Yolaida Martinez counted on her hands as she sat at the kitchen table, each swollen finger representing a dead end in the search for new opportunity. The firefighter’s exam was out. The police academy was out. And on the floor of the room where she lived, at a Jamaica Plain shelter for homeless families, Martinez’s old ambulance uniform rested inside an open cardboard box.
“I love Boston. This is my city,” Martinez said. “And I wish I could stay working here, I really do.”
An emergency knee surgery ended Martinez’s five-year career as a per diem EMT last September, but she was already homeless six months before that. A breakup halved her family’s resources and her $15.48 hourly wage wasn’t enough to cover rent. It took three day-long visits to the application office before she got shelter for herself and her two children, ages 10 and 15, a “right” for families in the state of Massachusetts provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
“We’ve been through so much – so, so much,” Martinez said. “But like I said, everything is for a reason, you know, and I’m thankful for what we have.”
Trying to break out of poverty, 29-year-old Martinez looked to other jobs as a firefighter or police officer as her way out. But after months of studying and physical training despite a recovering knee, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, lung scarring and Hashimoto’s disease – a thyroid disorder that causes pain, stiffness, muscle weakness and swelling. Her doctor told her it would be nearly impossible to do any of those jobs.
“It’s just figuring out what my options are. It’s a change, but we should move on forward,” Martinez said. “I don’t like being home. I like working. I’m used to that.”
Even as a shelter resident, Martinez always had a job. As much as 44 percent of the nation’s homeless population is working, according to a 2007 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but they’re living “several dollars below the self-sufficiency wage needed to support a family.” In Massachusetts, more than 70 percent of adults living in poverty worked either full-time or part-time jobs. The state’s minimum wage is $10, which is still a full $9 less than what is considered the bare minimum to make rent and live in Boston.
Martinez is one of several thousand millennials who struggle to find their way up. About 44 percent of the nation’s total homeless population is under the age of 25, and nearly 10,000 homeless parents in the same age bracket were recorded on a single night in January 2015 nationwide. A significant number of youth are affected. Across Massachusetts, more than 19,500 public school students were homeless during the 2014 – 2015 school year. They’re more likely to develop risk behaviors such as substance abuse and mental illness because of it, and low wage jobs along with impossibly high college tuition costs offer little hope for moving up.
“Is it worth your sanity?” Martinez asked. “Because, you see the working class and they’re constantly working nonstop the way I do. People can barely afford it.”
According to Robyn Frost, the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the issue of family homelessness isn’t a matter of meritocracy.
“[Families] work their butts off to keep the roof over their heads, but the folly is that the rent is too damn high and the income is too damn low,” she said.
The DHCD’s Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter regulations require families to spend at least 30 hours a week working, taking classes or doing other activities that promise stability. As an EMT living in shelter, Martinez spent as many as 15 hours a day between work and escorting her children to school and back home. After losing her job, she continued to volunteer unpaid as the church administrator at Pabellon De La Fe in Jamaica Plain, teaching Bible study to adults on Wednesdays and to children on Sundays.
She also works by phone as a fitness coach and retail seller for Shakeology Beachbody. Martinez said the company charged her a $15.95 monthly fee and in two months, she earned about $300.
“I can definitely see myself making a career out of this. All that matters is you try,” said Martinez, whose ministerial intonation makes words linger in the silence. Naturally pretty with sharp eyebrows and spiral curls, her easy smile almost hides the glassy look in her eyes when she talks about her children.
“What hurts me the most is for my kids – how they’re feeling and what they’re going through,” she said. “And being a mom, their sole provider, it’s hard on me mentally, you know?”
A good conversationalist who always rebounds with an optimistic quote to share, she sat on the sidelines of her son’s Friday night basketball game and occasionally stopped mid-sentence to cheer “papi” on.
She told him to drink water instead of Gatorade and promised to make seaweed snacks when they got home. Diagnosed with mild autism, her son has difficulty coping with the sudden changes of moving from shelter to shelter, she said, and basketball is one way that he can cope with his frustration.
“Hopefully soon – hopefully, if they do the [Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program] and we do get $120 million – I’m able to get my voucher for a while until I can really get myself up for me and my kids,” Martinez said. But since then, she has been relocated to a three-bedroom shelter in Dudley Square and is still looking for work.
In February 2016, Martinez had spoken from the statehouse podium alongside major politicians such as Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. She advocated for a $120 million budget for the MRVP, which is $20 million more than the FY’17 budget. Essentially a state-funded version of Section 8, it pays a portion of families’ rent for private market apartments. The tragedy, experts say, is that the governor’s proposed budget would create no new vouchers despite the growing demand.
“It’s like ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ and getting the golden ticket – very few people get it. There’s just not enough subsidies available,” Frost said.
In order to qualify for shelter, homeless families can make no more than 115 percent the federal poverty line – that’s $20,160 annually for a three-person family.
“We have a severe affordability problem,” said Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at UMASS Dartmouth. “It puts a lot of pressure on our working and middle-class families.”
