A sh*#!y thing to do

Day 61–Sept. 2

Over the border in Surrey, British Columbia city leaders attempted a truly foul solution to the problem of homelessness. According to an article in the Surrey North Delta Leader, chicken manure was spread around a Whalley social service building on Aug. 14 in an attempt to drive away vagrants. A political relations nightmare ensued and by the following Monday the manure was cleaned up and lime spread to cover the odor.

Change.org’s  Shannon Moriarty perhaps said it best:

“To many, this bird dung story will be kind of funny, really nasty, or completely outraging. But to me, it’s just really sad.

Sad for the people who usually sat outside of those city buildings, most likely because they had nowhere else to sit. Now the whole world knows what city officials really think of them, perhaps even what they equate them to.”

I like to think that some good has come from such a horrible act of disrespect towards our fellow man. Yes manure was spread. But, when the situation was brought to the light of day, citizens were disgusted and demanded the injustice be righted.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Shortchanged

As if working for minimum wage isn’t bad enough, a new study, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, a survey of more than 4,000 low-wage workers, suggests “many employment and labor laws are regularly and systematically violated.”

The 2008 survey of 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in the three largest U.S. cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City–found that 26 percent of workers in the study sample were paid less than minimum wage in the previous work week. Further, a quarter of those polled worked more than 40 hours during the previous week, 76 percent of whom were not paid the legally required overtime rate. This translates to a loss of an average of $2,634 annually, out of total earnings of $17,616, for a full-time employee or a wage theft of 15%.

In addition, when workers complained about working conditions or tried to organize a union, employers often retaliated against them. For this reason, many other workers in similar situations were too afraid of the consequences to complain.

“The core protections that many Americans take for granted—the right to be paid at least the minimum wage, the right to be paid for overtime hours, the right to take meal breaks, access to workers’ compensation when injured, and the right to advocate for better working conditions—are failing significant numbers of workers.” –Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

Women were significantly more likely than men to experience minimum wage violations, and foreign-born workers were nearly twice as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to have a minimum wage violation. Such violations could be found in every sector of the economy and were not restricted to the low-income employees.

I wish I could say I find the news shocking but I myself was frequently uncompensated for overtime while I was working as a reporter, often putting in 50- or 60-hour weeks. Even worse, when I worked for a newspaper in Fairfax County, Va., I didn’t initially notice I was not being paid the salary they had promised when I was hired. I soon learned it was a common practice of my employer to offer a higher salary and then pay employees several thousand less. Without an employment offer in writing there was little I could do.

Beyond employees being cheated, these wage violations have far-reaching consequences on the economy. Low-income employees who cannot make ends meet are forced to rely on public services. Each time an employer shortchanges an employee we all pay. And, left unchecked, such mass violations of employment laws impact even those who treat their employees fairly.

“Everyone has a stake in addressing the problem of workplace violations. When impacted workers and their families struggle in poverty and constant economic insecurity, the strength and resiliency of local communities suffer. When unscrupulous employers violate the law, responsible employers are forced into unfair competition, setting off a race to the bottom that threatens to bring down standards throughout the labor market. And when significant numbers of workers are underpaid, tax revenues are lost.” –Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

To combat these violations, the study suggests the following: strengthen government enforcement of employment and labor laws; update legal standards for the 21 st century workplace; establish equal status for immigrants in the workplace.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

Stress fracture

Day 32–August 4, 2009

For two weeks, 98 miles, I walked on an injured ankle. Today, after a visit to an orthopedist, an x-ray, and an MRI, I learned that I have a stress fracture of my left tibia. I have been walking on a broken leg.

So, instead of just taking a couple weeks off before I can resume my journey, I will very likely be off the road for close to a month. As a result, this means my trip will need to be drastically altered. I no longer expect to reach San Francisco this year. But it does not mean I am giving up the fight. Nor am I ending my journey. Too many people have told me how important my message is, and countless people, some friends some strangers, have encouraged me every step of the way.

When I began walking I had hoped it would inspire people to finally see the poverty and struggle right in front of their eyes, and to do something about it. We need not go to Third World nations to see poverty. It is all around us–the man at the side of the highway holding out a cup and asking for change; the waitress who continues to live with an abusive boyfriend because she can’t afford to live on her own; the fast-food worker who lives in his car; the college student who buys a package of Ramen noodles with a handful of loose change. I have yet to talk to a single person who does not think our nation has a problem. Even those who did not want to pay taxes to fund “handouts” or who suggested that poor people are lazy agreed that something must be done.

