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Low-income jobs not enough to pay for housing

Second of two parts

As Levi Johnson, a 28-year-old homeless man living in Port Orchard, walks the streets during the day dumpster diving and smoking the butts of discarded cigarettes, he said he thinks constantly of how he might get his life together.

“I’d apply for jobs if I had a phone number or an address or ID,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, whose name has been changed, he worked in a Purdy pizzeria before he succumbed to heroin addiction and homelessness. As of last week, he said he was going to ride a bus to Silverdale to work on obtaining a Social Security card and identification since his was stolen on the street years ago.

“If I had it, I could get a job,” Johnson said. “I want to work.”

However, at minimum wage, he still might not be able to afford housing in Kitsap County.

Affordable housing

As of March 2004, the average apartment in Kitsap County rented for $731 per month. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), average rents for various apartment sizes in Kitsap County were:

• $491 per month for a studio;

• $616 per month for an typical one-bedroom apartment;

• $689 per month for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment;

• $803 for two-bedroom, two-bath; and,

• $912 for a standard three-bedroom, two-bath apartment.

To understand what this means for low-income families, imagine a “typical” scenario — the situation facing a single mother with two children earning a wage of $8.46 per hour — $1,466 per month. The average two-bedroom, one-bath apartment rents for $689 per month, nearly half of her monthly income.

Using standard affordability guidelines, the Housing Assistance Program at Kitsap Community Resources computes the average hourly wage for 40 hours a week required for a two-bedroom unit in Kitsap County is approximately $15 per hour.

In a new report by the NLIHC, Out of Reach in 2004, not only can Americans receiving Supplemental Security Income as their sole source of income not afford Fair Market Rent, but neither can those considered part of the low-income bracket.

In Washington, an extremely low-income household — earning $18,816, or 30 percent of the Area Median Income of $62,721 — can afford a monthly rent of no more than $470, while the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit is $788.

A minimum wage earner — earning $7.16 per hour — can afford a monthly rent of no more than $372.

An SSI recipient — receiving $564 monthly — can afford a monthly rent of no more than $169, while the Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom unit is $620.

In Washington, a worker earning the minimum wage must work 82 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the state’s median Fair Market Rent.

In Kitsap County, an extremely low-income household — earning $19,050, or 30 percent of the Area Median Income of $63,500 — can afford monthly rent of no more than $476, while the Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom unit is $764.

The Housing Wage in Kitsap County is $14.69. This is the amount a full-time worker must earn per hour in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the area’s Fair Market Rent.

This is 216 percent of the prior minimum wage — $7.01 per hour. Between 2002 and 2003 the two-bedroom Housing Wage increased by 2.56 percent.

On Jan. 1, 2004, Washington State raised its minimum wage to the highest level in the country at $7.16 per hour, but it is still not enough for a family with two, full-time minimum wage earners to afford a two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent.

“We have children enrolled in the South Kitsap School District that are sleeping in the family car,” said Jennifer Hardison, executive director of the South Kitsap Helpline. Ironically, because their parents work, the family cannot afford an apartment.

Fixing the unfixable

“We know we have homeless here,” said Port Orchard Police Chief Al Townsend. “We really don’t have a lot of problems related to them.”

Townsend said most homelessness-related problems come out with the graveyard shift. He said officers are familiar with approximately 10 homeless “regulars” who hang out near the waterfront or on Mile Hill.

Although Townsend said that only what’s known as “aggressive begging” is against the law, Johnson has endless stories of being hauled off waterfront benches in the middle of the night by the local “cops.”

“It’s no different from any other jurisdictional matter. Homelessness is just not a law enforcement issue,” Townsend said, but he concedes it is the police department’s job try to prevent law enforcement problems before they happen.

Townsend notes that police officers are able to give vouchers through the Seattle Salvation Army’s Emergency Assistance Program for food, gas, transportation, prescriptions, motels and rental assistance.

He said the Port Orchard Police Department is the only agency in Port Orchard that has this program available.

“We try to help people when we can.”

Many area agencies are devoted to helping fix the problem of local homelessness, including the state-run Washington State Coalition for the Homeless, the Bremerton Housing Authority, Kitsap Community Resources and, of course, the South Kitsap Helpline, one of the only resources available to the homeless in Port Orchard.

“There’s such a long line of people waiting to get on those lists,” Hardison said of affordable housing and assistance lists.

According to Hardison, Helpline works hard to try to help people get on their feet — especially families, if only temporarily.

“We can put families in motels for up to three nights,” she said. There individuals can sleep, take showers and make phone calls to try and find a place to live to avoid going back out on the streets.

But Hardison said she knows there is no easy fix, especially with the limited funding she receives.

“We’re hoping it will buy them some time,” Hardison said. “The demand is just so great. We make it a priority to put up families with children.”

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