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Thanks to Melissa who shared this link with me:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2011483190_homelesscensus31m.html

A story in the Seattle Times about the “new face” of homelessness and the disagreement about what constitutes homelessness these days.

It’s that time of the decade – census time.   Time to stand up and be counted!  You might wonder, at least you might if you are in my situation, does the census count the homeless and if so, how do they do it?  I spent a little time looking into that question and it turns out that the homeless are actually counted more frequently than the rest of the country!  The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) demands a count at least every other year from cities and counties across the country so it can allocate money and services designed to combat homelessness. This means that there are already methods in place to conduct counts of people without a fixed address that census workers can use.  Do these methods work?

In Minnesota census ‘enumerators’ (why does that sound like a role for Arnold Swartzenegger?) try to count the homeless over a period of 3 days.

  • On the first night, enumerators will count persons residing in shelters and temporary arrangements.
  • On the second day, enumerators will interview persons at regularly scheduled mobile food vans and persons at soup kitchens. If individuals at the mobile food vans and soup kitchens report a “usual residence,” they are not included in the SBE operation and are instead included in the general population count.
  • On the third night, enumerators will count persons at pre-identified targeted nonsheltered outdoor locations.

They’d still miss us.  The article points out that counting the homeless isn’t easy because ‘some homeless people don’t want to admit they are homeless, and the homeless are not uniquely identifiable as such by any physical characteristic, and thus cannot be identified easily.’  That’s right; we aren’t all unkempt slovenly individuals shuffling along the sidewalk talking to ourselves or asleep under newspaper blankets on park benches!

Similarly in San Francisco they too will spend three days attempting to count the homeless at shelters, soup kitchens, parks and highway underpasses and the census in Washington D.C. will include people in transitional housing and emergency shelters, on the streets, and in parks and camp sites, along with formerly homeless people now in permanent housing where they receive assistance from case workers. It does not, however, include those who are doubling up with relatives and friends, sleeping on couches and floors, one step from a shelter or worse.

Because the HUD count, and now the census count, methods are aimed at what I consider the traditional class of homeless – as described above, those in shelters, attending soup kitchens, at campsites, etc. – I wonder if it will accurately capture the numbers of the new homeless, those formerly middle class, now unemployed and cast from their homes by this Great Depression.  We don’t frequent food pantries or hang out under bridges.  We (I’m speaking generically here) stay with friends and family, move from motel room to campgrounds, sleep in our cars and RVs.  And we are probably amongst those who do not want to admit we are homeless. Would you want to be memorialized as homeless in the census for future descendants and genealogy buffs to see?  And we probably won’t benefit from the funds for homeless services.

Yesterday we arrived home and amidst the commotion of unloading kids and homework and groceries and releasing the dogs from captivity for their mid-day walk, a young woman approached.  She was wearing a name badge around her neck, carrying a clipboard in her hand.  “Hello,” she said.  “I’m from the US Census 2010.”

We were counted. But I don’t know if we count.

A couple of folks have written to me wondering what’s up since I haven’t posted recently (thanks- nice that you care! 🙂  so I wanted to let everyone know that while life is pretty much the same as usual here, there are a few family things going on that have taken me away from the blog.  My middle daughter’s basketball team made it to the championships (and I’m team mom so that means lining up snacks, the end of the year coach gift, team posters, party, etc.) and won with a 13-0 record!  It’s parent -teacher conference time (minimum days) at school so less free time for mom and I’ve been helping out a friend with her business, as well as applying for 2 more local jobs and preparing my workshop for the local Children’s Museum.  And I’ve been invinted to write an essay for Salon.com’s Pinched column so I’m busy mulling over that as well as working on posts on saving money, things the poor shouldn’t do, pets in an RV, and other subjects!  One of these should post later this week – tomorrow is more day labor work, sweeping out a warehouse!