And I’ve been honored that so many people have told me what I’m doing is brave. But I am not brave. The real bravery, the real strength, lies with those who toll day after day in low-paying jobs and live in substandard housing or who have nothing but the clothes on their backs. I will continue my journey for them.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Hometown homeless

I do not remember the first time I encountered someone who was homeless. It is not something that entered my consciousness growing up in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y. So it comes as no surprise to me that the Albany County 10-year Plan to End Homelessness suggests that it is an invisible problem.

“Homeless persons in Albany County remain largely hidden from view, in emergency shelters and motels, where we are not aware of their presence.” – Albany County 10-year Plan to End Homelessness

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2007 there were 619 people in my home county without a place to call home–roughly 4 % fewer than in 2005 when the county implemented its 10-year plan to end homelessness. Though it is a start, as the plan suggests, homelessness is not a one-dimensional problem with a simplistic solution. Instead, it will require “the participation of all sectors of the community . . . to work together to end homelessness in Albany County.”

By Jennifer E. Cooper

Rest stop

For a month my backpack and I have been intimately acquainted. When I climbed hills, it climbed; when I sweated, it sweated; when I was soaked in the rain, it was soaked; when I was frustrated–well, it is a backpack. I doubt it was frustrated.

So today, backpack free, I would like to remember all the people who still must carry their heavy loads wherever they go. And I am happy to no longer be among you, free of the 35-pound weight, however brief my break may be.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

Inconvenient food

It is an unfortunate fact that healthy food often costs more than food that offers little or no nutritional value. The average price of a gallon of milk is estimated to be $3.50, while a two liter bottle of soda can be purchased for about $1.50 (approximately 3.79 liters per gallon.) A entire bag of chips can cost the same as just one piece of fruit.

And if that isn’t bad enough, many poor neighborhoods don’t even have the option to buy healthy food. Eating out means selecting from the available fast food restaurants. Food shopping is done at the only store in town, sometimes more convenience store than grocery store. They are called food deserts.

While volunteering with Food For All in Washington, D.C. , to deliver food baskets to homebound residents, I noticed many of the poor neighborhoods had no stores of any kind save a pawn shop, payday loan/check cashing, and perhaps a convenience store. Not only did that mean no jobs, but it meant no healthy food either.

A new USDA report suggests that these food deserts are rare–data that contradicts many advocates for the poor. The report to Congress found that 2.2% of U.S. households, 2.3 million, lack both a car and live more than a mile from a supermarket. It also found that those in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to live closer to a grocery store, though it takes slightly longer to get there. Instead, the report suggests, poor diets and obesity may be linked more to living in areas that have an abundance of fast food rather than living farther away from healthy food.

Regardless, for some 35 million Americans it matters little how close they live to a supermarket because they cannot afford to buy groceries. The 2007 U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Hunger and Homelessness Survey states that the main causes of hunger in survey cities were poverty, unemployment and high housing costs.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Broken communities

Day 28–July 31, 2009

There are many ways a person can be homeless; staying with family or friends; living in transitional housing or shelters; or simply getting by on the street, in cars, or in tents.

Regardless, homelessness is the result of a breakdown in community. For those with a supportive network of family and friends–a network that takes care of one another, there should be no need for anyone to be living on the street or in a shelter. If I fall, I know I will have someone to catch me and give me a hand until I can stand on my own. But for millions of Americans such a support network does not exist. When they fall, their network of family and friends cannot pick them up as they too have fallen.

After I graduated from college, before I got my first job as a reporter, I worked at JCPenney. I earned so little money that I got back all the state and federal taxes that had been deducted from my paycheck. Had I not lived in an apartment owned by my grandmother, at dramatically reduced rent, there is no way I could have afforded housing short of moving back home with my parents. But many people do not have this option. If your parents and grandparents are barely making ends meet, they will not be able to lend a hand.

Just as wealth is passed from one generation to another, the inability of one generation to give the next a lift up can pass poverty down generation after generation. By guaranteeing that everyone has a roof over his or her head, we can break out of the cycle of poverty.

To find the solutions, we need only look to our own neighborhoods. Before I set out on this trip I spoke with Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about the many challenges facing those who advocate for the homeless. She told me the problems and solutions can be found within our own communities. Yes, economic decisions at the federal level have an impact, but decisions that determine quality of life are made by our friends and neighbors.

