Working Hard and Still Homeless

Working Hard and Still Homeless

High housing costs mean some Mount Vernon residents commute to work from homeless shelters.

“Life is about holes, traps and storms,” said Charles Hanshaw, 48, as he sat on a couch in the lobby of Kennedy Shelter on Route 1, his former home. The perfect storm that dropped him in the homeless shelter was the result of many colliding elements: quitting college, smoking crack, the terminal illness of a young daughter, the failure of a marriage, manic depression.

But when he returned to the shelter for an August interview, Hanshaw was dressed for work in a dark shirt and tie. He carried a resume. It listed nine jobs going back only to 1991, a complete list would be twice as long — J.C. Penney supervisor, contract laborer, Safeway cashier, two years at Norfolk State University, four years at Clark Atlanta University, but no degree. He readily admitted to making “bad choices” that helped make him homeless. But he wears a tie and carries a resume because he kept hold of his belief in what it means to be a man. “A man wants to be a man by working, then you take that money and put a roof over your head. You buy something to eat and have something so sit on and sleep on.”

Hanshaw’s vision may not seem excessive. But in Fairfax County, setting one’s sights on home-ownership means steering into the eye of an economic hurricane created by a booming economy in a county rapacious for workers but rapidly running out of land to put them on. The effects of surging home values have forced Fairfax County to consider classifying even families earning the median income of $90,000 as candidates for affordable housing.

HANSHAW WAS RAISED in the Lake Barcroft community. He attended JEB Stuart High School, where he earned four varsity letters in wrestling. He moved up the ladder to managerial positions in almost every retail job he held. But he also began to realize that the raises he was given were never enough. “I work for K-Mart, I get a cent,” he said. “I work for Food Lion, I get a quarter.” In 1987, when Reed Drugstores asked him to manage two chains, but would only give him bonuses for one, he quit. This pattern held 18 years later, when, as a manager at K-Mart, he quadrupled the number of profitable one-hour photographs they developed but saw his boss reap all the rewards. So he quit to become a contract laborer. “If I’m going to get, as we call it, ‘pimped,’ I’m going to pimp myself,” he explained. “I’m not going to let you pimp me.”

This stark section of Hanshaw’s resume — “K-Mart Department Manager – 10/01-05/03,” followed by “Contract Labourer – 05/03 –12/05” — was precipitated, he said, by 25 years of frustration. In Fairfax County, the age-old goal of earning a decent wage and buying a home, which his parents had achieved in Falls Church, was becoming less attainable for his generation with each passing year. “I can’t afford what I’m trying to work for,” Hanshaw said, and incremental raises didn’t help.

According to a study by John McClain and Lisa Fowler of George Mason University, the median household income in Fairfax County grew by 8.8 percent between 1999 and 2004. In the same period, the cost of necessities like food, utilities and health care grew by anywhere from 13 to 26 percent. After coping with this, most median-income households had less than 20 percent of their income to spend on housing. However, the average rent in the county grew by 29 percent between 1999 and 2004, and the average home price grew by 84 percent. “A family of median income (about $90,000) can no longer afford home ownership in Fairfax County,” the report concludes.

HANSHAW WAS LIVING with his mother when he worked for K-Mart. His decision to quit was accompanied by the desire to assert his independence. He moved into the apartment of some friends, sleeping on a couch for a few dollars a night. But they used the money to buy crack, and Hanshaw said he couldn’t always resist. “That was taking me in the opposite direction.”

In October of last year, when a friend told him about a cold-months emergency shelter in Falls Church, Hanshaw eagerly took the opportunity to move into a dorm room with 12 other men. He continued working as a contract laborer.

When a job finished after the buses shut down for the night, he slept on a bench, being sure to call the shelter beforehand so he wouldn’t permanently lose his bed. When a spot opened up at New Hope Housing’s Kennedy Shelter in December, Hanshaw took it, even though it meant quitting his job to move to the other side of the county.

A January point-in-time survey by the county identified 2,077 homeless people in the county. “The problem is quite invisible,” said New Hope’s executive director, Pam Michell. “Folks live in the hotels, live in the woods, basically out of sight. You can make them out of mind.”

Kennedy’s resident manager, Diane Banks, estimated that “lots, lots” of its occupants were there in part because of the lack of affordable housing in the county. She said many of them work full-time jobs.

The Rev. Keary Kincannon, a certified housing counselor who runs Rising Hope, a Methodist outreach church that recruits many homeless volunteers to serve their peers, agreed. He said that when the church hosted a homeless shelter for several of the coldest months last year, many of its residents got up early to go to full-time jobs as cashiers, truck drivers and construction workers. The point-in-time survey found that almost half of all homeless adults are employed.

