TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.
THE HIGH COST OF HOUSING: HOMELESSNESS
By TJ Sullivan
Ventura County Star
Every morning for several months Julie Clark saw her three children off to school with a reminder of the special place they were to meet if the motel kicked the family out of their room before the afternoon dismissal bell.
"Every day … I'd say if I'm not where we left each other, at the motel, then we'd meet at the park because I didn't know where we'd be staying," Clark said.
It took only eight weeks to get that poor after her husband and his paycheck moved to another state two years ago. Clark, 32, and her three children, ages 4 to 14, were left without the formality of a divorce, or child-support payments. Simple math determined the future from there — $680 in welfare assistance wasn't enough to cover a rent payment, especially for their $1,200-a-month home in Oak View.
With no other options, the family quickly joined one of the fastest-growing groups in Ventura County: homeless children and single mothers.
Since 1997, Ventura County has counted an increasing number of children in emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities, numbers that have increased by 400 percent as more beds have been added.
The cost of housing is likely one of the leading contributors to the problem. One-bedroom apartments alone rose an average of 45 percent in the past five years, from $710 to $1,036, according to data collected by Dyer Sheehan Group Inc.
"It's very, very scary," said Cathy Brudnicki, a businesswoman in Thousand Oaks and president of the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition, which applies for grants and oversees the distribution of funds to organizations and agencies that serve the homeless. "Our population in general really doesn't understand the gravity of this situation, or people would be clamoring for change."
Julie Clark speaks in a matter-of-fact tone of her slide from the couches of compassionate friends into the motley motels and vacant beaches of Ventura. She is unashamed and undaunted. It is what it is.
"All the money went to the motels," she said, repeating the $46.13-per-night room rate that is forever logged in her memory. "I had food stamps to feed my kids, but we could only afford two weeks (in the motel)."
The motels Clark stayed at are not typical vacation spots. In some cases they have become de facto transitional housing, the last resort for people with shaky credit histories, or without the steady income necessary to secure an apartment.
Howard Goldberg, a liaison with a Ventura Unified School District program who arranges tutor services and mentoring for homeless children, said motels house the majority of his students.
"The shame is they are paying as much as they would in an apartment, but they're not in an apartment because they don't have a deposit and some have credit issues," Goldberg said.
Clark recalled the stress found in the motels, where the pressure that grew in small rooms sometimes resulted in boisterous battles between couples in financial straits, rows that were often punctuated by slamming doors and shrill screams.
"There's fights all the time…after awhile I got used to it," Clark explained as she sat in the shade of a tree behind RAIN. "Then they'd be drinking on top of it to see if they could feel any better, but that doesn't work."
The biggest stress for Clark wasn't the fights she heard, she said. It was her fear of being caught by motel management after she, another single mother and their combined collection of seven children began sharing a room, stretching out their dollars over more days each month.
"You had to worry about being kicked out for having too many people in the room," Clark said. "You weren't supposed to have any guests. You worried about how you would pay for it."
Through it all, her children's grades suffered. Arguments between them became more frequent.
"They aren't stable, so they aren't happy," Clark said.
When motel room money ran out after the first couple of weeks between welfare checks, Clark and her children slipped down to Ventura's beaches, where they spent nights on the sand.
A little less than a year ago, Clark applied for a single room at the county's RAIN transitional living center, located in an old, military dispensary, a couple of hundred yards from the tarmac at Camarillo Airport.
It's an unremarkable structure, with hallways of scratched-up wood paneling and rooms that are smaller than 200 square feet. Homeless residents can stay there for up to two years as they receive food and counseling, though none has ever stayed more than 14 months.
Alcohol and drugs are strictly forbidden, as is fast food, which is viewed as a waste of money. While at RAIN, individuals and families are expected to save a minimum of 80 percent of their income to get back out on their own.
After Clark and her children moved into their room, she went to school to learn administrative skills, then got a job in a medical office, but it wasn't until she had that assistance that she was financially able, or sufficiently motivated, to make the change.
In addition, until Clark and her children arrived at RAIN they'd been without a permanent residence for more than a year but had never before been identified by the county as being homeless.
"No one had any idea how many homeless kids there were…when we started five years ago," said Diana Vogelbaum, manager of RAIN. "No one had any idea…and we got a good look…They started showing up at our door."
A total of 552 children have come through the RAIN transitional living center since it opened five years ago at its current location. It is preparing to move to a new facility on Lewis Road this summer. Currently 37 children, the majority of whom are under the age of 5, live at RAIN. That's more than half the 70 people who live there.
