The area’s economy is booming, and many are living the American dream, but not everyone’s boat is rising. Not even close. The reality is that a subclass of workers is emerging that are playing by the rules, and working hard, but ending up in shelters.
These people in need aren’t on the streets asking for money, but helping us in the businesses at which we eat and shop. They watch tech buses drive by while they wonder from where their bus fare will come. They worry how they will find a home for their families in a market where most rentals exceed their take home pay. They aren’t looking for handouts or begrudging the success of others, but this experience can’t help but engender hopelessness and the feeling of betrayal.
When I recently spent a night at a homeless shelter, I was dismayed that members of the middle class had moved in and that earning above the minimum wage did not protect adults from having to share a room with dozens of others. After a night of listening to their hardships, I left the next day determined to convince my colleagues in Congress to spend a night at a homeless shelter in their district.
One woman I spoke to said she and her husband both work full time for major retailers. Doesn’t seem right that full-time wage earners should be forced to live in shelters, but according to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 29 percent of homeless families have jobs.
Later that night, I listened to several veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder. One Iraq veteran who saw heavy combat said he once had a six-figure job in Silicon Valley before falling prey to drugs and alcohol. We talked for a long time as he slowly unfolded a story about the worst side of battle. Another veteran said she was raped while serving, but eventually dishonorably discharged for admitting she was gay during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy days. Her life has spiraled downward since.
One single mother with four children at another shelter was hastily evicted when the unit she rented was deemed illegal by housing authorities. Her $19 an hour job put her above the threshold for childcare assistance, forcing her into homelessness.
Working 40 hours a week used to mean a minimum standard of living and a foothold on the first rung of the economic ladder to the middle class.
Congress must raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and extend unemployment insurance. Raising the minimum wage will help lift 4.6 million Americans out of poverty. But in an area like ours, it doesn’t go far enough to cover the day’s expenses eating away at paychecks. We need affordable child care, and paid sick leave so workers don’t have to choose between their health and their livelihood.
We also need to understand why 1.6 million children are homeless at least one night in the year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
In the Bay Area, innovators and policymakers must come together formally in a meaningful way to explore how we can best harness the same genius that has created so much wealth for this region and apply these skills to improving the well-being of our neighbors and friends.
When we foster an economy without hope, we guarantee that a segment of our population will be destined to know homelessness on a permanent basis, and not for the one night I voluntarily spent at a shelter.
Jackie Speier represents District 14 in the U.S. House of Representatives. She lives in Hillsborough.