Harsh Realities: Homeless Hit Hardest by Economic Downturn

April 1, 2009

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In today’s economic climate it is almost impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television or radio and not hear the words “recession,” “crisis,” or “foreclosure.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2009 the national and statewide unemployment rates were 7.6% and 10.1%, respectively, both at their highest marks since the mid-1990s. You would be hard pressed to find a community unaffected by the recession. East Oakland Community Project is no exception.

Homeless Youths Adapt

At Our House, Linda Fuentes, Case Manager and Program Coordinator, sees the difficulties homeless youths face on a daily basis. Two of her clients are looking for work. “The process is very difficult,” she said. “One of my clients put in over thirty applications but [found] nothing.” The credit crunch has also affected tuition disbursements, so the best path out of homelessness—education—has become a more difficult goal for clients.

There is, however, a silver lining. “Sometimes employers are more likely to hire people that are homeless, to help them out,” Linda explained. She is often able to get free medical care for her clients since providers can write off the expenses as charitable donations. These opportunities are welcome, but are stopgap measures at best. Most youths do not attain the type of employment they would need to become indepen- dent. “One of my girls is working part time,” said Linda, “and she just got health insurance, but she has to pay over $200 a month for it! I just don’t know how she’s going to make it.”

Homeless Adults Face Competition

Dee Hoyle, Case Manager at EOCP’s Crossroads Emergency Shelter, has been seeing more of the same. “Some of our residents are ex-felons,” Dee explained, “or have substance abuse issues, which makes it that much harder for them to compete in the job market.” Due to higher rates of unemployment, the lower pay- ing jobs for which a homeless person would normally be able to compete are being taken by more qualified applicants.

Partial employment or “involuntary part-time work” is another problem impacting EOCP’s residents. “Many of our clients who had no problem getting up to 35 hours of part time work a week now have trouble getting 20 or 25 hours a week,” Dee said. In fact, Crossroads recently saw an increase in underem- ployed clients who could not pay their rent, and thus ended up homeless. In such troubling economic times, good news is scarce. Dee summed up by describing how “one of my clients, was not only able to maintain his employ- ment but actually got a salary increase. But he’s the only one, the only one.”

Staff Refuses to Settle for Less

The situation is similar at Matilda Cleveland, EOCP’s transitional hous- ing program for single mothers, says Patricia Ramirez, the site’s Client Em- powerment Specialist. Here, most of the women are seeking employment while trying to get their high school diplomas or complete job training programs.

In spite of the tough times, Patricia stays resolute about EOCP’s goals for cli- ents. She knows that without the right kind of employment, and perhaps more importantly, the right attitude, clients cannot succeed once they leave the program. “The women are definitely in a better position while they are here,” Patricia asserted, “because once their basic needs are met, they are able to focus on obtaining employment or education, and work on living a more balanced life, which gives them a better chance at finding permanent housing and achieving sustainable financial success.”

President Obama declared in his inaugural address: “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: they will be met.” And here at EOCP, where the challenges are as real, as serious, and as numerous as anywhere in the country, clients are meeting their obstacles with the help and care of staff and the peace of mind that comes from knowing that every night they will have food on the table and a warm place to sleep.

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