Unemployed Middle Class Have Nowhere to Go
(Part one of two)
The reality of the situation hit as she noticed a heavyset drunk man stumbling toward her from the mat where she was supposed to sleep for the night.
That sleepless night on the cafeteria floor of the Friendship Center began in November, and for 51-year-old New Britain resident, who goes by the name Ashley, has continued for the last three months as she searches for work.
She has a college degree, but has been unemployed since 2008 and has applied to thousands of job openings. Her story is of a new and small sector of the homeless population who have fallen out of the middle class and onto the couches of friends and eventually shelters.
“For how I look, I don’t really fit in there because I have a college degree and none of them do,” Ashley said of the other homeless people she has met. “I don’t have any substance abuse issues. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke cigarettes, even. I don’t have any mental health issues.”
Born in New Britain, Ashley (who asked not to be identified by her last name for fear of being retaliated against for speaking out and for fear of compromising her job prospects) is the daughter of Polish immigrants. She attended local schools and her childhood was filled with church, Saturday religious school, and meals steeped in the culture of her parent’s homeland. Her parents both died in 1996.
After graduating from New Britain High School in 1979, during which she worked two jobs, she took some time off to work before attending classes at Middlesex Community College in Middletown. While pursuing a liberal arts education she worked at Pelton’s Drug Store to help pay for her eventual transfer to the University of Connecticut. She graduated from Middlesex with a 3.95 grade point average.
With strong writing skills, she ended up graduating from UConn in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in English and continued working with Pelton’s as an assistant manager while searching for a job related to her degree.
In 2008 she took a job working in the marketing department at Whole Foods in Glastonbury to stow away money to attend graduate school. But when the economy collapsed and gas prices shot up, she was one of the first to be let go.
With no job, Ashley called several friends in central Connecticut to see if they could offer a bed or couch. For several weeks she shifted between the homes of friends.
In between baby or house sitting for friends, she would go through a weekly routine of checking job listings she had bookmarked on her computer.
“I stopped counting after 2,000 applications and resumes that I sent out,” Ashley says of the job search. She applied to seasonal retail jobs, insurance companies, offices, and other postings.
“Where are the Connecticut jobs for people that can work, other than
retail, which is low end and part-time,” she says. “And then you have a health center being built where you have to be highly trained, a master’s or a doctorate. Where’s
the in-between stuff?”
She eventually heard from a friend about 1998’s Workforce Investment Act that aims to help low-income or dislocated workers retrain in a different field. She eventually decided on an American Bar Association-approved paralegal studies certificate program at the University of Hartford.
She started the program in March 2011 and finished in January 2012. “It was really hard because I was homeless at the time. My car was full of stuff so I used to park in the back of the parking lot so nobody would see,” she recalls.
With little income other than the financial aid she was receiving to attend classes, she was unable to pay her monthly $400 room rent and ended up being evicted. Worried, she eventually contacted Department of Social Services. She called the state’s 211 information line and was told about a Housing and Urban Development program for homeless prevention and was directed to the Chrysalis Center in Hartford where she was told she could get assistance. HUD later called her and said she couldn’t be helped since she didn’t have an income. Her unemployment money had run out that would have qualified her for the program.
“Once I got the certification I started applying for legal jobs but I wasn’t getting any responses,” Ashley said.
The workforce program is funded by the federal government but some of the services are contracted out to third parties.
During the summer months she met with a “job developer” associated with the Workforce Investment Program to help develop her resume and hunt down job leads. Instead the worker she was assigned to was dismissive, told her to keep rewriting her resume, suggested volunteer work, and was constantly sending messages on his cell phone.
It was back to her college days eating noodles during these months, as she only received around $100 a month in food stamps.
With no leads, only those for volunteer work, and having gone through a cycle of couch surfing with friends in Andover, New Britain, Manchester, Willimantic, and Newington, and struggling financially, she began to consider her last alternative. “I finally was like I guess I will have to go to a shelter because there is no other way around this. I’ve tapped out,” she said.
“It’s not easy sleeping in other people’s houses, couch surfing. It’s very difficult because you never know if that’s going to be working out for you for how long. You don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. You’re really careful. You’re walking on egg shells. You’re not eating properly because you don’t want to take up too much of their kitchen time,” Ashley said.
She made several calls to shelters in Bristol, Vernon, Danielson, Willimantic, and the Friendship Center but was getting no responses even after three months, hoping for an opening on a waiting list.
“I thought how is this possible? Winter is going to be coming soon,” she said remembers frantically thinking.
She called DSS again, the city’s social service’s department, and the governor’s office.
“My sense was that they were taking people with incomes over people without,” Ashley said. “I did not have an income. But there are other people who have disability or child support. I was guessing that they were taking people like that because they get 33 percent, at least, of that income in a shelter. And I didn’t have anything to offer.”
When storm Sandy hit in October she was staying with a friend in Andover. She called around and found a shelter in nearby Willimantic, but when she went there it was dark and bugs scurried when she opened the door. Inside she found hoards of men and smelled the thick odor of alcohol. She quickly turned around and got back into her car.
She got in contact with the Friendship Center on Arch Street, who told her about an “over flow.” When the cold months start, the facility accepts the homeless if there is space, but no bed is given. “So every night it’s a big question mark,” Ashley said. She drove to Arch Street and parked her car and got in line with others waiting on the sidewalk and felt a little bit of consolation when she saw other women there.
(Part two will be in next week’s New Britain City Journal)