CRYSTAL LAKE – In less than 24 hours Rachel Hardy would be homeless.
The harsh reality was biting harder than the sub-zero temperatures that awaited her outside of the temporary warm haven provided by a McHenry McDonald’s. Tomorrow’s forecast – her first day without four walls and a roof over her head – called for temperatures dropping to -15 degrees with the wind chill.
Thoughts of braving the cold were still warmer than thoughts of going back to her ex. She would take a cold sidewalk before she took another blow from him. But decisions were never that simple for the 23-year-old mother of four.
She had some family in Memphis, some in Texas, but access to transportation and communication are hard to come by for a young, single mother with one foot out of a shelter.
“I don’t know,” she said as she shook her head, failing to completely hold off the tears while she thought about where she could go.
A growing problem
All Julie Biel-Claussen needs to do is look at the stack of paper on her desk to know the demand for low-income housing continues to grow.
The stack of paper on the desk of the executive director for the McHenry County Housing Authority gets taller every year.
“When I first started here in 2007 our waiting list for Section 8 housing was about one and a half years,” she said. “Now it takes up to four and a half years just to get assistance.”
There are 24,568 people living in poverty in McHenry County, a 2011 estimate that jumped 9.8 percent over the previous year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The statewide number climbed 8 percent to nearly 1.9 million in 2011.
Half of the poverty in the Chicago area was concentrated in the suburbs in 2011, up from about a third in 1990, according to a report released by Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center.
The poverty line – a metric used for assessing whether households qualify for federal benefits – falls at $11,490 plus $4,020 per additional person in the household. The average median income in McHenry County was $76,417 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many low-income residents seek out that Section 8 housing program that has closed its waiting because it is so backlogged. The county currently assists 875 families through the program.
It also can be more difficult for those making low wages to afford housing in McHenry County. Fair Market Rent – the amount of money a property would command if it were available for lease – is roughly $958 for a two-bedroom apartment in the county compared to the state average of $873, according to data from Heartland Alliance.
The same study shows the hourly wage needed to afford that apartment in McHenry County is $18.42 compared to the $16.78 to afford the state average. On the existing minimum wage, a person would need to work 89 hours a week to meet living costs for the McHenry County apartment.
Combined, housing and transportation costs account for 59 percent of the income for the average resident.
Biel-Claussen said that has led the housing authority to focus on more than housing and offer additional assistance to residents who need help paying utility bills. She said those programs have also grown, although there are many people who still need but do not seek the help.
“We have people that have never come in for assistance before and they are embarrassed,” Biel-Claussen said. “They never had to ask for help paying bills before and they think it’s a handout but it’s not. These are people who truly need a little help just to keep the heat on.”
Hardy came from Waukegan to Home of the Sparrow, but she barely knows how it happened.
She never bounced around from shelter to shelter as a child and always had good family support, she said, but a pregnancy as a young teenager made school much more difficult and with it came more challenges. But she never imagined she would be counted among those who are homeless.
“No one ever expects they’re going to be in a shelter or homeless, but for me it was just a series of events that snowballed fast,” Hardy said. “The domestic violence was just all the time, and I had to get out. But now I’m in a real bad financial situation like a lot of people here. Once you go to one shelter you're bound to end up in another.”
For a time, Hardy felt lucky just to have found a shelter. No matter where she checked, shelters were either full or had residency guidelines such as requiring the person to have lived in the county of the shelter for at least 30 days. But Home of the Sparrow had no such limitations and she was moved in at the end of May.
Hardy quickly enrolled at First Institute in Crystal Lake to study in the medical assistant program and got a job at an electronics store. There would be times when eating or sleeping would be limited or eliminated as she juggled work, school and taking care of her children before putting them to sleep and studying more.
Eventually the job, partially based on commissions, became too burdensome and did not pay enough to support what was needed to get her from the shelter to work and school and back again so she quit. Leaving the job meant an extension at the shelter would not be likely. Leaving the shelter meant leaving the medical assistance program six months into the 12-month certification process.
“It feels like there is no light at the end of this tunnel,” Hardy said. “You can’t stay in one place too long and you can’t get an apartment anywhere with bad credit. You can’t work or finish school if you have to move. Once you're in the cycle, you keep ending up back at square one.”
The Section 8 housing waiting list is closed and even those on it will not see assistance for four years. Those people still have to go somewhere.
Biel-Claussen said many people are living with relatives but even more are seeking the services of shelters.
Debbie DeGraw, vice president of marketing and development for Home of the Sparrow, said the demand for the shelter’s services have increased with its own waiting list growing to nearly 30 families.
DeGraw said the shelter has responded to the demand by restructuring its service delivery and the results have been good. Length of stays are down to four to five months compared with the two years some used to stay as the focus has shifted to securing services for those at the shelter that will allow them to quickly obtain housing.
Home of the Sparrow also acquired 13 affordable housing units in March and are in the process of closing on five more. DeGraw said implementation of rapid rehousing would also begin to put families in a home and then set them up with needed services.
The shelter has an 85 percent success rate and expects to serve 250 clients next year, more than double the amount from a few years ago.
But DeGraw said the biggest help to the growing homelessness rate could be a greater willingness from municipalities to allow low-income developments.
“Affordable housing is almost nonexistent and not everyone can afford $1,200 apartments,” DeGraw said. “There is a preconceived notion that these developments would be like Cabrini-Green, but we know these developers and they want to partner with service agencies. I think there just needs to be more discussion between developers, municipalities and service providers.”
A road home
It’s the morning of Dec. 13 and the night before was supposed to be Hardy and her children’s first day without a place to go. But Hardy woke up at the shelter, which gave her additional time to continue packing.
The average monthly income of those entering Home of the Sparrow is $77. The average monthly income at departure is $1,450. In this case, the average was not the reality for Hardy who struggled to transition to shelter life as she experienced it for the first time.
The extension was all she needed as she was able to make arrangements to stay in her mother’s one-bedroom apartment in suburban Cook County. The situation is far from ideal, and Hardy knows the stay will need to be short as her mother could be evicted for housing too many people.
Earning a medical assistant certificate is still her top priority as it is the only way shes a break in the nomadic lifestyle.
“I cry at night thinking about where I am going to go because I don’t want my children having to grow up this way,” she said. “You just have to keep looking for solutions and know nothing is promised. Just don’t give up.”