I came across this on the web – an article titled “Is Living in Small Spaces Cruel to Children?”  Naturally I had to read it – wouldn’t want children’s protective services to come knocking at the door, after all!  It turned out that CoteMaison in France profiled a very space-age and small (431 SF) apartment that houses a family of four and a dog. It has a kids’ room that any kid would love in a raised section (I think the kids’ room is larger than our trailer), a sleek kitchen (with counter space), a living room with a Murphy bed for the parents and a porta potty sized bathroom.

Personally I was impressed by the use of space, although I would never chose to have such a WHITE apartment with kids and a dog.  I lived in a little cottage of only 400 SF with my first daughter (and 3 cats) – a 20×20 square divided into three 10×10 rooms (2 bedrooms and a living room) and two 5×10 rooms- the bathroom and kitchen.  Built as a vacation home over half a century ago it had no closets and very little storage.  I found it cramped.

The French apartment story was picked up by Apartment Therapy in the U.S, where some respondents called it cruelty to children.  Americans just couldn’t believe that 4 people could live in such a small space.  One respondent even went so far as to suggest that “in the US the children would be taken.” Interestingly the Europeans who commented scoffed at US sensibilities and told their own tales of living in very tiny apartments with their parents while growing up, and continuing to live in small places as adults.

However not all Americans were disparaging. The following comment reminded me of what a youngster living in an RV with his siblings and parents (previously mentioned in my post “The Romantic Version of Our Life”) had to say about how when they lived in a house everyone disappeared into their own rooms and only emerged at meal times and that living in an RV was bringing them closer together.

“Overall I think learning to manage living in closer spaces with family teaches children tolerance and vital social skills to adapt to new environments and to be comfortable and stress free in a variety of living situations.”

While some people – you know those liberal environmentally aware, frugal-living folks – have embraced the small houses movement (see Tiny House Blog), most Americans still think bigger is better.  And we aren’t alone. In fact we’ve been out McMansioned by the Aussies!  The typical size of a new Australian home hit 215 square meters (2,314 SF) in 2009, up 10 per cent in a decade, according to Bureau of Statistics data compiled for Commonwealth Securities.

In a sea change, the US figures show the size of new American homes shrinking from 212 square meters (2,281 SF) before the financial crisis to 202 square meters (2,174 SF) in September 2009.  For years, the size of the average American home has been getting larger and larger while family size has been declining.  But now USA TODAY reports an abrupt change. As of last year, the average size of a new home was roughly 15% smaller than it was the year before.

What’s brought about that change?  Global warming and environmental consciousness?  Loneliness as we rattle around in houses that could house an extended family or two?  Or maybe the recession? We may think bigger is better, but can we afford it?  Of course, our spending has been reduced in so many areas. But the pivotal expense in our lives still remains housing. Having housing expenses that are too large can really eat up your budget, limiting the amount you can spend on discretionary purchases (new car, vacations, private schools) or save for your children’s college, and your own retirement.  Simply put, buying too much house is an unproductive use of American capital.

And globally, our competitors and trading partners aren’t expending their capital on ‘too much house’.  New homes in other parts of the world are far smaller, with Denmark the biggest in Europe at 137 square meters (1,474 SF) and Britain the smallest at 76 square meters (818 SF).

According to China Tibet Online, the average residential area of Tibetan herdsmen is 172.6 square meters, or 1,857 square feet – the size of a 3 bedroom house in Morningside, FL listed for sale at $450,000.  How weird is that? What’s more (if you can trust their figures) 98.7 percent of Tibetan herdsmen own their own homes.  Currently (2009 figures) home ownership in America is only at 67.3 percent.  

“It will be a long time before people think of owning a home as a good investment again,” said John Vogel, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “A lot of what drives housing is psychological, and right now there’s a distinct lack of confidence in real estate.”

Wonder what skills it takes to become a herdsperson in Tibet?