Women and children first
The look of the homeless in Ventura County is often in the face of a child and his, or her mother. Their clothes are not tattered. Their cheeks are not shadowed with dirt. They are not holding will-work-for-food signs, or sleeping on sidewalks.
"They're the forgotten homeless," said Kathy Jenks, the director of the county's Animal Regulation Department, which became the umbrella agency over the RAIN transitional living center because Jenks spearheaded its foundation in the mid-1990s. "When people think 'homeless' they think of the scuzzy looking guy begging on the street."
Many homeless service providers say women and children tend to keep their homelessness secret, or exhibit no outward signs of it.
"They don't want someone to intervene and take their kids away from them…so they don't want to be that visible," Jenks said.
Although homelessness is not a legal reason to remove a child from a parent's custody, many people believe it to be so. Some even call county social workers to report it, said Ted Myers, director of Ventura County Children and Family Services.
"The law is very specific…homelessness isn't a presumption of child abuse, or neglect,” Myers said. "We'll get those kinds of calls, but unless there is some kind of (harm)…we don't respond."
Regardless, in an effort to avoid the problem, parents often hide their living situations, sometimes so well that even their children's classmates don't know.
The worst day
Terra Hays is one of those children.
At 10 years old, she's on the verge of crossing from the simplicity of childhood into the complexities of the adult world around her, a transformation that began during her year of homelessness. She asks questions, including what the reporter has written in his notebook about her, and she wants it read back word for word. She's already learned not to trust easily.
Hays has two extreme memories of her life since she became homeless — her worst and best days. She doesn't hesitate to answer when asked about them. She knows both as surely as she knows the sound of her mother's voice.
Her worst day was when her mother went to jail.
"It was scary," she said, dangling her legs off the chair and gripping the armrest with her fingers. "We were in Kinko's and two cops walked by and they checked her and they arrested her."
Hays' mother, Christina Carrillo, was trying to copy identification cards, to make a fake ID to use with a stolen credit card that someone else had provided her.
"I was breaking the law to have a roof over my kids' head," said Carrillo, 38, who has four children ages 7 to 18. "That's why I'm here (at RAIN), because I don't want to do that anymore.
"It was dumb," she repeated, referring to the credit card fraud, "but I was doing it so my kids wouldn't be out on the streets."
Hays frowned as her mother finished the story, and then, as quickly as the girl's face dropped it filled up with a grin as she told the happier tale, the story of her best day.
"We were at the Motel 6…and all of a sudden I'm swimming and I heard them call my name when I was underwater, and I came up and saw my mom. She'd gotten out."
The two hugged without first pausing to towel off the water from the pool.
"We went to Carl's Junior that night," Hays said, bouncing in her seat, "and I had a lot of fries, too."
Terra Hays knows she's different, but nowadays her life is much the same as most children. She goes to school each morning and comes home in the afternoon. She plays board games and paints at RAIN with friends. They eat meals together and laugh.
"We play Life," Hays said. "I love Life."
But that's life at RAIN, not at school, where Hays becomes intentionally vague when talk turns to homes and houses.
"I always say I live by the airport," she said. "I don't say I live at RAIN. I don't know why."
When her mother asked if that was because people would make fun of her, Hays lowered her chin and replied, "Yeah."
Just hanging onto the social ladder in school can be difficult enough for homeless children, not to mention how hard it is to do homework without a home.
"For the majority…they don't have space, they don't have privacy, there's not enough room to keep their books," said Goldberg, who meets regularly with homeless children from elementary and middle schools.
"They don't invite their friends back to their house afterward," he said. "It's something that they are not willing to talk about to their peers."
Goldberg said he's not surprised by the claims of others in the county that the number of homeless children is on the rise. He's seen it within his own program, where typically there have been 12 to 15 children on his roster for each of the past four years. This year there are 28 in his program.
Linda Huddle, a special projects liaison with the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Office, said there are more homeless children who qualify for her program than there are available spaces.
"I don't come close to serving the need of the community that would be qualified," Huddle said as she prepared to visit with students at Harrington Elementary School in Oxnard.
Huddle assists with math homework, with reading and other subjects. As she sat recently with several children in her program her questions were directed at their schoolwork. She said she's careful not to ask things like how their summer vacations went because homeless children don't take vacations.