Hanshaw’s mental illness and substance abuse problems are typical. Of single homeless people in the county, 90 percent have the same issues.

Kincannon concurred, but he said that even for people with a host of problems, “If there was some place they could afford to live, they might be housed.” This is particularly true for homeless families, who make up more than half of the county’s total homeless population. Only 4 percent of homeless people in families have substance abuse/mental health issues. More than three-quarters of these families are headed by a single woman.

But Michell said becoming homeless is usually about more than the cost of rent. “I think the whole line that people are one or two paychecks away from homelessness is just garbage,” she said. “It’s about way more than the economics.”

All New Hope residents must participate in the “Out of Poverty Program,” a life skills workshop that approaches poverty as being only partly about money, “helping people see their life in a holistic way,” Michell said. “It’s a whole lifetime thing that’s gotten you to where you are. It’s unlearning a lot of patterns and behaviors.” People can be poor in every aspect of their lives, but they also discover they have wealth they hadn’t recognized.

“I’m aware of where I am,” Hanshaw said of his response to the program, “In order to go somewhere you have to first find your point of reference.”

Michell believes the first place the homeless must go is into a home. The “Housing First Model” which is becoming the standard in the county, rejects the idea that the homeless must get their life in order before moving into a home. It posits that lives cannot be put in order unless the people living them can be confident they and their families have a reliable place to sleep.

BUT THE COST OF HOUSING can undermine these programs. Michell said many clients backslide after completing every program, then discovering that even the best mindset may not prevail against the hard numbers of housing in Fairfax County.

Kincannon described the lack of affordable housing as “absolutely the bottom line issue on why there’s so much homelessness.” According to a 2006 report presented to the Board of Supervisors by the Fairfax County Council on Homelessness “preserving affordable housing may be the most efficient way to keep families and individuals housed.”

But affordable housing is becoming increasingly scarce for people earning $90,000 a year, much less for drug addicts trying to get out of the woods. Shelters are being forced to fill the gap, often housing people for months. “I see shelter as the starting point for people who have been homeless who want to change their lives,” Michell said. “That’s not the role we’re playing.”

“The role we’re currently playing is to be a long term treatment program because there’s no place else to go, there’s no next step.”

In August, Hanshaw was lucky enough to take the next step. He was offered a coveted spot in a long-term supported living apartment sponsored by Pathway Homes. Pathway houses about 350 adults with mental illness in units across the region, according to Alyssa Ford Morel, its Vice-President for Philanthropy. It charges its clients 1/3 of their income, making up the difference, and the cost of the care services it provides, mainly with money from the Arlington and Fairfax/Falls Church Community Service Boards.

Ford Morel said rising rents and home prices restricts Pathway’s ability to fill the needs of the community. “It makes things very challenging for us. It has really put a limit on where we can put people.”

MICHELL, KINCANNON and Hanshaw see the economics of housing in the county as a system that has unleashed itself from everyone’s best interests. “The average, compassionate person does not know where to begin on housing,” Michell said. “The big change that’s happened is that housing has become so unaffordable for everybody that it trickles down.” She said that for college graduates, emergency personnel, teachers and others earning a moderate salary “options are limited. [But] people who are homeless don’t have options.”

According to the George Mason study, more than 88,000 households moved from Fairfax to another jurisdiction in the area. It surmised that most moved so they could buy an affordable house or a larger house for less money.

Michell said the solution must come from the county. “The role of the government is when the economic system doesn’t work the government should intervene. And the housing system in Fairfax is clearly not working.”

Kincannon said subsidized housing, such as that offered by Pathways and other non-profits, is a necessity in the area. But he believes the county must address the fundamental problems of its economic situation. Since the price of land is the largest expense for any new construction, he suggested the county should prioritize — through for-profit or non-profit construction firms — that the cheap land be used for affordable housing. He also said the county must change its zoning to allow for higher density developments and insist that developers add affordable units to all new projects. Michell agrees. “We have to, as a county, realize we are not suburbia,” she said. “Something’s got to give, and I think what’s got to give is density.”

If nothing gives, Kincannon predicted, Mount Vernon could become “a ghetto of wealth.” Fairfax businesses will not be able to find employees. “In the long run it makes it a less desirable place to live because we won’t have all segments of society to provide the services society needs.”

Hanshaw said he became homeless in Fairfax rather than move somewhere else for the same reason many Louisianans refused to leave after Katrina flattened their homes. They wanted to live where they had their roots. Fairfax County is Hanshaw’s home and the place where he would like to build his home. Attempting to explain a system that seemed to benefit so few and excluded people like himself from home-ownership, an essential part of a functioning society, he recalled his own drug habit, “One hit of crack ain’t enough and a thousand ain’t enough,” he said. “How much [money] is enough? That’s an addiction.”