An article titled “Family life in less than 1,000 square feet” on MSN Money details how squeezing four or more people into a small apartment or tiny bungalow can be done, and the families who say the payoffs can be worth it.

Even in the median-sized 2,469-square-foot American home, many parents would tell you there’s more stuff than space. And yet families of four, six and even eight are willingly squeezing themselves into apartments and bungalows of 1,000 square feet or less, sacrificing space for nice neighborhoods with good schools or rich cultural amenities.  (Umm, like living in Paris?)

Families living in RVs have taken the sacrifice to another level!  Check out this nicely done blog – Traveling on the Outskirts – chronicling the life of 2 professionals who have sacrificed the house, car, big TV and full-time jobs to travel around the country while living in a pop-up trailer!  You think our place is small- well theirs is teeny-tiny! 

We haven’t sacrificed for nice neighborhoods or rich cultural amenities!  The interior dimensions of our trailer – including the bed, sofa, and dinette and bathroom, not just the floor space – are approximately (it’s hard to measure – do we include the sinks, bathtub, stove and frig in the available square footage?) 9 x 23 or 207 SF.  Is it cruel to children (or their parent, why does no one think of the parent?) to live in such a small space?  Possibly.  My young son sleeps on the floor, and chafes at the lack of space to spread out his Legos and hot wheel cars.  My youngest daughter sleeps with me, as do numerous hard plastic Barbie dolls, the 2 dogs and the cat (who defends her claim on our pillows with sharp claws), which results in a very poor night of sleep for mom.  My middle daughter has claimed the sofa as her own since it is her bed at night, spreading out her possessions and tucking books, stuffed animals and homework in the crack between the bed and wall, and we no longer bother transforming it from bed to community seating during the day. 

But I think my oldest, my 12-year old tween, suffers most of all. Her bed must be remade daily into the dinette. She wants to talk to, or text, friends in private but has to retire to the car in order to do so.  She crushes on a boy in her class but we can’t have him over to hang out and they are too young to go off on their own.  She ‘needs’ to wash her long hair daily, and attend to other adolescent ablutions but as soon as she locks herself in the bathroom a sibling is pounding on the door with an urgent need to ‘go’!  Adolescence is the time to begin separating (within reason) from one’s family, to develop some independence, a sense of self.  I wonder how our living situation will hinder her.  She is a remarkable good sport and great help, even with the occasional flaring of teen attitude.  She is a straight A student and is involved in sports and theater.  She wants to help the homeless and study to become an architect.  I promised to take good care of her when I adopted her.   Some days I wonder if she would be better off adopted by a Tibetan herdsman.

One of the best known instances of barter would have to be “My kingdom for a horse!”And depending on the economic state of Richard the III’s kingdom it would also have to be one of the most lopsided trades known!  In most cases barter is the exchange of equivalently valued goods and/or services and it’s a practice regularly used in non-cash economies throughout the world. 

In Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, Charles Wheelan says:

“In a basic agricultural society, it’s easy enough to swap five chickens for a new dress or to pay a schoolteacher with a goat and three sacks of rice. Barter works less well in a more advanced economy. The logistical challenges of using chickens to buy books on Amazon.com would be formidable.”

Regardless, barter has been making a comeback here in recession-stricken America. While Amazon.com is still not accepting chickens for books, some businesses are open to making trades.

Small businesses that want to save their cash reserves, or run into credit obstacles, are turning to bartering as a method to acquire not only goods and services, but new customers. And new businesses – barter and trade exchanges – are springing up to support this practice.  An internet search turns up several businesses that offer to link members and facilitate trades.  A middle-man that allows businesses to trade without having to search out a direct trading partner or work their way through triangular trades (you have a widget and want a gadget but the fellow with the gadget doesn’t want a widget…).  They do the matchmaking for you, for a fee.

A Business Week article on Barter Exchanges reports that according to the most recent numbers compiled by the National Association of Trade Exchanges (NATE), some 400 barter exchanges in the U.S. and Canada generate transactions worth $4 billion a year.