What the children lack becomes evident in subtle ways, such as when Huddle gave a cheerful second-grader the chance to choose a book to read from a shelf full of them. The boy, who lives in a garage with his family, bounced to the book shelf and chose a book titled "A House is a House for Me."
"Each creature that's known has a house of its own," he read.
Maturity and understanding
Goldberg said homelessness takes a significant toll on older children, particularly those in middle schools. They tend to become withdrawn, he said, partly out of shame.
"With maturity comes understanding," observed Louise Davis, a public health nurse with the county's Public Health Services, which often encounters homeless children.
The National Coalition for the Homeless said in a report in 2001 that children without a home are in "fair or poor health twice as often as other children." It also said homeless children are more likely to experience mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and withdrawal.
That's one of the reasons why RAIN offers counseling to many of its young residents, particularly for the teenagers who sometimes resent their parents.
"Some have seen Mom beaten up by the boyfriend, they've been beaten up themselves, they've seen Dad dragged off by police, lots of horrible things, not to mention sleeping on a garage floor," Vogelbaum said.
Lisette Rodriguez, public relations coordinator for The Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence in Oxnard, said the stresses associated with keeping a home can contribute to abuse.
"Not that poverty in itself is a cause of domestic violence, but it causes stress…increases tensions that will contribute in that way," she said.
Goldberg listened recently to an eighth-grader at a Ventura middle school explain that he had been living in a motel, but had since moved to the home of his mother's ex-husband, along with his mother and her new boyfriend. Each night the boy goes to sleep in a room he shares with his sister and his sister's boyfriend.
"I go to bed really early," the boy said, and left the explanation at that.
Asked about it later, Goldberg sighed and said, "Nothing shocks me anymore."
Though it may seem like stating the obvious, homeless service providers say the high cost of housing is the root of homelessness in Ventura County.
Joblessness is a factor, but not as much as the cost of housing, according to a homeless survey conducted by the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition. Some homeless people even continue working as they live in campgrounds, or their cars, relying on cell phones to keep them linked to employers and paychecks.
A study released last year by the National Low Income Housing Association said a person earning the minimum wage of $6.25 an hour in Ventura County would have to work 135 hours a week just to afford to rent an apartment.
"Clearly the housing market is the biggest factor in two ways," said Karol Schulkin, program administrator for Ventura County's Homeless Services Program. "People's rent has gone up…and the other is rental houses going off the market because the house has been sold.
"We've lost a significant number of rental units."
Census data on how many rental units may have been lost in the past couple of years won't be available until the next census. Nonetheless, many agencies say they've witnessed a drop in what's affordable to people at the lowest pay levels.
Doug Tapking, executive director of the Area Housing Authority of Ventura County, said people who have qualified for federal Section 8 vouchers, which are government rent coupons, have been unable to find landlords who will accept them. The problem is that a landlord who accepts Section 8 can't charge more for the unit than fair market rent, an amount determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In Ventura County that means a one-bedroom apartment can't go for more than $939 a month if it's being rented to a Section 8 recipient. But the average cost of a one bedroom in Ventura County was $1,036 in January, according to a study by Dyer-Sheehan Group Inc.
"It's the old question of why take a Section 8 rent when you can get market rate rent," Tapking said.
Julie Clark has hope.
After just eight months at RAIN, she has stepped out of the ranks of the homeless.
She got a job, a used car and has cleared up legal problems, such as those stemming from the loss of her driver's license after she was cited for driving without insurance.
RAIN helped her save enough for a deposit and she recently moved into a $1,000-a-month apartment, the first application she filled out.
However, even though it's a boost back into society for her and her children, Clark is still on the edge, paying 90 percent of her income for rent.
Asked how she's been able to make that work, Clark said: "I just do."
The cost of basic utilities is included in her rent payment and Clark receives mileage compensation from the county for her drive to work.
"We don't have a phone yet and I do have food stamps for food," she said.
Clark knows that if she gets sick, or her car breaks down, they could be homeless again. She also knows that with a month-to-month rental agreement her landlord could legally raise the rent with just 30 days notice.
"I'm just hoping none of that happens," she said.
Clark told her landlord everything about herself, that she and her three children would be living in the apartment, that they'd been homeless for two years.
Now she's allowed herself a simple joy — having her own bedroom. It is a return of privacy long lost from her life.
"I just want to go forward," Clark said. "I don't want to go backwards…I never know what will happen, but hopefully, in the future, I can find a job that pays more too."
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