Real Life Stories

Rodney the invisibly disabled and under-valued veteran

Rodney is an intelligent, handsome black man of 61 years. Born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, his family immediately moved to Canton, Ohio, where his memories begin.

Rodney, with this sharp mind and quick wit, developed a taste for knowledge and is always reading books of an expansive nature. A high school graduate, he held several jobs, including that of a production manufacturer and scheduler. He later worked as an assembly and subassembly supervisor for the manufacturing of bank-machine parts.

Rodney served honorably in the service as a member of the elite combat defense police, and he later took advantage of the GI home loan program. For the modest sum of $15,900, he was moving toward home ownership when financial disaster struck. He was laid off from his job and unable to continue to make the $300.00 monthly mortgage payment.

Counter to expectations, when Rodney ran into trouble, the VA did not reach out to help him by amortizing his loan or placing the arrearage on the far end of the mortgage. To the contrary, he was told, “You know you are responsible for your debt.”

Fully aware of his obligations but unable to secure another job or assistance from the VA, his home was finally repossessed. Rodney was struck a serious blow.

Today, Rodney’s health is less than good. He suffers from Major Clinical Depression, hypertension, and a heart valve problem. He has painful bone spurs on his feet that the VA doctor says he cannot operate on because Rodney is medically unstable from the neuropathy caused by Diabetes type II. For this, Rodney now receives a VA Disability check for being 20 percent disabled. His monthly check is $128.00. This does not afford him housing.

According to the VA, Rodney is now 80-percent capable of working. The government theory is that Rodney should be able to find job, and if that job pays a Universal Living Wage – ULW (National Locality Wage – NLW) for the thirty two hours remaining in his work week, he should be financially OK. His income will be a Universal Living Wage – ULW (National Locality Wage – NLW)Universal Living Wage – ULW (National Locality Wage – NLW)/Stipend. 

Note: In order to create a true Universal Living Wage – ULW (National Locality Wage – NLW)/Stipend the VA must pay a greater amount for the 20-percent disability.

Carrie the single mom and the working poor

Carrie, age 34, was born in Hastings, Nebraska. Carrie’s hair is the color of corn silk, her demeanor is calm, and her words are few.

Carrie is the loving mother of two wonderfully respectful and intelligent daughters, Tina and Tonya. They are fourteen-year-old twins. Tina wants a career in law enforcement and Tonya thinks she may want to be a pediatrician. However, she thinks she will wait and see how her sister fares in law enforcement as she may take her lead if it proves to be enjoyable.

The three of them make a “team.” After suffering nine years in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship and household, the team grabbed their schoolbooks and only the clothes on their backs and slipped away in their 1974 Chevy Malibu. In a way, they were lucky. They found their way to Austin, Texas and the International Hospitality Network (IHN), where broken families stay first with members of this church then that one for about a week. For them, this went on for a month. The girls were distraught and scared. Carrie was determined. She immediately got a job at Garden Terrace, Austin’s only single-room occupancy (SRO) facility with supportive housing.

Carrie is the Night Audit Person/Desk Clerk where she mothers 85 needy residents. These folks are living independently (sort of). It is considered “transitional housing,” but no one can afford the housing to transition into. They are housed and provided food, “case management,” and almost no rent.

On Thursdays and Fridays, however, instead of 85 people, up to 500 people are seen daily. Here she adds another 50 hours to her already very full schedule for a total of 82 hours or the equivalent of two full time jobs. She takes home $647.00 every two weeks. The family team spends $750.00 per month on a three-bedroom apartment. They get a 20-percent discount, because she works for Foundation Communities at the Garden Terrace. The “team” are members of the “working poor,” and they are not entitled to food stamps, health care, or public assistance. They earn no paid vacation. They save nothing. They live hand-to-mouth and month-to-month. Carrie says that when she gets home, the apartment is clean, and food is prepared. She attributes their overall survival to the girls. She says that without their attitude and without their constant hard work, “we would be lost.” Carrie says they don’t get all the clothes or the money to do the things the other children do, but “they are OK”…but for how long?

Jim the socially disordered and physically afflicted

Jim was born in 1957. He was one of three brothers and three sisters. His brother Mike died in Viet Nam. His sister Wendy died from an overdose of prescription drugs shortly after one of her children was run over and killed. Jim tells this in a rather stoic fashion. This may be more a side effect of a head injury he suffered in 1993 when he was “jumped” rather than any kind of emotional comment on his part. Jim was a construction laborer.