That level of bartering is probably over most of our heads, but if you have a small business and an interest in bartering you might want to check out this article on About.Com for information and resources and visit sites like The Barter Company.

For the rest of us times are tough, and cash is sometimes hard to come by but you still need that oil change, haircut, or babysitting while you attend an evening class and you may have something to trade for those services.  You may have even engaged in bartering without thinking of it as such, maybe it’s just an exchange of favors – like swapping babysitting services, or taking over car pool duty one week while the regular mom is on vacation, knowing that she’ll do the same for you when you are out of town. Bartering can be that informal or it can take a little more work. 

In an article on MSN Money titled “Bad economy is good for bartering” they report that posts for bartering on Craigslist are nearly double those of a year ago.  A stroll through our local Craigslist lists the following potential trades – web design skills for accommodation; ammo cans for CB radio; home improvements for car repairs; reiki healing services for dog grooming; and professional tattooing for wedding services.  You can see how hard it could be to find someone who has what you want and who is interested in what you have!  And that’s where the internet services – similar to the bartering exchanges for businesses – come in.  If you don’t want to track down someone willing to paint your house in exchange for guitar lessons you might want to sign up for one of these services (or google barter/trade sites- there are more than are listed here): TradeAway, large and small items – want to trade your boat for a horse? – you can do it here; SwapTree, a trading site for books, dvds, video games and music; UBarterExchange, an eclectic mix of goods and services (not a lot of listings when I checked); and U-Exchange, a home trading site.

As with anything, there’s a potential downside.  In addition to the time it takes to match up with a trading partner, the expense of shipping if your partner isn’t local, and the issue of personal safety when trading with strangers, bartering is supposed to be viewed (and I guess is by the IRS) as taxable income on both sides of the swap. As one blogger noted it “seems unfair because you’re not gaining income outright. Presumably, the “income” you’re supposed to report would be the depreciated value of whatever the item is that comes into your possession in the swap. How do you come up with that value? And unless you put the swap specifics into writing—or if there’s an e-trail via a barter site like Swaptree—how could any barter transaction be traced and quantified?”

Don’t have anything to trade?  Try Freecycle.org – an online community with groups throughout the U.S. where people give and get things for free.  Or if you just want to borrow that extension cord, or power saw, check out sites like NeighborGoods.net, currently limited to the Los Angeles area, which is an online social network where people lend and borrow stuff they own but hardly ever use. As readers pointed out to me Wikipedia also offers a listing of tool lending libraries but because they are limited in number (and some have closed due to budget problems) you may find it hard to locate one that is close to you.  In that case, reawaken that spirit of neighborliness, grab a plate of fresh baked cookies and walk next door and see if your neighbor has what you need!

I do not generally blog on the weekends, that’s our family time.  We have chores to do, errands to run, and basketball playoffs to attend (one more game to go!).  I will try and approve comments, and possibly respond, but in general I aim to publish blog posts about 3 times a week and none on the weekend.

We had to move our trailer again today – when we returned from our 72-hr pullout the only open space was one of the larger ones – nice but not for our little trailer, at least not for long.  As soon as a smaller space opened we had to move.  So today, once the kids were in school, we shifted the trailer half a block to the small space at the end of the street. For the most part ‘community’ in the RV Park is limited to the friendly wave or nod when you pass each other on the way to the dumpster or laundry room.  But every once in awhile it goes a bit farther and you engage in conversation and even reach out a helping hand to each other.  That stood us in good stead today as another tenant at the park moved us – free of charge (which is nice because some people have been charged $100 just to have their rig moved from one spot to another) and helped us get hooked back up (every time you move you disconnect water, sewer, and electric systems, and turn off propane, wind up the jacks… it’s a process and if you don’t do it regularly you have to remind yourself not to unplug the electricity before pulling in the partial slide!).  Another tenant lent me her level so we could make sure we were level enough to put the slide out (we had one but my young son worked his magic on it and I couldn’t find it).  And yet another helped restart the water heater (oh, yeah – it’s got to be reconnected to the battery) and promises to come back later to help figure out why the oven doesn’t work.  So we are ‘settled’ in for the rest of the month at least and perhaps longer. 