It is the neighbors who cry NIMBY when attempts are made to build affordable homes. It is the citizens who argue against tax increases to fund public transportation, health and human services, all-day kindergarten or other services that benefit the poor.

While I was a reporter in Kent, Ct., there was a bitter fight to bring just a few units of affordable housing to the town. Though the proposal eventually passed I was intensely angry at those who had opposed building affordable housing and suggested it would bring “undesirables” to the town. What they didn’t realize (or perhaps maybe they did) was that those “undesirables” were their firefighters, teachers, small business owners and dozens of others who made the town run, people like me.

Most people understand schools, roads, parks, trash collection and a multitude of other services cost money. Similarly it is accepted that if we do not pay for such services we will live in a world where there is no need to worry about how a firetruck will get around a pile of uncollected garbage on an unplowed road to put out a fire at your house, because there will be no firetruck. But, when it comes to taking care of people, paying them enough to live, and ensuring that everyone can afford housing, we suddenly can’t understand why minimum wage is not enough to make ends meet.

So look around your community and ask yourself which of your neighbors is struggling to make ends meet. And then ask what you have done to ensure everyone can afford a home.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Detour

Nearly four weeks, and 230 miles, into my trip I have come to the realization that my injuries cannot be ignored. So, as of today, I am stepping off the road. After a couple weeks of rest my ankle should be ready to pound the pavement once again.

Though I have not made it nearly as far as I had planned, it is my hope that even this short journey has made a difference, and has reminded people that we all are responsible for bringing about positive change in our communities. And, if I have been able to inspire those I’ve met on my journey, it is thanks to the support of my family and friends–who spurred me on and encouraged me every step of the way.

I do not know for sure how long I will be off the road or where this detour will take me. But I can be certain it is just the first of many bumps in the road.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

From Pittsburgh With Love

Day 26–July 29, 2009 (rest in Pittsburgh, 0.0 miles)

Since I began my walk not a month ago I have climbed mountains and walked beside farm fields. I have met amazing and generous people and made lifelong friends. I’ve walked through impoverished communities and been touched as those with almost nothing pulled money out of their wallet to help me on my way. I’ve been harassed and arrested by police, and fired from my job. And, yet, I still feel I have lived a truly fortunate life.

This morning I awoke in a women’s shelter. I may have been there by choice, but the other women who had arrived at Pittsburgh’s Bethlehem Haven shelter were there as a last resort. Some had been living on the streets or left domestic violence. One woman had a terminal illness and was attempting to fulfill her dream of traveling when her wallet and bus ticket was stolen, stranding her in Pittsburgh with no money. My roommate for the night had moved to the shelter to escape an abusive relative. But the shelter offers only a temporary safety net. Each woman still must find permanent housing.

I can’t imagine ever thinking that a shelter, no matter how nice, is a step up. But I can see how easily one can become tangled in the system, unable to break free. The loss of a job, a house or the need to escape a violent situation can lead to the rapid unraveling of what is often a fragile support system. When I arrived at the shelter yesterday I went through the same intake process as all the other women, was given my sheets and towel and the combination for my locker, and a room–a base from which to find a home, a job and put one’s life together. For all my education and hard work I could easily be in their shoes. As of this morning I too join the ranks of the unemployed–the victim of sexual discrimination packaged as a layoff. I was fired from my online job this morning as I sat working on my laptop in the dining room of the shelter.

caption=”Pittsburgh is a city of contrasts. Lovely in parts around the universities while areas like this and near Duquesne University (above) are in serious decay.”

I would like to think my determination, education and drive to succeed would keep me from being homeless. In truth, there is nothing to prevent it from happening to anyone at any time. While I lived in Brussels I spent three months living in a quasi-homeless state. My husband and I went from living in a beautiful and spacious apartment to a cramped hotel room in the blink of an eye. One day we had an apartment, the next day it was uninhabitable as the result of a fire. We were forced to gather our belongings and move into a hotel, then another hotel, then another. We were able to keep a roof over our head only through the support of friends and family and good jobs. Had we lacked either or both of these, we could have easily been out on the street.

And so if I have learned anything in my travels, it is how fragile our support systems really are, and how readily and frequently those in positions of authority trample on even our most basic rights–whether it comes in the form of harassment by police, sexual discrimination on the job, or by well meaning groups and individuals who expect privacy and free will to be checked at the door.

