Living wage offers ray of light for homeless

A labor-community coalition in Albuquerque, N.M., is involved in a campaign to adopt a living-wage ordinance in the city. This article summarizes Martin’s remarks at an April 24 conference, organized by the New Mexico People’s Weekly World Committee, to build alliances to help defeat the Bush agenda.

New discussion on a living-wage ordinance is good news to our homeless community and low-income families, teetering on homelessness. It could be the shot in the arm we all have been waiting for, giving relief to many who have been struggling for too long to make ends meet (choosing between food, utilities or rent).

For our homeless community, low wages are the number one barrier to housing and financial difficulty is the number one factor in becoming homeless.

According to the Urban Institute 73 percent of Americans are one to two paychecks away from being homeless.

It’s poverty, not individual deviance, that is the major cause of people becoming homeless. (Substance abuse, alcoholism and mental disabilities apply to the smallest percentage of our homeless population — around 38 percent.)

According to Homeless Court, Continuum of Care and other service providers, 3,000-plus homeless people access services in our area. Many believe the number of homeless to be as high as 4,000. Over one-third work full- or part-time jobs.

The gap between what a person earns in wages and what they need for rent is the difference between housing and homelessness. With 28 percent of families in New Mexico living in poverty, we start behind the eight ball. It’s not free housing people are looking for, but housing people can access and afford.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development says you need $11.58 an hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment here in Albuquerque, where 38 percent of residents earn $8 a hour or less. According to the Albuquerque Apartment Association, the average rent in the city is $607 a month. That does not include the cost of credit checks, security deposits and move-in costs.

For homeless persons trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps working at day labor, the pay for most is $48 a day. Once you subtract travel costs, equipment fees (for some jobs) and check-cashing fees, your pay at the end of the day could be below the minimum wage. For those working at chain stores or similar jobs, the pay is $6 to $7 an hour, well below what is needed to afford an apartment.

If you live in a motel where the rate is currently $28 a night and up (in many motels the monthly rent is $450 to $500-plus), there is little possibility to save for a cheaper apartment.

If you have kids or other family, the cost and difficulty goes up to hopeless.

The apartment association says that this summer, as occupancy rates go up, so will the rents.

Meanwhile our already low wages become even lower and useless. A more expanded transportation system would help with second- and third-shift jobs, but that seems far away.

The answer for those trying to help themselves is a living wage to narrow the gap between wages and rent to manageable proportions.

All the fears cited about raising wages — that it will lead to lost jobs, closing of small business — have never come true. This was said when the minimum wage rose to $5 and it was not true; it was said when Santa Fe raised its wages to $8 an hour and it proved not to be true.

In fact, raising wages had the opposite effect: more employment, and employees missed fewer days from work. The old adage “let them eat cake!” or the claim, “we can’t afford it, we are going to be ruined,” does not hold water. Instead, we increase efficiency, reduce lost days from work, and maybe, just maybe, reduce our homeless population and at the same time reap the benefits of housing people.

Housing reduces repeat arrests at $67 a night for trespassing, reduces the strain on our health care system, and reduces school truancy — all benefits of housing we can afford with a living wage.

We tried the “bring business to Albuquerque with low wages” policy. It has not worked. Now lets try a policy that has healthy people being educated, service programs working because case managers can find their clients, and employers with employees whom they don’t have to constantly retrain because of no-shows.

The living wage is not a cure-all but it sure will make for a better quality of life and public safety, where people have a chance to improve their lot in life. That is what we have been expecting from our homeless and what we want for ourselves.





Maurice Martin, a Vietnam-era veteran, is an organizer with the Homeless Advocacy Coalition and ADAPT in Albuquerque, N.M.