I’m hoping it’s just the rest of the month and this is why – I’ve applied to be a campground host at the local state park.  If we get the “job” (completely volunteer- no money involved) we will get a free campsite that includes a much larger spot, a picnic table and fire ring.  Water, electricity and sewer hook ups are included (no internet sadly).  The job is a ‘natural resources’ host  – which means I’d spend a certain amount of time each week helping to protect endangered shore bird nesting habitat in exchange for our camp spot and the position could last as long as 5 months.  It could limit my ability to collect unemployment but the rent savings would be great and the additional space would make it easier to undertake the floor replacement project.  It’s not a sure thing by any means – in fact I have the impression that it might not come through because the park administration would prefer a host without children – but I should know next week.  If we get it, it will be worth the hassle of shutting down, pulling out and setting back up again!  Especially as the visit to the dentist yesterday revealed my middle daughter needs a root canal to deal with the cavity in her permanent molar.

“It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.” Aeschylus

I often have insomnia and last night when awakened by the heavy rain and nocturnal prowling of the cat, I started thinking about the hurtful comments I received from a particular individual yesterday. They were very angry comments and deteriorated into accusations of fraud. She didn’t believe in the blog, she said, it had to be a scam to get people’s money because I didn’t “sound like someone who was down and out.” Sometimes it takes a little distance from a situation to perceive the motivations behind it.  After mulling it over, here is my take on it.

There are human tendencies, which if not universal or inherent, are at least very common.  Among these are the ability to perceive rank and unfairness. From a very early age we compare our lot to the lot of others around us and even the most kindhearted and compassionate (barring the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa) feel better when we come out on top. It doesn’t matter if we are in actual competition or not.  If a colleague in a different department gets a raise we congratulate him while feeling diminished ourselves. If our neighbor is struggling we can feel sympathy even while we feel more successful and secure in comparison.  You might say that’s a social service of this blog – most people reading it will be rewarded with the feeling that no matter the issues they struggle with at least they aren’t an unemployed/homeless single parent!  You can see that in the comments – several of those who have responded have said they feel blessed (with their lives) after reading about ours. 

But imagine if you were also struggling with job or housing issues and you read this blog.  Your initial feelings of empathy might, depending on your personality and level of emotional maturity, be completely derailed when you discovered that other people were offering us sympathy or even worse, monetary assistance. That might feel like a slap in the face, unfair!  And perceived unfairness can give rise to envy and envy to anger.  I suspect this is what happened.  Because I wasn’t (despite being accused by the same person of being a whiner) crying and moaning about our “poor life” (and to her mind surely I would if this were real) and because people were helping us out for no reason that she could fathom, and no one (I’m guessing) was helping her – her reaction was to strike out.  I’m sorry she felt that way and hope most of you feel blessed in comparison!

Anyone who has a home has a home improvement project in mind, in progress, completed or abandoned.    Within days of moving into your dream home, be it a house, condo or apartment, you start thinking of things you want to change.  New paint, flooring, cabinets for the kitchen.  Perhaps you want to put your own individual stamp on your home, beyond the matter of furnishings and décor, or maybe you’ve found things that just don’t work for you – that unused space under the stairs, a paltry pantry, or carpet in the dining area that’s already being stained by your toddler’s habit of offering half of her food to the dog sitting under the table.  And if the home you’ve moved into isn’t your dream home, well, that just means you have MORE improvements in mind.

