A Former Disney Employee Tells This Story
Yeweinisht Mesfin went missing in November 2016. Her fellow Disneyland employees found her in her car in a gym parking lot. She lived in her car and that gym parking lot was her home. She would use the gym to shower and use the restroom. After suffering a heart attack, she died in her car waiting for someone to find her.
A labor union study has reported that roughly 10% of Disneyland workers reported being homeless in the past two years, meaning they didn’t have a place of their own to sleep, while 56% reported concerns of being evicted from their current residence.
Not Only a Disney Story
This, however, is not a story about Disney, but rather a story that illustrates the plight of millions of minimum wage employees working in many industries across the United States.
(N.B. - the same labor union study emphasized that despite the low wages, those who work at Disney’s original theme park revel in the work they do. A 79% majority said they were “proud of the work they do at the Disneyland Resort.”)
Homelessness - Another View
What the “Weiny” Mesfin story does illustrate, however, is that our traditional view of the homeless population is inaccurate. Most people view the homeless as mentally ill, alcoholic, drug addicted, or tragically damaged veterans who need help getting it together. Social workers tell us, however, that this view is dated, biased, and incomplete.
The Working Poor
They report, rather, that there are an estimated 553,742 people in the United States experiencing homelessness on any given night, and what’s even more frightening, according to an analysis of the 2016 American Community Survey, an estimated 4,609,826 people in poor households were living “doubled up” with family and friends. This represents one of the most common prior living situations for people who become homeless. In other words, “the working poor” are the primary source of the homeless population in the United States. Ultimately, they say, this is due to a lack of affordable housing. The number of poor, renter households experiencing a severe housing cost burden (i.e., those paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing) totaled 6,902,060 in 2016.
Interested nonprofits have come up with an innovative solution; Community Land Trusts. CLTs enable nonprofits to hold land in trust and keep it off the commercial real estate market. In many instances, CLTs support affordable housing by having the land purchased and owned by the trust while the housing on it is owned at lower expense by the resident. This is seen as a way to help people with modest income to get housing while beginning to build equity.
The Reno Model
In what is being described as a new model to address homelessness, a community land trust (CLT) has been granted a plot of land in Reno, Nevada, for the express purpose of developing housing for the working poor, homeless teens, and older adults without permanent housing. The Reno model is unique in that it will be the site of 200 rental units with the express purpose of providing transitional housing for the formerly homeless. They are projected to be dorm units, or very small living spaces with shared bathrooms, a gym, laundry facility and other communal amenities. The units will be prefabricated and will carry a total cost of $1.9 million—i.e., under $10,000 per unit. The units are projected to rent for less than $400 a month. Renters will have to meet very specific qualifications such as proving that they either are minimum wage workers, participate in a program serving teens, or older adults who have been displaced from motels where they had been staying.
As solutions to the homeless problem continue to vex both government and nonprofit social work communities, both entities fight back with innovations like CLTs that respond to the fluid nature of the homeless population. Thank you all for your outstanding efforts.