After the injury, Jim became homeless. He now receives $733.00 per month in federal disability benefits. He gets medical benefits, so his net income drops to $603.00. He’s tried to share apartment living several times through the years. The result is always the same … disaster. Or, as Jim tells it, “Someone plays their music too loud, and we get thrown out.”

Jim is a sweetheart, and I care about him like a brother. Jim, at 5’9” and 240 lbs., with his slurred, stammering speech and poor ability to modulate verbal intonation

(he can become very loud), coupled with the insistence of a person who believes he’s almost always right, can be a little “off putting” to others.

People have even told me that they are afraid of him. As a result of all these things, not the least of which is his remarkably limited income of $603.00 per month in disability benefits, Jim is a perfect candidate for the Community First program. This is a program where “affordable” housing is truly affordable. Money is raised to purchase a used mobile home. The tenant, in this case Jim, spends $350.00 per month on ground rents and costs. He spends $50.00 per month on propane. This leaves the remainder of his income ($203.00) available for food, electricity, clothing, toiletries, transportation, and emergency medical attention. This is clearly less than ideal, but it is a way to make the limited dollars work and provide him with a little dignity and independence.

Randy the mentally disabled and injured on-the-job

Randy, at the age of 45, is one of only two brothers to survive the loss of both parents. He made it halfway through the 9th grade, and even then it was special education as Randy is profoundly dyslexic but was labeled “retarded.”

Randy’s life work has been that of a painter. In fact, he helped paint the exterior of the Austin state capitol during its massive renovation in the late 1990s.

Randy would get his jobs through the local labor hall, where he was paid $7.50–$8.00 per hour. He received $.50 on the dollar, and the labor hall received the other $.50.

He had one of the cheaper apartments in town, where he paid rent of only $375.00 per month. He was just squeaking by financially, when one day he was sandblasting a building in preparation for painting, and he came flying off a wall, falling 10 feet and fracturing his right ankle in three places. 

“I was making it … just barely, but I was doing OK until I busted my ankle.”

In Texas, businesses are permitted to “opt-out” of paying for workers compensation in exchange for allowing injured workers the opportunity to sue for their injury. Of course, for such a small claim, Randy was unable to find an attorney to take his case. He was on his own. He received care at the Brackenridge Hospital emergency room, where you and I, as tax payers, ultimately pick up the tab. He had no follow-up care and no physical therapy; after all, he was a member of the “working poor.” The business of course was very apologetic, but the foreman let him go saying, “Well hell, it’s clear you can’t do nothin’ son.”

Randy tried to bring two other people in to help cover the rent, but that quickly fell apart, and he ended up on the streets where he remains to this day. He does odd jobs, but it is never enough to put together first and last months’ rent plus the deposit.

David the roadblocks to dignity and fairness

David stands 6’4” and weighs in at 230 pounds. He was born in 1959 in Bay City, Texas—the middle of two brothers. David had been living on the streets of Austin, Texas, when he decided to “turn his life around.” He got a job with Austin Task, whose motto is “Employing the Unemployable.”

He applied to enter case management at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, where he would ultimately remain for four months. For the first month of his job he slept on the front porch of the Saint Ignatius Martyr Catholic Church. He did everything he was asked. He was finally brought into the shelter and into the case management program. David is a very hard worker. He started as a janitor at $7.25 per hour.

He quickly moved into the position of Floor Tech and then became a supervisor after just four months. 

When he became supervisor he asked for a raise. Unfortunately, he was denied. He was astounded. How could they hire him, and promote him twice into a position of supervisor and not give him a raise? How could they only pay him $7.25 per hour? He asked if they had found any problems. The sheepish response was, “no.” David again asked for a raise. He was desperate to move out of the shelter; he was again refused the raise. David felt he had no choice, so he quit. He felt they were taking advantage of his situation. David, seeking only a little dignity and fairness, is homeless once again.

Pappy just a regular person stuck on the streets

I never knew his real name. His moniker always seemed enough. I guess the reason is that when you looked at him you saw an exact cross between Wild Bill Hickok and Gabby Hayes. Any other name would make no sense.

Pappy stood about 5’8”, had a slight West Texas drawl and a weathered face that reflected the West Texas landscape.

