Do you know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck? Or worse, none check to homeless? It is happening to good people, smart people, hard workers, nice families… To have sympathy for someone in that situation it simply takes a little effort on your part. Try a mental exercise, no sleeping outside necessary.
Sympathy: understanding between people; common feeling.
- If you’re lucky you are spending no more than 28% of your income on housing. But what if you lived in one of the areas where housing is tight and there is no affordable place to live? What if you had to pay more than 50% of your income just to have a roof over your head?
- If you’re lucky you have a happy, healthy relationship with your partner. But what if they began to struggle with an addiction like gambling or alcohol, or became abusive?
- If you’re lucky you have a steady income. But what if that job was outsourced, or too many skilled people were contending for that job?
- If you’re lucky you have a support network. You could move in with your parents temporarily, or borrow money from family. But what if you had no support network, or they had no more money than you?
- If you’re lucky you have an emergency fund. But what do you do when that money runs out?
- If you’re lucky you have time to prepare for a move. But what if there just wasn’t any money, and you couldn’t compete with all of the other families trying to get into housing?
- If you’re lucky you have transportation to your work, your doctor, and your school. But what if you didn’t have gas money, or your car blew up? Or you didn’t even have money for a bus pass?
- If you’re lucky your breadwinner is hale and hearty. But what if they got sick, or injured, or disabled?
How far from homelessness are you living? Many Americans are one paycheck away from living on the street. There are many things that could happen to your neighbors, your friends, or your family, that could cause them to be homeless. There are things that could happen to you too, and that is what we’re going to explore.
When my family first became homeless it was because my husband became disabled. They could not diagnose his issue, so he did not get the disability benefits through insurance that he had paid for. Then they finally did diagnose it, and a year later we managed to get social security disability. We lived on credit cards and my meager take-home for a few months, but it didn’t take long before they started foreclosure proceedings.
Now that we have such a small income we are much more vulnerable to homelessness. The last time we were homeless our landlord was foreclosed on. Now we are paying 41% of our income for housing, and the place we could get costs a lot to heat. This does not leave a lot of room to save for emergencies.
So hopefully you have a budget. Maybe it’s all in your head. Maybe it’s really loose, just tracking the bills you get every month and the money you get from your job. Or maybe you have a super fancy budget that tracks every everything. No matter which end of the spectrum, you should have a copy of that budget.
First, you need to explode any cushion you have. Any checking balance, any credit cards, any savings, anything you could cash out or sell, that has all been exhausted. If you want this to stick you can think of ways this could actually happen to you, which will help you remember. Like the house burned down, the banks all collapsed, world war whatever broke out… think of something.
Now you have no cushion, you are literally living paycheck to paycheck. This is how most people start out when they’re young, and many people live that way all their lives. Assume you have no support network. You moved for a job, or your family moved away, or they are just as dirt poor as you and you can’t borrow from them. Now you cut all the extra stuff. Just basics, no more Netflix, no more Starbucks, no more makeup or fancy hair stuff, no more clothes.
For the sake of illustration I made up a random budget with vaguely realistic numbers that my magic eight ball picked. This does not cover fun stuff like gas or childcare, this is a bare bones thing. This would give you a cushy $2000 a month to spend on life.
Random monthly budget with no cushion (insert your numbers here)
Expenses $2,200 (Housing 1,200, Electric 150, Internet 50, Cell phone 50, Food 750)
To Spend $2,050
Now you lose your income, and you can’t get it back. You might be living on the edge, and this is really easy to imagine. Or you might have two incomes and great job security. Maybe you have to stretch your imagination muscles, but think of a way that your income could evaporate. Suddenly robots can do your job, or people can 3D print that doodad you make. Nobody buys books anymore because the library is too awesome. There are no more gas stations to work at anymore, we all switched to solar. There are no more salespeople, everybody shops online. There are no more cashiers, people use self-checkout and money is electronic. They don’t build houses anymore, robots build them as modules, deliver, and assemble them. There are no more fast food chains, we all grow our own food on windowsills. Whatever you do, you can’t get paid for it anymore. Your budget goes badda-boom.
Random monthly budget with no income
Expenses $2,200 (Housing 1,200, Electric 150, Internet 50, Cell phone 50, Food 750)
To Spend $-2,200
How many times could you float that $2200 you need to pay your monthly bills? None, because you blew that up already. You already fed your kids off your credit cards, you already sold your fancy car for a beater. You already started babysitting the neighbor’s kids but the beater is sucking up more money than you are making in gas. They only give you 60 days before they shut off your power. In some places just having your power shut off means your home is unfit for habitation and you can be evicted. Then odds are 50/50 if you don’t have power, you won’t have water. If you don’t have water things will get dirty and smelly pretty fast, and once you let bugs in you can be evicted. Meanwhile, you are cold and hungry. You pound that pavement in your clothes that don’t quite fit anymore, looking for a job, you stop at the library to check for new employment listings and print out your resume, and you walk home carrying three bags of food from the weekly food pantry.
Soon enough, you find yourself without home. The good news is, you don’t have all those pesky bills to budget for anymore. The bad news is, they’re still there, and they’re now on your credit report. You are living with a friend, you are living in your car, or you are living on the street. You are cold, tired, and uncomfortable, you are more likely to get sick, you are more often in danger, and you are much less likely to get hired. If you manage to win the lottery, or somehow land a job and save some money, you still have to compete with all the other families looking for affordable housing, with your lack of address and your besmirched credit report.
How would that make you feel? Can you sense the desperation that would come with each interview rejection? With each utility shutoff notice? Can you imagine how tired you would get, fighting every day to make it all come out ok? How much would your pride smart as your poor started to show, in your clothes, your car, your hair, your rumbling stomach – you take it with you everywhere. How frustrating would it be to jump all the hoops they make you jump through to get help, new hoops for each group you are referred to? How long before you just gave in to apathy and depression, or worse, turned to substances for comfort when your body could find none?
So, to extend this exercise even further, you managed to turn things around. Lucky schmuck that you are, you found yourself a job and your income is restored to what it was. But because of your credit and the lack of options, you are now paying 50% of your income for housing.
Random monthly budget with no affordable housing (insert your numbers here w/ increased housing)
Expenses $3,100 (Housing 2100, Electric 150, Internet 50, Cell phone 50, Food 750)
To Spend $1,150
Now there’s child care, heat, gas, car insurance, prescription drugs, etc. You keep adding your regular expenses and see how soon you go into the red. With my budget, that’s pretty dang fast.
- So the next time you are working on your budget and debating an expense, bump up your savings.
- The next time you see a homeless person and you keep walking right past, consider how close you yourself are to being in that situation.
- The next time you read an article about affordable housing in the paper, think about writing a letter.
- The next time there is a vote or election in your town, think about using the power of your vote.
- The next time you hear a call for donations at a shelter, bring them a sleeping bag or some socks.
There is always a charity in your town who needs help, a food pantry, a homeless shelter, a church mission, or even just advocating from your comfy chair. You can do something to make a difference.
Have excess money and don’t know where to put it? Donate to Hundred Nights, the shelter in Keene NH.
Advocating for the working poor and affordable housing in New Hampshire. Championing homeless families in NH.
We hope you enjoyed our Exercise in Sympathy for the Homeless post
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I have a confession to make: the meal plan is a lie (homelessness stinks)
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© Written by Melissa French, The More With Less Mom