Poverty: Homeless in Reno

Judy Ferro     [Published by the Idaho Press-Tribune on June 9, 2014]

A few months after my husband closed his repair business, he ran away from home.

It wasn’t a vacation—Bill would have taken his pickup and fishing rods on a vacation.  No, he wanted to prove he could live on the road like he had thirty years earlier, before he’d had a wife and kids.

So he took $100 in cash and went hitchhiking on HiWay 55.

A few weeks later a guy hired Bill to drive a truck from Reno to Salt Lake and then added an unpaid detour to Caldwell to pick up a horse trailer.  Bill took that as a sign he was meant to come home.

And he’d already learned how hard it was to become one of America’s working poor.

In Reno, he‘d found a group of homeless men who, like himself, were able and willing to work.  They used a Reno park as their base.  After dark the cops periodically rounded them up and drove them to a truck stop on the edge of town.  Then the men couldn’t make it to a day labor site while the hiring was going on, but most would find their way back into the park by dusk.

Bill managed to befriend a man who had a car.  It didn’t run, but if the police started a roundup Bill could squeeze into the car.  The cops didn’t bother people with a car.

Two things still made it hard for the men to get steady work.   City buses stopped a couple miles short of the industrial area where the jobs were, and lockers where the homeless could stow their gear didn’t open until 10 a.m.  Getting cleaned up and on the bus was possible.  Walking the two miles beyond the bus line was possible.  Disguising the fact you were carrying a sleep sack and all the clothes you owned was not.

One of the men, a skilled carpenter, faced a third hurdle—finding a place for his five-year-old daughter while he was working.  Food stamps he could get, but no advance for child care.

So I wasn’t surprised to read recently that cutting off unemployment payments to the long-term unemployed had not reduced their numbers.  Such a move could only have made desperate people more desperate.  For those who can’t afford to wash clothes, to get fillings or dentures, and to have reliable transportation, finding and keeping a steady job is a bigger challenge than most can manage.  And that’s before depression and anxiety take their toll.

Americans fear that if benefit levels are ever high enough to provide decent transportation, food, housing, and medical care, no one would go to work.  People, we are sure, are naturally lazy.  A recent report, however, suggests we’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A recent study of the 34 OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) found that countries that pay the highest benefits to the unemployed tend to have the most people employed.

How can that be?  Why don’t their citizens just stay in the air conditioning, eat bon-bons and watch TV?  Could more available jobs, a more cooperative spirit, better education, and good working conditions explain such a difference?

Whatever, the United States has been exceptionally slow in regaining jobs lost in the economic turn down.  Ten years ago our employment rate for workers aged 25-54 was 9th best out of the 34 OEDC countries.

In 2012, the U.S. was 24th.  Only Ireland, Greece and Portugal have fallen more.  Not only has France outdone us, Slovenia has.

We still have a few things to learn about maintaining a healthy economy.

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