On the Brink

Tammy Anne Callahan-Callanan
Spare Change News

My family has lived like gypsies in Salem for many years, in that we move from place to place as employment demands. For the countless families that are low-income, being nomadic relates to not only employment, but also to financial demands: the demands of rent, affordable housing, utilities, clothing, healthcare, and food.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University confirms that in 2009, 61.4% of cost-burdened renters paid more than half their income for rent, with a rise of more than 4% since 2007. Just like my own family, this leaves little for necessities, making acquiring the basics of clothing, food, and transportation almost impossible; never mind recreation.

It is a world of just existing. It’s a world of stress for renters, who live not only with financial instability, but also with the worry of having to move again in order to keep their family together.

Also, it can be a stressor for landlords who constantly have to evict tenants and take financial losses for past rent owed. Landlords may also have to either appear in court themselves or pay a lawyer to work for them.

Not all landlords own multiple properties. Like most Americans, property owners are trying to stay financially afloat, too. Yet, with the cost of affordable housing declining, the demand for rental units is rising. Rental costs just keep getting higher and higher while the income of many American families is becoming lower and lower.

Professionally managed apartments have led to price gouging, although prices are typically more reasonable when it’s just a homeowner renting a unit in their home. Survey data from the JCHS depicts annual growth of rental costs in the fourth quarter of 2010 at 2.3% ahead of inflation. Rental costs need to be leveled so that fewer families will have to endure moving or eviction, and so more families will have a stationary place to call home.

Too many families are becoming homeless. Findings by the National Alliance to End Homelessness gives to us concrete proof that the family unit is becoming more and more part of the homeless population – families with children and families that are now considered the “older” Americans. It used to be just those struggling with mental illness, addictions, or other chronic issues that made up the bulk of homelessness. But now, with the recession, rising unemployment, rising energy costs, the decline of social services, government budget cuts, and home foreclosures – more and more families are now falling into homelessness.

Data from several government organizations such as the US Census Bureau, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice verifies that there was a 4% increase in homeless families between 2008 and 2009. During this same time period, Massachusetts alone showed over 8,000 families without a place to call home.

Most of these families were members of the working poor, making an annual income in 2009 of a little over $8,000 in comparison to the average US annual income of over $56,000. For families at or below the federal poverty level, the odds are high that they will become homeless. In comparison to 1 in 200 for the general population, the working poor are more likely to experience homelessness, being 1 in 25 per the 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment to Congress.

Stress and poor health accompany the lives of many homeless families. Over time, there is potential for increases in substance abuse, stress, spousal abuse, child abuse, unhealthy eating habits, lack of healthcare, lack of education, low self-esteem, mental instability, crime and divorce. Family pets are left as strays and abandoned. The ideals of the American family unit are abandoned by this population, out of the necessity to survive and fight each day to make ends meet. Hence, living on the brink.

The brink of homelessness is an abyss that I personally would not wish upon myself, my own adult children, or any family. Especially families that try to live the American way by working, like our elderly did, to support their families. It is an abyss that I have been trying to overcome as an adult and it is an abyss that I witnessed, as my own mother tried to overcome it by sometimes working two or three jobs to support our family.

My mother always worried so much about paying the rent, and so many other things, that I saw her inner strength being worn down over the years. American families especially need to retain their inner strength during these hard economic times. Most importantly, we need to retain the family units that our government and our society need for our present and for our future.

People should not have to be nomads in order to offer their skills and their trade within our modern society.

Tammy Anne Callahan-Callanan lives in Salem.






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