Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Homeless, Part II : The Arithmetic of Poverty

This is the second of three articles, excerpted from a letter to my mom (winter, 2010), on the difficulties of being unemployed and homeless. In this article, I'll look at some of the realities of homelessness and unemployment, the ones the hard-line, right-wing, tough-love set inevitably sweep under the carpet.

When you find yourself without a home, your first priority is getting one. Everything depends on it. Without a base of operations, hunting for a job presents nearly insurmountable obstacles, from not having an address to give employers (who, understandably, are leery of hiring someone in the mess you’re in) to not having a place to shower and shave so you can look your best at interviews.

Humanely-implemented welfare programmes acknowledge this need, and make it their priority as well. Welfare programmes like Ontario Works, whose first mandate is not welfare, but rather policing the welfare system, merely pay it lip service.

Read on.

HOMELESS, PART II : The Arithmetic of Poverty

There is no such thing as an affordable living situation when your income stands at $535 a month. Not in Ottawa or Toronto, at any rate. [$535/mo is the maximum allowed to a single person without dependents under the Ontario Works programme.] With that amount of money, even the congenitally frugal can’t afford more than $300/mo in rent, and the cost of single rooms—rooms!—starts at $400/mo. I know. I've been doing a lot of looking. The list of rooms and bachelor apartments at Aide logement/Housing Help has nothing under $400. Sure, there’s subsidized housing—I'm in The Registry now, as they call it (ominous-sounding to those of us who cut our teeth on Orwell)—but it takes months, sometimes years, for anything to become available. Not much help when you’re homeless in the dead of winter.

So Step one of my plan (” ..find an affordable living situation”; see previous blog entry, The 3 Big Questions) is already kiboshed. Let’s assume, though, for the sake of argument, we can skip directly to Step two (“...get a job”) and that Step one isn’t the prerequisite it most thoroughly is.

The minimum wage in Ontario presently stands at $10.25/hr. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that translates into a little over $1,600/mo. Subtract one-third (or more) for federal taxes, provincial taxes, payments into the Unemployment Insurance Programme and the Canada Pension Plan, and the total comes out to around $1,100/mo. That ought to be enough to get by on, right? Even when you take into account the $100+/mo for transportation that inevitably goes along with having a job.

Assuming it’s possible to find steady work without having a place to lay your head, the solution to homelessness, one might therefore imagine, is to get a job first, if only at minimum wage, and deal with the housing problem afterwards.


There are precious few full-time, minimum-wage jobs. Those there are don’t pay while you’re on lunch, so at the very least, you’re earning $105 dollars less per month than “40 hours per week” would seem to indicate (for half-hour lunches), or $210 less per month (if you take hour-long breaks).

Thus, even if you do secure a full-time, minimum-wage job, your net income is actually between $100 – $200 a month less than you think. Choosing a figure between the two—$150—your monthly disposable income, minus the cost of transportation (generously rounded down to $100), falls from $1,100/mo to $850/mo.

Now, it’s possible to live on $850/mo, even if just barely (god help you if you have a dental or medical emergency). I can pretty much assure you that the homeless, myself included, would flock to such work if it were available.

Reality is, though, most minimum-wage jobs fall well under the full-time mark. 25 – 28 hours per week is a more likely upper limit. If we perform the same arithmetic on 28 hrs/wk (I'm being generous here) as we did on 40 hrs/wk (incl. subtracting the 15-minute break per shift for which one is not paid), we end up with a net disposable income of approx. $635/mo. That’s exactly $100 more than the $535 a jobless person gets on welfare, so when you factor in the bare minimum cost of a boarding-house room ($400), what you’re left with is exactly the same disposable income you’d have if you were on welfare and living in the mythical $300/mo room!

And lets look at who actually gets hired for those minimum-wage jobs. Most of them are in the retail sector, marketing (ie telemarketing) or food services, most require no experience or education (although, invariably, a high-school diploma is required), and most are mind-crushers.

So who’s holding down the jobs? Kids, mostly, and students after pin money, or one-half of a couple (nearly always the woman) earning extra cash to pay for this year’s trip to Cuba. Even if I applied for a job mopping floors at MacDonald’s, I'd never get hired. Nor would any other man my age, especially one with my education and accomplishments.

So what is a homeless, jobless person past the age of fifty to do? Get a place to stay, then get a job? We’ve seen that that isn’t feasible. Get a job, and then a place to stay? Ix-nay to that, too.

In fact, there’s precious little anyone in my situation can do except pray for luck. The Mad Professor [a narcissistic psychopath I had the misfortune of staying with for a brief time in Toronto] was fond of intoning “Luck is not a strategy”, but when you’re stymied left and right, perforce it is.

Next: Homeless, Part III : Sticking to Your Guns

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