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“Shelter, bus passes, meals, phone - Everything!”

-Brandy, October 2010

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Understanding the Issue

Every night in Portland, there are 800 homeless families with children, which are made up of 1,474 individuals.

The causes of homelessness are many, and you may get very different responses on what they are depending on who you ask. In our experience of almost 2 decades of working with homeless families with children, these are the causes that we see most prevalently:

Lack of a Living Wage

A living wage is defined as “a wage sufficient to provide the necessities and comforts essential to an acceptable standard of living, and provides it with some ability to deal with emergencies, without resorting to welfare or other public assistance.”

In Portland, a living wage is set for the following groups:

• One Adult: $9.42
• Two Adults: $15.18
• One Adult, One Child: $19.57
• Two Adults, One Child: $18.31
• Two Adults, Two Children: $19.76

In Portland, the minimum wage is set for the following groups:

• Anyone, regardless of how much you need to live: $9.10 per hour.

One of the main causes of homelessness is that, even though 45% of homeless families work, they just don’t make enough money to pay the bills. Many families work service jobs that pay minimum wage. They live paycheck to paycheck and just don’t have enough money to make ends meet. They often find themselves having to choose between paying rent and paying for food or medicine for their family. Oftentimes, they choose to pay for food or medicine, and their landlords kick them out because they have not paid the rent.

Lack of Affordable Housing

Think about how much money you pay on your mortgage each month or how much you pay in rent. Many families who are working at minimum wage jobs do not have enough money to afford the high rent and mortgage prices that our society as created.

In order for housing to be considered “affordable,” you must be paying no more than 30% of your income towards housing costs (i.e. rent or mortgage). In Portland, for a minimum wage earner (assuming they are getting full time hours), rent would have to be $430 per month to be “affordable,” and not more than 30% of their income. There are few – if any – places for rent in Portland that cost that small amount of money. And if you were to find a place for rent for such little money each month, it is doubtful that the conditions would be safe or suitable for families with small children.

Basically, housing costs in our society are just too expensive. Instead of building affordable housing for families and individuals experiencing homelessness, our society has a tendency of tearing down existing affordable housing and building expensive, new condominiums. Nationally, there are only 42 units of affordable housing available for every 100 low-income renters. This represents a deficit of 4.9 million units nationwide.

Lack of Affordable (or any) Healthcare

We can again draw on our own personal experiences for this one: think about a time when you or a family member had pneumonia, broke an arm, or had to have your appendix removed. We tend to remember the suffering that we experienced during these episodes but also how expensive they were. Many times our insurance covers much of the cost, but we are left to pay high deductibles and co-pays that often leave us in debt for years to come.

Many families experiencing homelessness work in service jobs that don’t offer insurance and are left responsible for paying for the entirety of their medical bills on their own. Or if they do have insurance, they don’t have the money to pay those high deductibles and co-pays, much less pay for the medicine they need to get better.

When homeless families get sick or injured, oftentimes they are not able to go to a regular doctor because they don’t have insurance and they don’t have the money to pay the extremely high doctor visit fees. They tend to neglect small ailments and illnesses and hope that they just get better so that they don’t have to go to the doctor at all. A lot of times, because homeless families are out in the cold and do not have the safety and security of having a warm place to rest and get better, their illnesses get worse instead of getting better.

When things get bad enough, they go to the emergency room at the hospital. By this time, what was originally a small cold or a sprained ankle has turned into something major like pneumonia or a cartilage tear. What could have been an easy solution if a family could have gone to a doctor ends up resulting in an emergency room visit and families end up racking up thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt which negatively affects their credit and their chances of finding permanent housing in a decent neighborhood (because most landlords these days do credit checks and won’t rent to people with bad credit; many times, the only landlords who do not perform credit checks are those living in unsafe neighborhoods).

Families who are sick or injured must sometimes pay extravagant amounts of money just to get medical care that is urgent. If it costs $200 to go to the hospital, that may be $200 that family won’t have for rent that month because they had no room in their budget for extra expenses (i.e. they’re living paycheck to paycheck). These families have to make a decision: pay for their child’s urgent medical treatment or pay rent. Many times, they choose to pay for the medical treatment and thus get evicted for not paying rent.

The lack of affordable healthcare in this country puts families at risk of homelessness because it causes them to let minor ailments turn into major illnesses that then cause families to miss work or school. It also costs a great deal of money to pay for medical treatment without insurance, and families must use what little money that have to pay for medicine or medical treatment instead of paying their bills.

The toughest decision a parent will have to make is choosing between buying penicillin for her daughter who has chronic, life-threatening pneumonia or paying rent so they have a place for her daughter to rest up and get better. No family should have to make this choice.

Lack of Affordable Childcare

Another factor affecting homelessness of families is the lack of affordable childcare. We see this issue affecting families at the PHFS shelters very often. If a parent has a small child and wants to work, they need to have childcare for their child. Childcare usually costs about $400-$938 per month for one child in Portland. If a parent is working a minimum wage job, they simply do not have that much money leftover to pay for childcare. Parents do not have anywhere for their children to go while they work, so many parents are not able to work. This puts them in an unstrategic situation of living off of welfare (called TANF), which provides even less money than a minimum wage job does (usually about $498 a month for a parent with one child).

Families in this situation face a difficult Catch-22: Parent doesn’t have a job but has 2 small kids. Parent must pay for childcare while they are searching for work and then while they are at work once they find employment. Parent needs a job in order to be able to pay for childcare. But the parent does not have money to pay for childcare to first go out and find a job. And if the parent even is able to find some way for the child to be cared for to find a job, the job does not pay enough money to continue paying for childcare. So the parent has to stop working to take care of the child.

Here’s a sample budget for a family:

Income for a 40 hour a week job, making minimum wage: $1,432

Taxes: $257 (18%)
Rent: $600 (this is the going rate for 1 bedroom apartments in the Portland suburbs, even though it’s much greater than 1/3 of the family’s income)
Bills (utility, phone, gas): $130 (and this is a modest estimate)
Transportation: $100 (for a monthly Trimet bus pass)
Hygiene/personal care: $15 (things like toothpaste, shampoo, soap for the kids)
Childcare: $400 (and this is the very low spectrum, which is hard to find…but say you do)

We are already at negative $70. We’ve already overspent our budget. In this budget, we are assuming that 100% of the family’s food is paid for by food stamps (which is unrealistic). And this budget does not take into account the need for clothes or shoes for parents or kids, the need for entertainment (because no parent or kid should go without at least having something fun to do each month, even if it’s a trip to the dollar movie theater), household and cleaning products that food stamps don’t cover (like toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent), diapers, medicine or doctor visits.

You can clearly see how quickly a family’s budget gets spent and they really do not have enough money to cover the necessities of living, let alone things that would be pleasurable for them.

You can try to stretch a budget of a low-income family to its fullest by playing Spent at We encourage you to try this out!


Portland Homeless Family Solutions     1221 S.W. Yamhill St. Suite 210     Portland OR 97205     503.915.8306