The pandemic’s devastating impact on people who are poor, homeless or almost homeless continues—as unemployment and debt rise and evictions loom.
Women who have lived on the edge for years are now are in danger of falling so deeply into the cracks that they may not survive.
COVID-19 has not created a crisis in services for poor and homeless women and men—it has undeniably exposed one that already existed. Until the systemic issues of poverty and homelessness are adequately addressed, Rosie’s Place will continue to be a sanctuary and safety net for those women who, like all of us, want a quality of life that is secure.
Poor and Homeless Women
One in 10 Massachusetts residents lives in poverty. More than 20,000 people are experiencing homelessness on any given day. And homelessness is growing in Greater Boston at a rate that outpaces the rest of the nation.
The root causes of homelessness are systemic and also personal. For some women, it may be unemployment, the loss of savings during a time of illness or an unplanned pregnancy. She may be suffering from mental illness or substance use disorder. With little money and living in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, our guests find the road back to stability can be long and difficult.
Growing income inequality - The concentration of income and wealth in America’s top earners has grown in the past decade. We have seen a significant increase in guests who come from middle class backgrounds but are now part of the population of poor in our state.
Lack of affordable housing - Growth in the Boston housing market has low-income renters increasingly facing extreme and unaffordable rent increases and evictions. Less than 10% of all Mass. housing is now considered “affordable.” And renters moving to another apartment often cannot accumulate the upfront money needed to move in. Gentrification in Boston, resulting in conversion of rental units to ownership condominiums units, has forced many long-time tenants out of their homes. Given the high level of need, government affordable housing programs such as Section 8 or public housing have waiting lists that are several years long.
Lack of living wages - A common myth is that employment is the key to self-sufficiency. In Massachusetts three out of four households receiving SNAP/food stamp assistance has an employed family member. Boston’s housing prices are among the highest in the nation, yet wages have not increased proportionally. . An adult earning minimum wage has to work two full-time jobs to afford rent alone. Our guests face an extra wage barrier when women in Massachusetts are paid on average 83% what a man makes . In addition, families receiving public assistance receive a fixed amount of a few hundred dollars a month for basic needs, such as housing, food, and health care.
Job or income loss - Job or income loss is another risk factor for families who are “one paycheck away from homelessness.” Although the poor are most at risk of homelessness, families struggling to get by who lose the wage-earner’s income—whether due to job loss, illness or a disability—may not be able to continue monthly housing payments, leading to evictions or mortgage defaults from their homes.
Domestic violence - When a woman decides to leave her abuser, she is usually making the choice between her (and her children’s) safety and housing and financial stability. Massachusetts allows domestic violence survivors to stay in a domestic violence shelter for a maximum of 90 days. Too often, the survivor—likely isolated from friends and family—often must choose between returning to the batterer or homelessness.
Substance abuse disorder – Use or misuse of alcohol or drugs affects individuals across social classes. However, a woman living on the edge of poverty often cannot access help to address addiction and is at a higher risk of homelessness. Once homeless, her ability to obtain supportive housing, adequate health care and addiction treatment can be hampered by the stigma attached to this disease.
Mental illness - Mental illness affects a significant portion of homeless and poor women, with depression, anxiety, bipolar personality disorder, and schizophrenia among the most common diagnoses. Mentally ill women face challenges in fulfilling the obligations to maintain housing and often lack of access to support services and treatment.
Are there any solutions?
The steps to take to end homelessness require the political will and the resources to address the causes of homelessness and barriers to permanent housing. Comprehensive programs and services are critical in mitigating the impact of poverty on women and families.
More affordable housing - We need more affordable housing for poor and homeless women and their families and to directly address the lack of housing affordability. Increasing availability and affordability of low-income housing will reduce extensive housing waiting lists.
Homelessness prevention - Services similar to those at Rosie’s Place should be widely available including health care and job search referrals. We often provide direct financial assistance to prevent eviction, cover unpaid utility bills or purchase household items—whatever the guest needs to stay in her home. Similar statewide programs should be more widely available.
Affordable healthcare - Increasing access to primary health care, oral health, substance abuse disorder treatment, and mental health recovery services will help create stability in the lives of women at-risk for homelessness.
Supportive services - Providing subsidized childcare and employment assistance, cash assistance, food security and essential social safety nets will help women find or keep themselves and their families stable.
Dignity for all - Immigrants are significant contributors to the economy and are tax payers, yet federal and state legislation has targeted immigrants for cuts to services and programs. Immigrants need to have access restored to basic services such as affordable housing and health care.
Our Unique Approach
We acknowledge that coming to Rosie’s Place is for most of our guests an admission of defeat. For her, that first day in our community is probably one of her worst days. She arrives considering herself a collection of problems, of faults—homeless, hungry, jobless, addicted, ill. Right from the start, we work to turn that around, to hold in our hearts the image of a strong and dignified woman who can make decisions that help her get where she wants to go.
While we provide resources and information, we also provide the message that every woman is a resilient and resourceful individual, whose past and present need not be her limits. We strive to hold that image regardless of the setbacks our guests face along the way.
We know, too, that second chances have to be a part of life—sometimes lots of second chances. Because they live with so little, there’s no room for error in our guests’ lives. Budgets are precarious, as are jobs and apartments. One misstep can lead to a fall from grace that is spectacular not only in its speed but in its magnitude.
We understand that the solutions for our guests are found over the long term, and we stand by them for as long as they need us to. Every day we reach out to poor and homeless women who hide in plain sight, trying to understand the right way to encourage and engage them, so we can make a difference in their lives.