By Liangzi Xu
Ashley Lallo, a young single mother in her 20s, said she barely has any income. Even though she doesn’t have to worry about food, finding affordable housing is still difficult for her.
Lallo is not a particularly unusual case. Research by the National Center on Family Homelessness shows single-parent families are most likely to face homelessness and they are among the poorest in the nation. More than three quarters of all homeless families in the U.S. are headed by single women with children.
Single Mothers’ Income Status versus Boston Area Housing Prices
U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2016 show that almost 10 million single-mother families are raising some 17 million children under 18 years old. Among those children, around 40 percent of them are living below the poverty line; only 11 percent of children who live with both parents are counted as poor.
“Boston is the third most expensive city in the country,” said Catherine Tumber, a senior research associate at the Northeastern University, Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. In her investigation of Boston’s housing status, she noted, “the way that government counts people as in poverty, given the cost of living here, is not fully accurate. By our estimation, there are many, many more people who are living in poverty.”
The federal poverty guidelines show a family of three with a weekly income below $393 can be regarded as poor. A minimum wage earner makes $440 a month as a full-time employee, which is only slightly above the poverty line. A single parent who earns minimum wage with two or more children will be more vulnerable to living below the poverty line.
Housing costs can far exceed such baseline incomes. The typical median rents in the least expensive neighborhoods in Boston can reach from $1,500 to $1,700, based on research by the Center for Social Policy at University of Massachusetts at Boston. Rent could easily eat up to about 90 percent of a minimum wage earner’s income.
Moving farther away from the city may be an alternative, considering the high housing prices in Boston. Tumber’s research indicates that since the end of the twentieth century, Boston area housing prices have been skyrocketing, while prices outside the area are similar to the price 10 years ago.
Tumber explained, “All (housing) prices went down during the recession. Boston itself and its nearby suburbs, because they constitute a commuting shed, have more than recovered their previous recession prices. There are some communities farther out that haven’t fully recovered.”
Living farther away from Boston can cut housing costs, but it may lead to unpredictable problems, such as traffic congestion, said Tumber.
Boston Temporary Housing Resources
The Division of Housing Stabilization, part of the Massachussetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, runs the Emergency Assistance program that supports contracts for emergency family shelters across Massachusetts. The “Growing Challenge of Family Homelessness” report showed that the state housed 3,843 families in December 2016.
Among homeless families, 84 percent are female-headed families. Statistics from the website of Homes for Families organizations noted the typical sheltered homeless family is comprised of a mother in her late 20s with two children.
For example, the St. Ambrose Family Shelter, a shelter that works with the Home for Families, is serving 18 families with 39 beds in March, 2017. Among those families, all are headed by single parents. Only one family is headed by a single father and the rest by single mothers.
The shelter’s director, Richard Freitas said, to serve the families better, St. Ambrose’s rules differ from those of other family shelters because each family has a unique story. He also explained that family shelters have to take care of children as well as adults—an obvious difference between homeless shelters for individuals and shelters for families. Also, family shelters need to provide a separate room for each family to protect its privacy.
The average stay in a shelter is between four to eight months. However, homeless people are not motivated to move out, because they are afraid there is neither a stable environment nor anyone with whom they are familiar outside the shelter, said Freitas.
Shelter employees aim to encourage homeless people to live independently. They cooperate with a myriad of organizations and schools to offer a variety of services, such as financial help, job placement and referrals, to prepare families for successful and independent living.
Shelters are NOT Suitable for Single Mothers and Their Children
Poverty that continues from generation to generation is a big issue for people living in shelters. “We are getting people that have children whose grandmother was in a shelter. Their mothers were in shelter,” Freitas said. “They may end up in a shelter if things don’t change for them, or the situation in general in this country or anywhere else that hasn’t been changed.”
He also mentioned how terrible it was to witness a child born in the shelter and to see the homeless struggling to continue their education, even just basic education, let alone a college degree.
Shelters can provide a temporary living place for the family, but it may, in some way, influence children’s development and mothers’ mental health.
“It (a shelter) could be anywhere in Massachusetts. They could end up in Springfield, because then they are cut off or they are even more isolated. They don’t have any friends or family near them,” said Claire Rickenbach, a family support advocate at Healthy Family Central Middlesex, during and interview.
She said it is also hard for mothers to find a room to share to save money, because a lot of people don’t want a baby to live next door to them.
The single-mother Lallo is living with her family. She has tried to find her own apartment because she said she wanted to provide her son a better environment—one suitable for him to grow up. However, it is tough work, and she said it is even harder for young mothers who are under 18. Some of them are too young to sign up for affordable housing, and the wait for the housing can be as long as eight to 10 years.
“We can’t really afford it. We can’t get a job. We don’t have time, because we are trying to go to school and do everything else to better ourselves and career,” Lallo said. “What’s left were these $2,000 apartments for one-bedroom that we can’t afford.”