Whenever you talk about being homeless there is one thing that will instantly leap to mind or the discussion, as nicely revealed in the epithet most often hurled at the homeless, "Get a job you bum!"
I will deal with the bum part in a future post, let me look now at the 'get a job' part. Being homeless I naturally wanted to get a job. A job means money, which means food and housing and all the nice things that I did not have living on the streets (like somewhere to put my stuff instead of carrying it on my back, I'm a 38 year-old with a 75 year-old's spine). Getting a job can be a challenge, but it is even moreso when one is homeless. However, I got lucky and did manage to get a job. I thought everything would be great, I was on the path to getting off the streets. I did not think this for long. The reason being what I now think of as 'homeless economics' and will present here. Fair warning, there are going to be a lot of numbers in the rest of this post.
Let's start at the important point, income. Having a job means making money (actually trading time for money, not making it magically like a bank, but I digress), so how much money am I now making via gainful employment? Well, I am somewhat skilled, though not specially so, and I got a part-time job making about $10/hr after taxes. At first, for a whole blessed month, 'part-time' meant 30 hours a week, or $300/week after taxes for a whopping $1,200 that month in my pocket. After that first month, sadly (and somewhat inexplicably, but I'm not going to go into all the job troubles here, just the numbers) 'part-time' became only 20 hrs/week, for just $800 a month. It would remain there until I left, so we'll use $800 as my new income.
Now, with income comes expenses. First, I had to get to my job and for that I needed a bus pass - which was $80 a month. Next I needed a phone, to be reached for scheduling changes and to call my boss if he wasn't at the office and I needed to know how to do something (which happened several times). One no-contract Virgin Mobile cell phone was $20 on sale, and the lowest calling plan was $30 a month (and out of my 1,500 minutes I think I once used maybe 150 - I'm not a phone guy). Work clothes need to be kept clean, so laundry at the friendly neighborhood laundromat ran about $20 a month (weekly washings of $5). So incidental expenses ran about $130/month. My $800 income - $130 expenses = $670 left over. Not bad, right?
Well, one other thing - I needed to eat. Eating good. Now not having a home is a problem when it comes to eating. With a house and the ability to store and prepare food I have been able to easily eat for $2 a meal, so 3 meals a day would be $6 and a 30 day month totaling $180 for food. Tack on a little for the few meals that were more expensive or random treats and a fairly consistent $200/month food bill is something I have lived on before. But note how I opened that, with the ability to store and prepare food. I didn't have that, I was still homeless when starting my new job.
Not being able to prepare food means you have to buy stuff that is already made, which is more expensive. A $1 frozen dinner is a lot cheaper than a $3 pre-made sandwich at the grocery store - and that gets worse if you talk about fast food. A small fast food meal is usually about $6 (5 plus tax, rounded). Eating fast food three times a day is $18 a day or $540 a month. Ee-gads! So let's pair down to just 2 meals a day, morning and night, which brings it down to $12 a day or $360/month. So the $670 we had above - $360 for food = $310/month.
As a final note, food is the hardest thing to budget when you're on the streets. Being hungry is hard, and even a job like mine that just required walking and talking to people managed to work up quite the appetite. Keeping control of food costs, and most importantly realizing just how much I was actually spending on food was a challenge.
Now, we started with $800 and currently have $310 left - and we're still missing something. So far we've (or, well, I did) spent money just on keeping the job (including staying alive in general by eating) - but we are (I was) still homeless. We haven't paid anything yet for rent. So let's look at the path off the streets that our job has provided.
There are three options for getting a place to live. First, the ideal, getting a small apartment of one's own. Second, less ideal but still okay, renting a room. Finally, least attractive, renting a hotel room. We'll look at them in order:
Apartment - well, this is the nicest, and the hardest. First, to even dream about getting an apartment you need to pass a credit check. If, like me, your credit score is embarrassed to show itself in public, this is a problem. If you make it over that hurdle though, there are others. Starting, the cheapest, smallest studio apartment is going to run about $500 a month (easily 600 to 1,000 depending on location). But that's not the real expense, no. Most people just stop right there, the monthly cost, but you also have to take into account that you have to pay up-front. First and last months' rent plus a security deposit (typically equal to one month's rent) before you can claim home sweet home. So $1,500 up front, plus $500 a month. And how much did we have left over a month? Oh yeah, $310. Not even enough for the monthly, and of course I didn't have any money saved up for that $1,500 hurdle.
Room - okay, so getting an apartment is a bust, what about Plan B, renting a room? Well, a search on Craigslist can turn up some pretty darned expensive rooms - I mean, who really wants to pay $800 to $1,000 just to rent a room?! But there are some more reasonable people who will rent a place for just $400 a month. Not bad, remembering that we'll be able to make our own food and lower that expense we should be able to get up to $470 a month, which will just cover the rent and leave a few bucks to do something fun with (though the library is a treasure trove of fun, and free). Room looking good . . . um, well, almost. See, one little problem - all those nice $400 rooms also want a deposit, not as much- just first and last months' rent, but that still means coming up with $800 to move in. And, well, $800 is everything that we make in one month - so that would be a whole month of not eating or riding the bus or anything to save up to move in somewhere. Hmm...
Hotel - now we get to the least desirable option, the hotel room. These too can be incredibly expensive, up to $1,000 a month or more with a kitchenette. But I was able to find a hotel that was only $200 a week - just a room, not kitchenette or fridge so still paying the higher price in food (though I did have room to store some non-perishable food). But, $200 a week is $800 a month. Still a whole lot of money, but at least you don't have to pay anything up front.
This was the route I took. I did not expect my hours to get cut, so with my $1,200 that first month I had enough to get a hotel room (yay, off the streets, woo hoo!!!) and still cover my expenses. Then I realized I had a problem. I had no money left over to save up to rent a room with (remember, $800 up front). Then my hours got cut and I couldn't even afford to stay at the hotel. I didn't have any winter camping gear, having arrived in summer; and in Denver it does not snow too much, but it does snow and get cold. It took about $200 to get the sleeping bag, blankets, thermal pants, jacket, boots and such to be able to camp outside without losing any appendages to frostbite (which I say in a lighthearted manner, but I've met guys who have had toes amputated from it).
So, getting a job is a Good Thing, no doubt about it - but it is not a "get out of being homeless free" card. It takes quite a bit of money to get off the streets, and really at least a full-time job (which seem to be harder to find every year) making above minimum wage. Sadly being homeless is a lot easier to fall into than crawl out of. And if your job doesn't work out (I may someday go over how mine went sideways, maybe not - I don't like to think about how "almost but not good enough" I came to some measure of happiness) then you go right back to square one.
So, there was your little economics lesson for the day. Makes your own anemic checking account look better, doesn't it?