Monday, July 23, 2007

Families swell homeless ranks: Living paycheck to paycheck, adults with children fall further behind

Jessica Gardner spends most days looking for a job. When she's not filling out applications, the mother of two does what many spouses do: tidies her family's belongings, maybe folds some laundry.

Most mornings, her husband, James, grabs coffee at the nearby 7-Eleven and heads off to work at the labor hall on Babcock Street.

These normal tasks are carried out in a not-so-normal setting: the woods across from Rockwell Collins in Melbourne, where the Gardners live in a tent. They were evicted from their trailer two months ago.

The Gardners' scenario illustrates the plight of the working poor who can easily fall behind as they live paycheck to paycheck, and it makes them a part of the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in Brevard County, according to the county's most recent homeless census.

While the county's overall homeless population increased 14 percent this year to 1,899 people, the number of homeless families surged to 166 this year, compared to 19 last year. The number includes families without shelter and those with an immediate risk of losing their dwelling, such as through eviction or foreclosure.

Area homeless advocates say displacement from the 2004 hurricanes, the effect of Florida's housing boom and bust and wages not keeping pace with higher living costs are causing the increase.

"When I started 10 years ago, the majority of people were living month to month, week to week," said Joe Robinson, director of the North Brevard Sharing Center. "Now those individuals living month to month are living week to week, and those living week to week are barely making it."

Incomes stagnant

Families such as the Gardners often find themselves on the verge of homelessness after an anticipated job or place to live falls through or a job is lost due to illness, according to Brevard County Housing and Human Services director Rosa Reich.

The Gardners, who have not been homeless before, experienced something similar.

James Gardner, 41, lost his job as a forklift operator for a construction company after spending 41 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Gardner said his boss planned to rehire him after he got out. But business was slow so that didn't happen.

Then it was rent time, and there was no money. Their two children in tow, the couple stayed in a motel for two nights before going to a Wickham Park pavilion for a few weeks and then the woods.

But another reason is cropping up with increasing frequency: wages that do not keep up with rising costs of living.

"Many of the homeless families subsist on disability, child support and other forms of income that may not rise at the same rate as housing costs," Reich said.

Despite the downward creep of market prices, many homes remain out of reach for the working poor. On the upside, some rental prices have eased this past spring as investors put their units on the already crowded market. Landlords once choosy about tenants with blemishes on their credit rating may be more likely to accept them now.

During the past six months, John Farrell, director of The Daily Bread in Melbourne, has seen more people seeking the soup kitchen's services.

"What I hear is that they lost their jobs, or they're one paycheck away from homelessness," he said. "My own conclusion is that we'll see more people who are not homeless, but unemployed, working poor or on a fixed income."

Homeless with kids

Andriana Giuliano, 15, stays with her mother and eight siblings in a shelter after her father, the family breadwinner, received a nine-year federal prison sentence for fraud.

Giuliano, who will be a sophomore at Palm Bay High next year, never imagined she'd be without a place to call home.

But she is coping.

"I've always been the type to deal with it and go along with what would happen," she said. "Where I live doesn't make a difference."

The Giuliano family remains largely intact.

The same cannot be said for the Gardners, whose two children, Jasmain, 2, and Daniel, 1, were sent by the state to live with Jessica Gardner's adoptive parents in North Florida.

The children lived with the couple under a Wickham Park pavilion the first two weeks until passers-by called the state's welfare agency.

"I'm glad they did call, in a way. I kept trying to call (Department of Children and Families) and they said they didn't have room," Jessica, 22, said. "I'm a lot happier. I know they're getting a bath and three meals a day and not getting bit by mosquitoes."

For children or teens, the trauma of being homeless can be magnified. It can be difficult for families to stay together and keep kids in school.

"It really can set kids back on their self-confidence, their education. There are kids living in parks and in the back seat of cars trying to go to school," said Ginger Ferguson, director of Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless.

On solid ground

There are roughly 13 agencies in Brevard that provide transitional housing, where rents are partially subsidized and people can stay for 30 days or more while they get back on their feet.

But many advocates say the 500 or so beds these groups provide are not meeting demand. The agencies with such housing, and homeless shelters, too, are flooded with calls for help. Sometimes all they can do is put names on waiting lists.

April Tabor considers herself lucky. The 26-year-old mother of two has been in transitional housing since 2004. At the time, Tabor had no job or place to go as her husband threatened to kick her out.

"It was just sink or swim," she said. "I don't know the struggles of being on the street. I can't imagine it."

The Gardners, like many others, aren't so lucky. James Gardner expects to be camped out in the woods for about two more months.

His boss recently hired him back with a July 30 start date. He will make about $1,700 per month, much of which he can save for an apartment. Then, he hopes, he and Jessica will be reunited with their children.

"I miss them," he said. "I'm the one that got us into this situation, and I'll get us out of it. My kids don't deserve this."


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