well as requiring a timeline to complete training or skills enhancement, may help most of the people who utilize them. These programs were established to help those who are capable, to get back on their feet again, not to provide support indefinitely.  

My own perception of the issue is based on how one views themselves in the overall picture. Knowing how you fit into the grand scheme of things or even caring about it.  Not having personal goals, ideas, or dreams affects what you are willing to do or accomplish. 

When the clients we worked with said “What’s the point?” we would counter that with “What did you want to be when you grew up?”, “What are your favorite things to do?”, or “What was your favorite subject in school?”.

Sometimes, their faces would light up talking about their hobbies and interests.  I knew deep down in there, somewhere, there was still hope.  That they were still wistful dreamers that had just lost their way, in a world filled with chaos and uncertainty.  Unfortunately, we could not always help get them back on that path, but there were a few successes. 

As I left the new city where my daughter now resides, I felt a sense of sadness for the people that I had seen. 

If they could only remember that they are worth the life they have been given. 

That every day is a chance to start over.

That hope still resides in them and that their resilience will pull them through it.

They need to believe in themselves and their aspirations.

They need to stand up for themselves. To never give up and keep pushing forward.

That is a lot of wishful thinking on my part.

I know it is not the reality for most homeless, living on the streets or in shelters.  

I will continue to have hope for them, and for humanity.

Thank you so much for stopping by.

Peace, love, happiness, and good vibes, always.

Suzanne

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