Hardworking yet still homeless in today's America

About 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year, and about 25 percent are employed at the time

Julia Cooley, 33, a homeless working mother, cares for her 4-year-old son.
Al Jazeera

Julia Cooley wakes up early with her four-year-old son every day before sunrise in Atlanta. After five hours of commuting by bus and subway to and from work, Cooley doesn’t have a permanent place to go back to. She has a job, but remains homeless.

Cooley, 33, is not alone. A new report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Council of Mayors describes how hunger and homelessness afflict cities across the country. Of people who "request emergency food," 43 percent of them have jobs, according to the report. 

The study paints a sad picture of cities and nonprofits struggling to get help to America’s most vulnerable as their numbers grow or remain stubbornly stagnant. Their ranks including women, children, the elderly and people with mental or physical health problems.

In almost all cases, the situation is getting worse even as aspects of the U.S. economy improves on paper.

About 3.5 million people experience some kind of homelessness every year, and about a quarter of them are employed at the time, said Jeffrey Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

These figures show that having a job is no insurance against living in a shelter or on the street. And in many U.S. cities, the need for support for homeless people is increasing as their numbers increase. The Mayor’s Council survey found that more than half the cities surveyed expect demand for homeless assistance to grow.

“There’s no question that the nation’s economy is on the mend, but there’s also no question that the slow pace of recovery is making it difficult — and, for many, impossible — to respond to the growing needs of the hungry and the homeless," said Mayor Helene Schneider mayor of Santa Barbara, Calif. 

New data released on Tuesday showed the total household wealth in the U.S. had risen to $77 trillion, the highest since 1945 when record-keeping began. But those figures don't help Cooley, who makes just above minimum wage.

“Technically I'm considered homeless, because I'm place-to-place and I don't have the stability, and I'm not presenting them that self-sufficiency that they want us to have to say we're on our own and officially out of homelessness,” Cooley told Al Jazeera, describing how she cares for her son, Josiah.

Cooley splits her time between her grandparents’ house and her partner’s house. In 2008, she lived in a shelter for a year.

Cooley works as a preschool teacher at “Our House,” which provides child care for homeless parents so they can look for employment. She makes $9.15 an hour.

"One of the common myths about homelessness is that a homeless person is sleeping under a bridge or on the street or suffering from mental illness. The reality for the families we serve is homelessness is about women with children who have no place to go,” said Tyese Lawyer, executive Director of Our House.

Lawyer told Al Jazeera that many of the homeless families she works with arrange their lives slowly and carefully — like a “deck of cards” — where one piece coming out of place could ruin all their hard work.

“It’s especially tough in real estate markets that are heating up, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. Folks who are working minimum wage jobs are spending more on housing than ever before,” Jones told Al Jazeera.

“It’s just not possible to make it on that kind of a salary,” he said of the minimum wage.

Jones said budget sequester cuts to federal housing subsidies that started in March put a freeze on vouchers for people seeking housing, and further cuts over food subsidies in the Farm Bill threaten to hit families even harder, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.

To Jones, there are two ways of fixing the problem: "Either raise wages so that folks are able to make ends meet," he said, "or help by providing matching funds for food and shelter."

Meanwhile, Cooley keeps working toward becoming independent of outside help. She described her experience of homelessness in a blog post for Al Jazeera. 

"I am saving for an apartment. I would like to continue my early childhood education, and my favorite goal — buy transportation to help with our morning commute."

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