But despite their financial struggles, the working homeless are largely unseen. They are Massachusetts’ hospital workers, hair cutters and stadium ushers. They’re a population who often grew up poor themselves, unstable housing leading to inconsistent educations. They’re the ones helping elderly people with disabilities into vans, the ones pitching tents for the extravagant outdoor weddings, the ones listening to patients and entering their information into the computer. And they’re people who get up in the morning looking for an answer that may not be there.
“You end up in a hole, you know what I’m saying? You end up in the same cycle again,” said Melvin Hernandez, a part-time student at New England Hair Academy by day and a barber’s apprentice by night.
Hernandez stood inside his friend’s apartment in Dorchester with his wife, eight months pregnant, close by. He watched over their three daughters – all under 5 years old – as they ran in and out of the doorway chanting, “You can’t catch me.”
He was there because he can’t think in the place he’s staying, where 11 other people are holed up in the same apartment until they can find a long-term place to live.
“It’s everybody and their mother at home – it’s crowded,” Hernandez said. He’s in his early 20s but could be mistaken for his early 30s, tired from working and going to school about 15 hours every day. Yet he paced around the room, almost as if he doesn’t know how to rest.
“It’s crazy. It’s not a place to be with your kids and your family. It’s not.”
Hernandez says he’s “back to square one.” He claims that he was kicked out of the DHCD system with a two-year suspension after deserting an apartment partially funded by HomeBase, the state’s rental assistance program that gives families subsidies of $8,000. Unable to pay his $400 monthly out-of-pocket contribution plus an unexpected $600 oil fee, Hernandez left the apartment and moved into his current Dorchester apartment. But even that isn’t a safe place because it’s pending eviction.
“If people stay and they are in compliance with HomeBase, they can get more money. But a lot of them don’t, and I don’t mean that derogatorily,” Frost, the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said. “And if you live at 115 percent or below the poverty level” – which, for Hernandez, would be $32,580 a year – “where are you going to live? That’s not enough money to pay rent.”
The DHCD’s ecosystem of rules and regulations is often difficult for working parents to navigate, and it sometimes requires the outside support of lawyer-advocates such as Ruth Bourquin, who represents homeless families pro-bono at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI).
“There’s a general pattern with the administration of the shelter programs,” Bourquin said. “Families don’t get heard unless they have an advocate.”
And even then, less than 20 percent of termination appeals are successful.
Hernandez wakes up at 7 a.m. on weekdays to attend a five-hour barber school program at the New England Hair Academy in Malden, funded by a $6,000 scholarship from the Red Sox Foundation. After school, he works at a barber shop until he returns home at 11 p.m. It’s a different life than before, Hernandez said. He was arrested in 2012 for drug distribution and has since followed the terms of his probation. His wife, who worked at Forever 21 until December, gave birth to their fourth child in January and watches the children while he works.
“Right now, I don’t have no time to even make for my kids,” Hernandez wrote in a text on Feb. 18. “I have a busy schedule – no days off.”
Jasmin Taylor knows the daily grind, too. And for her, that same lifeline – shelter – may be what’s holding her back.
She’s the one on the other end of the line at Brigham Women’s Hospital, where she answers about 400 phone calls a day for $12 an hour. For her, working is complicated. The single mother of a 2-year-old daughter, she works around 20 hours on weekends – the only time the father can babysit.
When she had a daycare voucher, she was working almost full-time at Brigham’s. But once it expired, she had to cut back her hours because no one could watch her daughter. Most parents have to work 30 hours per week to qualify for a daycare voucher in the first place.
In late February, Taylor took on a second, full-time job at Tufts Health Plan Center and started clocking in 60 hours a week. It didn’t last long. Even with a new voucher, she paid $220 for the very childcare that allowed her to work, leaving her almost nothing at the end of the week. When her daughter continued to get sick with diarrhea and fevers, Taylor became concerned that the daycare was spreading germs and quit her Tufts job.
“There’s no point in working [that job] if I’m just working for daycare,” the 22-year-old from Boston said. “It’s just becoming more stressful as the time goes on. You want the best, but for some reason you can’t grab it – there’s always something in the way. That’s hard.”
She’s now back to working weekends as a call operator and is no longer eligible for a daycare voucher. And in June, Taylor was moved to public housing in Middleborough – which is a 90-minute drive away from her job, forcing her to cut hours at work back even further. She doesn’t have a car.
The bad news overshadows the good. Taylor received financial aid to study nursing at Bunker Hill Community College in the fall – a plan that was shelved yet again by her move to faraway public housing, where she is required to stay for 2 years. She’s concerned that she won’t be able to keep her job, either.
“I’m back to square one and have to make the best of it,” Taylor said. “The assumption is that every family living in a shelter is waiting around for people to give them everything – the stereotype is ridiculous. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to live with my child in shelter.”
Every time Taylor walked past the corner of Tremont Street and Huntington Avenue on her way to Brighams, she would see the same homeless man asking for change in front of the 7-Eleven. No matter how tight the budget is that week, she always gave him a few dollars.
“I want to say to him, ‘You know, I’m homeless, too. But it has a stigma. It sounds negative. I haven’t even told my best friend – not because I’m embarrassed, but because I don’t like being called ‘homeless.’”
And no one would know that she is.
The audio component of this story was made in collaboration with NPR/WGBH News’ Elizabeth Ross. You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter or read the WGBH News story here.