The Florida League of Cities’ Center for Municipal Research and Innovation put on an excellent symposium this past Wednesday on the issue of homelessness and affordable housing. The presenters informed, educated and motivated a crowd of municipal officials, as well as representatives of other governmental and non-governmental agencies, to take on one of the enduring problems of our state.
Of all the data presented, the number that struck me most powerfully was this one: roughly 50 percent of Floridians are at risk of becoming homeless. That’s the percentage, roughly, of Floridians whose household income is at the “survival” level or below.
“Survival,” in this sense, means an income that barely allows the household to cover the essential, near-term costs of daily life, like housing, transportation, food, actual health care (as opposed to insurance costs), utilities and child care (if they have children needing care).
The better-off segment of this group is in what is called the ALICE cohort: Asset-Limited, Income-Challenged, Employed individuals. These are the one-paycheck-away-from-disaster folks. They are the larger proportion of at-risk individuals (the smaller proportion being those who are below the poverty line).
Fifty percent. One out of every two Floridians.
Put flesh on that number. Walk down a busy street in your city. Every other person you see, say to yourself, “He/she could be homeless tomorrow.”
Most of these folks are at risk, not because they aren’t working, but because the cost of living in the community where they live is high relative to the income they earn. Just that simple: in-come and out-go exist in a precarious balance.
We’re not talking here about living better than one can afford, about folks who’ve run up their credit card debt on frivolous purchases beyond their standard of living. Nor are we talking about folks who just need to cut out a couple of lattes a week to right their financial ship.
We are talking about people who are working and still can barely pay for adequate housing, transportation, food, clothing, medical care and the other, nonnegotiable essentials.
Part of the reason is the extent to which our state economy generates jobs that pay less than a living wage.
Part of the reason is the cost of housing in the job centers of our state. The more our urban centers revitalize, the more expensive housing becomes, and the farther away from work the low wage workforce is compelled to live.
Part of the reason is the cost of transportation, especially as these workers are pushed out of the central city.
Looking at the numbers, one simply could become hopeless. So much for the quality of life for most Floridians!
But that’s not where the speakers left us.
There are things we can do, in our local communities, that research shows can make a huge difference.
- Bring everyone to the table. Nearly everyone is affected by the housing challenge: cities, the county, the school system, hospitals, medical clinics, hotels, restaurants, retail businesses, large and small scale employers that rely on this workforce, religious institutions . . . nearly everyone. Help them see how they are affected. Examine the resources being spent, in all of these areas, as a result of homelessness. Have the courage to consider novel, holistic approaches to the problem. Odds are, your community can get a bigger bang for the same buck, and possibly an even bigger bang for a little more effort.
- Begin with housing. Research tells us that stable housing is the first step toward most other good outcomes: employment stability, health, education, family stability, lesser risk of incarceration, reduced substance abuse. Whether it’s about fostering more affordable housing near or with access to jobs, or getting homeless individuals and families housed in their own apartments before we do anything else, put housing first.
- Mobilize on policy. There is a great deal we can do with our local partners. There also is a very simple thing the state can do that could help us be even more successful:
- Preserve the allocation of doc stamp money for housing initiatives. Especially in a time of state budget surpluses, this isn’t that hard to do.
The biggest takeaway, for me, from the symposium: the quality of life of many, many Floridians is so much less than it should be, so much less than their own efforts would justify. And it doesn’t have to be. Not if we take on the housing challenge together.