One fall day, I was outside of HOBO, Helping Our Brothers Out, and the first of the five shelters from where I’ve conducted outreach. I was exchanging the usual greetings with the guys, when I saw Pappy and stopped to exchange a pleasantry or two. I suppose we were talking about the weather when something began distracting me.

A spot on Pappy’s trousers caught my eye, which struck me as odd. Everyone’s clothes were soiled, and therefore a “spot” was not noteworthy. But then, I realized that the spot seemed to be growing. The spot that had started at about the size of a quarter had grown to the size of a silver dollar. Then it grew to the size of my fist.

Surprised, I came out with, “Pappy, your leg. It’s bleeding … badly.” 

He looked down almost as if seeing it for the first time, but then remembered, “Oh, yeah, I got whacked…” It was then that I realized that he was actually propped up on the wall, not just leaning against it. He was not able to put any weight on the leg. The bottom of his quadriceps, just above his knee, had been severed. A huge hole now replaced a good-sized chunk of his leg muscle. There were crutches next to him that I had not noticed before.

Pappy had gone to sleep in the park with a friend. His friend woke up and tucked back in the woods to relieve himself. Just as he did, a black-and-white police unit came cruising by, saw Pappy and stopped the car.

One of the two police officers got out of his car and started walking in Pappy’s direction. Hank, Pappy’s friend, froze where he stood. He then saw the police officer look around as if to see if anyone was in the area. He pulled out his nightclub. He raised it all the way above his head and brought it down on Pappy’s leg while Pappy lay sleeping. It just missed smashing his kneecap.

Pappy shot up into an upright position. He never fully opened his eyes and then fell back down unconscious from what must have been excruciating pain. Hank said the officer looked in every direction and then especially hard at the woods where Hank remained frozen in fear. The officer slowly returned the nightstick into the ring on his belt. Hank remained hidden long after the patrol car pulled off, before he dragged Pappy back into the woods. 

Richard has been striving to end homelessness since he first saw it come into existence as a mortgage foreclosure preventionist in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Today, he is the creator and director of Legal Aid for the Homeless, where he has daily interaction with the disabled homeless citizens of Austin, Texas. He is president and founder of House the Homeless, Inc., which he established in 1989. Of course, he is also the creator and national chairman of the Universal Living Wage – ULW (National Locality Wage – NLW) Campaign.

PURCHASE THE BOOK! Everyone knows there is an answer to economic homelessness. Enactment of the Universal Living Wagewill conservatively end economic homelessness for over 1,000,000 people and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. All proceeds go to support efforts to end economic homelessness.

Hank managed to get Pappy to the emergency room where Pappy was treated. Some kind of emergency procedure took place. The next day Pappy was told that he would have to have a series of skin grafts and even then he was assured that he would never walk properly again. The year was 1989.

It was in 1990 or 1991 when we learned that Pappy had died in a house fire on the east side of town. Pappy was sleeping in an abandoned house with two other guys. Someone who was owed six dollars by one of the two other fellows set fire to the house, and Pappy died in the blaze. 

Pappy was one of the sweetest, gentlest men I have ever met. I remember him showing me a picture of a fourteen-year-old girl who he said was his daughter. He was just a regular person, an RP, who was down on his luck. Pappy would have gladly paid the six dollars out of his own pocket. Money, the lack of it, and feelings of being wronged make people do unthinkable things. 

Pappy had been a hard worker his entire life. It is quite possible that had Pappy been paid a living wage for his labor instead of a failed federal minimum wage, he might not have been stuck on the streets of Austin and subject to the dangers of those streets. He might be with us today.

It is clear to members of the Universal Living Wage – ULW (National Locality Wage – NLW) team that it is important to expand our prescription for addressing economic homelessness and homelessness generally. Our proposed prescription has three remedies.

  1. For those who can work, we suggest fixing the Federal Minimum Wage once and for all by replacing it with a Universal Living Wage – ULW (National Locality Wage – NLW).
  2. For those who cannot work, we suggest fixing the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) stipend on either a national or state level or a combination of both. It makes no sense that people receiving an SSI stipend check every month are still not able to afford basic rental housing (an efficiency apartment).
  3. Discharge no one into homelessness.This is based on the idea that at no time do we know as much about an individual as when they enter one of our institutions (e.g. hospital, prison, military, or foster care). We must use this knowledge to prepare for their eventual discharge into a safe housing environment. Simply put, this will prevent their homelessness.