It was the same for us.  The trailer we purchased was not our dream trailer.  Our dream trailer has quad bunks (a bed for each child), a full slide (or two), a U-shaped dinette so that all 5 of us could sit down to dinner together, counter space for a few appliances, and MORE storage space.  Nevertheless, with the constraints imposed by the RV Parks (which only allow models less than 10 years old) and our budget, our trailer was a good compromise.  It has a number of amenities – including air conditioning and a microwave – and was meant to be a short-term solution anyway. 

As it’s turned into longer term housing, home improvements have become both desired and necessary.  Addressing the storage issue has meant small and only moderately successful improvements – a stacking shelf added to the overhead cabinet so that canned food space could be doubled; an under-shelf basket attached to the TV shelf to hold the remote, chargers and the latest redbox movie; a variety of storage cubes and drawers placed in the closet in the bathroom (essentially giving up hanging space for folded clothes/towels space); and a number of hooks affixed to the walls for backpacks and jackets. 

My attempt at addressing the counter space issue was abandoned when the solid oak counter extension pulled away from the thin cabinet side leaving holes, and additionally hindered the ability of our partial slide to retract. 

Bunk beds, a dinette that seats all, and a full slide can only be realized with a new trailer.  As for more space, well unlike houses, it’s hard to build on to a trailer.  Hard, but not impossible – you can purchase something called an “Add-a-Room” – a canvas and screen ‘room’ that attaches to your awning and I keep a look out for a used one on craigslist and eBay.  If we add a room we could put a table and chairs out there and eat outside. 

Beyond the desired home improvements the burdens of day to day living have taken a toll on our little home – things have worn out, clogged up or broken down, creating some necessary repairs. While most have been within my ability to fix with the purchase and installation of new parts, the application of elbow grease, or copious amounts of duct tape, some have eluded me.  The most difficult home improvement project I’m facing is repairing/replacing the floor.  When we purchased the trailer the dealer informed us that there were ‘soft spots’ in the floor, but that they weren’t really indicative of a problem, nor would they likely become a problem.  That might have been true if we were a family that used our trailer for a week or two every year.  But we aren’t and those soft spots have created a problem.  The linoleum (no carpet, thankfully) has cracked over those spots, and the cracks have grown.  While patching the linoleum (more duct tape) is a possible short term fix I suspect that doing it right would require removing the linoleum, and addressing those soft spots!  I’m told the floor under the linoleum is ‘marine grade plywood’ and quite sturdy but if that’s so I would think that it would take some pretty serious problem to soften it.  Like maybe some sort of leak (one soft spot is in the bathroom, the other between the hot water tank and the sink) that would continue to fester if addressed with a duct-tape Band-Aid solution. 

So in between searching for a job, chauffeuring children around, mailing eBay packages, and doing household chores, I contemplate the feasibility of taking on the floor as a DIY project, or finding a ‘home’ improvement contractor who could do it for us.  What would it cost? Could it be done piecemeal? How would we live here and replace parts of the floor at the same time?  Or should I let it be the next person’s problem, the approach the previous owner took?  Just tape it up and hope that we have a chance to move up to our dream trailer before the floor falls through?  Ah, the joys of home ownership!

I’ve changed the comment setting so that all comments have to be approved.  In the early days of this blog the readers were folks who know me, or knew of me due to shared connections or affiliations.  With the increased publicity has come increased readership which for the most part has brought some wonderful things with it – such as the words of support and encouragement and the gift of new ideas and resources of which I was not aware.  It has also brought some less pleasant things including comments that amount to personal attacks.  This is my life and I don’t believe it can be said I’m whining about it.  I’m just living it as well as I can! Like I tell the kids – you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!  So, please, if you don’t like the blog, don’t read it!  There’s a lot of content on the web and I’m certain you can find something that aligns better with your point of view.  Comments that are vulgar, hostile, political rants (or even debates- there are other places for that) and personal attacks will not be approved for publication.  Comments that are civil, and constructive are always welcomed, as, naturally are the words of encouragement and the sharing of your similar situation!  Now back to our irregularly schedule programming.