Though I have only been on the road for a month, I have experienced more highs and lows than many experience in a lifetime. The opportunity to travel across the country, make friends of strangers, and share their hopes, dreams and struggles has changed me immeasurably. I have a deeper appreciation for just how hard so many people work to barely scrape by.

caption=”There has long been a gap between the rich and poor but evidence suggests it is growing.”

And yet few seem bitter about a life of struggle. Even when I talked with those who clearly were poor, they spoke a common refrain: “no matter how bad I have it, someone else has it worse.” I cheer their optimism, but it disturbs me to think that so many have accepted that they do not deserve better, and do not question that a minority in this world have a right to horde a majority of the resources and benefits.

So I am saddened to have to take time from my trip, but my ankle injury is too painful for me to continue walking. How long my recovery will take is unclear. But I do know that even this very necessary recovery time is a luxury many in this nation do not have. I may be putting my travels on hold, but I am not ending my journey, my fight to bring about change, and and close the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

A home of her own

Day 25–July 28 (North Versailles, PA-Pittsburgh, PA, 12.7 miles)

Virginia Woolf once said that for women to be successful as writers they had to have a “room of one’s own.” But many women do not even have a place to call home, let alone a room to devote to creative endeavors.

In Pittsburgh there are numerous shelters, but they are not a home. They are at best a temporary resting place, an opportunity to regroup and gather resources for the endless battle to keep a roof over one’s head.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, I walked off the street into Bethlehem Shelter just as so many homeless women have done before me. While I was being checked in, a woman who worked at the women’s shelter told me that there are more homeless women than homeless men in the United States. She suggested that many men who would otherwise be homeless, are instead behind bars. And, many women find themselves on the streets as they attempt to escape from domestic violence. Though I found ample evidence to suggest her statement was correct, it was a challenge to find hard statistical data. Few reports on homelessness detail gender.

But there is no shortage of evidence showing that women are far more likely to live in poverty. In 2008 the wage gap meant that women in this country were paid just 77.1¢ for every $1 earned their male counterparts. And more than half of the roughly 37 million Americans living in poverty are women.

Few sectors are immune from the wage gap. When I plugged my income, industry and location into the wage gap calculator on the WAGE Project’s Web site, I found that I make just 73% of the income of the average white non-Hispanic male with my same job title and geographic location. Even worse, over my entire working life, it was calculated that discrimination will cost me $861,734.52.

The women at Bethlehem Shelter all had different stories yet the same story. A hard life, bad luck and few resources. Many had job interviews and a local charity outfitted women with everything they would need from clothing down to makeup. But starting a new life from scratch is no easy task.

No matter how nice the staff and residents, how clean the building or how nice the food, the shelter was still just that to me. Yet my roommate told me it was far nicer than her previous living conditions. At retirement age herself, she said her elderly mother was abusive and then had kicked her out. She was forced to move all of her belongings into storage and move into the shelter. For her, getting a job is not an option. She spent her entire working life in an office resulting in arthritis, severe carpal tunnel, and a bad back. And, though her health problems are likely the result of occupational repetitive motion stresses, it is unlikely she will be compensated for sacrificing her body and future livelihood for her job.

Like many shelters, this one had rules that told its all-female residents when to get up, when to eat, when to leave and even when to shower. Whether or not the rules were there for the benefit of residents, it reduced them to children. One sign reminded everyone that the showers were for washing hands, brushing teeth, while the showers were for bathing. Entering a shelter means checking your privacy, pride and self-determination at the door. Surely shelters can do a better job. How is one to gain self-esteem and the confidence to rise above homelessness and poverty and to take care of one’s self if shelters treat residents like children with no rights or freedoms?

My roommate told me of the night she was woken up well past midnight by an unexpected new roommate entering her room. In her half-asleep state she thought the tall and broadly built woman was a man entering her room. Many at the shelter did not understand why she was angry. But she did not need to explain her anger to me. I understood. Even though she did not have the right to say who could or couldn’t be her roommate, she at least deserved the courtesy of being told a new roommate was about to arrive.

Many women stay in the shelter, get a job and get back on their feet for good. But many others, I was told, find themselves within reach of their goal and then intentionally sabotage their chances of success. It was suggested to me that after a lifetime of low expectations, sometimes the possibility of success and the accompanying responsibilities is just too far outside the comfort zone. Much like those who spend years in prison become institutionalized, so too are women who spend years being told they are not good enough or deserving enough to have a good home and a good job.

A home is not a luxury only for the beautiful and the rich. It is a basic human right. Shelters are at best a Band-Aid. We need permanent solutions in the form of more affordable housing.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper