Finland has found the answer to homelessness. It couldnt be simpler | Harry Quilter-Pinner

With the number of rough sleepers in Britain soaring, its time we got over our prejudices, writes Harry Quilter-Pinner, who works at the homelessness charity SCT

I was born in Liverpool and grew up on a council estate. I had a clean home, toys and nice meals as a kid. When I was nine years old, the sexual abuse started. My abusers made me feel special. They gave me gifts, moneys, cigarettes and sweets. When I was 13 I ran away from home and soon found myself in the murky world of prostitution on the streets. My life was out of control.

This is how it all started for Simon. I met him 23 years later at SCT, a local charity I help to run in east London that offers support to people who are homeless and face alcohol and drug addiction. He used to make me coffee every morning at the social enterprise cafe we run. In the intervening period he had spent years in and out of hostels and institutions, as well as long spells on the streets.

When I met him, Simon was sober and working for the first time in years. He said at the time that SCT offered me the opportunity to get my life back on track. Life is worth living now. Im looking forward to my future. Tragically, this future wasnt to be: soon afterwards he decided to return to the streets and died as a result.

I would like to be able to say that Simons story is an exception. But in reality it is all too familiar, as new statistics published by the Guardian showed on Wednesday. The number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation in the UK has more than doubled over the past five years to more than one per week. The average age of a rough sleeper when they die is 43, about half the UK life expectancy.

The tragedy is that its entirely within our power to do something about it: homelessness is not a choice made by the individual, it is a reality forced by government policy. As homelessness has rocketed in the UK up 134% since 2010 it has fallen by 35% in Finland over a similar period of time. The Finnish government is now aiming to abolish it altogether in the coming years.

I recently travelled to Finland to understand how it had done this. It turns out its solution is painfully simple and blindingly obvious: give homes to homeless people. As Juha Kaakinen, who has led much of the work on housing first in Finland, explained to me when I met him in Helsinki, this takes housing as a basic human right rather than being conditional on engaging in services for addictions or mental health.

This is fundamentally different to our model in the UK, where stable accommodation is only provided as a reward for engaging in treatment services. The problem with this is obvious if you stop and think about it: how do we expect people to address complex personal problems while exposed to the chaos of life on the streets?

Sceptics will argue that giving homes to homeless people is a recipe for disaster. Arent we just subsidising addiction? Wont we end up with huge bills when it all goes wrong? Dont people need an incentive to get their lives back on track and engage in services?

Actually, no. The evidence from Finland as well as numerous other pilot schemes across the world shows the opposite is true. When people are given homes, homelessness is radically reduced, engagement in support services goes up and recovery rates from addiction are comparable to a treatment first approach. Even more impressive is that there are overall savings for government, as peoples use of emergency health services and the criminal justice system is lessened.

At the last election, the government committed to pilot a housing first approach in the UK. This isnt good enough we dont need another pilot. During my time in Finland I didnt see one homeless person. Within a few hours of coming back to London I walked past more than 100 rough sleepers queuing for food in the rain, just a few minutes from parliament. What we need is action. Ending homelessness is eminently achievable if we have the moral capacity and will to take proper action. We must overcome our prejudices and our apathy. The status quo is simply not good enough.

Harry Quilter-Pinner is director of strategy at SCT, a homelessness and addictions charity in east London. He is also a research fellow at IPPR, the UKs progressive thinktank. He writes here in a personal capacity

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/12/finland-homelessness-rough-sleepers-britain

A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America

The UNs Philip Alston is an expert on deprivation and he wants to know why 41m Americans are living in poverty. The Guardian joined him on a special two-week mission into the dark heart of the worlds richest nation

Los Angeles, California, 5 December

You got a choice to make, man. You could go straight on to heaven. Or you could turn right, into that.

We are in Los Angeles, in the heart of one of Americas wealthiest cities, and General Dogon, dressed in black, is our tour guide. Alongside him strolls another tall man, grey-haired and sprucely decked out in jeans and suit jacket. Professor Philip Alston is an Australian academic with a formal title: UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

General Dogon, himself a veteran of these Skid Row streets, strides along, stepping over a dead rat without comment and skirting round a body wrapped in a worn orange blanket lying on the sidewalk.

The two men carry on for block after block after block of tatty tents and improvised tarpaulin shelters. Men and women are gathered outside the structures, squatting or sleeping, some in groups, most alone like extras in a low-budget dystopian movie.

We come to an intersection, which is when General Dogon stops and presents his guest with the choice. He points straight ahead to the end of the street, where the glistening skyscrapers of downtown LA rise up in a promise of divine riches.

Heaven.

Then he turns to the right, revealing the black power tattoo on his neck, and leads our gaze back into Skid Row bang in the center of LAs downtown. That way lies 50 blocks of concentrated human humiliation. A nightmare in plain view, in the city of dreams.

Alston turns right.

Philip
Philip Alston in downtown LA. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

So begins a two-week journey into the dark side of the American Dream. The spotlight of the UN monitor, an independent arbiter of human rights standards across the globe, has fallen on this occasion on the US, culminating on Friday with the release of his initial report in Washington.

His fact-finding mission into the richest nation the world has ever known has led him to investigate the tragedy at its core: the 41 million people who officially live in poverty.

Of those, nine million have zero cash income they do not receive a cent in sustenance.

Alstons epic journey has taken him from coast to coast, deprivation to deprivation. Starting in LA and San Francisco, sweeping through the Deep South, traveling on to the colonial stain of Puerto Rico then back to the stricken coal country of West Virginia, he has explored the collateral damage of Americas reliance on private enterprise to the exclusion of public help.

The Guardian had unprecedented access to the UN envoy, following him as he crossed the country, attending all his main stops and witnessing the extreme poverty he is investigating firsthand.

Think of it as payback time. As the UN special rapporteur himself put it: Washington is very keen for me to point out the poverty and human rights failings in other countries. This time Im in the US.

David
David Busch, who is currently homeless on Venice beach, in Los Angeles. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian


The tour comes at a critical moment for America and the world. It began on the day that Republicans in the US Senate voted for sweeping tax cuts that will deliver a bonanza for the super wealthy while in time raising taxes on many lower-income families. The changes will exacerbate wealth inequality that is already the most extreme in any industrialized nation, with three men Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet owning as much as half of the entire American people.

A few days into the UN visit, Republican leaders took a giant leap further. They announced plans to slash key social programs in what amounts to an assault on the already threadbare welfare state.

Look up! Look at those banks, the cranes, the luxury condos going up, exclaimed General Dogon, who used to be homeless on Skid Row and now works as a local activist with Lacan. Down here, theres nothing. You see the tents back to back, theres no place for folks to go.

California made a suitable starting point for the UN visit. It epitomizes both the vast wealth generated in the tech boom for the 0.001%, and the resulting surge in housing costs that has sent homelessness soaring. Los Angeles, the city with by far the largest population of street dwellers in the country, is grappling with crisis numbers that increased 25% this past year to 55,000.

Ressy Finley, 41, was busy sterilizing the white bucket she uses to slop out in her tent in which she has lived on and off for more than a decade. She keeps her living area, a mass of worn mattresses and blankets and a few motley possessions, as clean as she can in a losing battle against rats and cockroaches. She also endures waves of bed bugs, and has large welts on her shoulder to prove it.

She receives no formal income, and what she makes on recycling bottles and cans is no way enough to afford the average rents of $1,400 a month for a tiny one-bedroom. A friend brings her food every couple of days, the rest of the time she relies on nearby missions.

She cried twice in the course of our short conversation, once when she recalled how her infant son was taken from her arms by social workers because of her drug habit (he is now 14; she has never seen him again). The second time was when she alluded to the sexual abuse that set her as a child on the path towards drugs and homelessness.

Given all that, its remarkable how positive Finley remains. What does she think of the American Dream, the idea that everyone can make it if they try hard enough? She replies instantly: I know Im going to make it.

A 41-year-old woman living on the sidewalk in Skid Row going to make it?

Sure I will, so long as I keep the faith.

What does making it mean to her?

I want to be a writer, a poet, an entrepreneur, a therapist.

Ressy
Ressy Finley, who lives in a tent on 6th Street in Downtown LA. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Robert Chambers occupies the next patch of sidewalk along from Finleys. Hes created an area around his tent out of wooden pallets, what passes in Skid Row for a cottage garden.

He has a sign up saying Homeless Writers Coalition, the name of a group he runs to give homeless people dignity against what he calls the animalistic aspects of their lives. Hes referring not least to the lack of public bathrooms that forces people to relieve themselves on the streets.

LA authorities have promised to provide more access to toilets, a critical issue given the deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A that began in San Diego and is spreading on the west coast claiming 21 lives mainly through lack of sanitation in homeless encampments. At night local parks and amenities are closed specifically to keep homeless people out.

Skid Row has had the use of nine toilets at night for 1,800 street-faring people. Thats a ratio well below that mandated by the UN in its camps for Syrian refugees.

Its inhuman actually, and eventually in the end you will acquire animalistic psychology, Chambers said.

He has been living on the streets for almost a year, having violated his parole terms for drug possession and in turn being turfed out of his low-cost apartment. Theres no help for him now, he said, no question of making it.

The safety net? It has too many holes in it for me.

Of all the people who crossed paths with the UN monitor, Chambers was the most dismissive of the American Dream. People dont realize its never getting better, theres no recovery for people like us. Im 67, I have a heart condition, I shouldnt be out here. I might not be too much longer.

That was a lot of bad karma to absorb on day one, and it rattled even as seasoned a student of hardship as Alston. As UN special rapporteur, hes reported on dire poverty and its impact on human rights in Saudi Arabia and China among other places. But Skid Row?

I was feeling pretty depressed, he told the Guardian later. The endless drumbeat of horror stories. At a certain point you do wonder what can anyone do about this, let alone me.

And then he took a flight up to San Francisco, to the Tenderloin district where homeless people congregate, and walked into St Boniface church.

What he saw there was an analgesic for his soul.

San Francisco, California, 6 December

The
The Gubbio project at St Boniface in San Francisco. The church opens its doors every weekday at 6am to allow homeless people to rest until 3pm. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian


About 70 homeless people were quietly sleeping in pews at the back of the church, as they are allowed to do every weekday morning, with worshippers praying harmoniously in front of them. The church welcomes them in as part of the Catholic concept of extending the helping hand.

I found the church surprisingly uplifting, Alston said. It was such a simple scene and such an obvious idea. It struck me Christianity, what the hell is it about if its not this?

It was a rare drop of altruism on the west coast, competing against a sea of hostility. More than 500 anti-homeless laws have been passed in Californian cities in recent years. At a federal level, Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who Donald Trump appointed US housing secretary, is decimating government spending on affordable housing.

Perhaps the most telling detail: apart from St Boniface and its sister church, no other place of worship in San Francisco welcomes homeless people. In fact, many have begun, even at this season of goodwill, to lock their doors to all comers simply so as to exclude homeless people.

As Tiny Gray-Garcia, herself on the streets, described it to Alston, there is a prevailing attitude that she and her peers have to contend with every day. She called it the violence of looking away.

Coy
Coy Catley, 63, in her homeless box made of cardboard sheets on a sidewalk of Tenderloin, San Francisco. Photograph: Ed Pilkington for the Guardian


That cruel streak the violence of looking away has been a feature of American life since the nations founding. The casting off the yoke of overweening government (the British monarchy) came to be equated in the minds of many Americans with states rights and the individualistic idea of making it on your own a view that is fine for those fortunate enough to do so, less happy if youre born on the wrong side of the tracks.

Countering that has been the conviction that society must protect its own against the vagaries of hunger or unemployment that informed Franklin Roosevelts New Deal and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. But in recent times the prevailing winds have blown strongly in the youre on your own, buddy direction. Ronald Reagan set the trend with his 1980s tax cuts, followed by Bill Clinton, whose 1996 decision to scrap welfare payments for low-income families is still punishing millions of Americans.

The cumulative attack has left struggling families, including the 15 million children who are officially in poverty, with dramatically less support than in any other industrialized economy. Now they face perhaps the greatest threat of all.

As Alston himself has written in an essay on Trumps populism and the aggressive challenge it poses to human rights: These are extraordinarily dangerous times. Almost anything seems possible.

Lowndes County, Alabama, 9 December

Aaron
Aaron Thigpen discusses the poor sewage conditions in Butler County. Improper treatment has put the population at risk of diseases long believed to be extinct in the US. Photograph: Bob Miller for the Guardian


Trumps undermining of human rights, combined with the Republican threat to pare back welfare programs next year in order to pay for some of the tax cuts for the rich they are rushing through Congress, will hurt African Americans disproportionately.

Black people are 13% of the US population, but 23% of those officially in poverty and 39% of the homeless.

The racial element of Americas poverty crisis is seen nowhere more clearly than in the Deep South, where the open wounds of slavery continue to bleed. The UN special rapporteur chose as his next stop the Black Belt, the term that originally referred to the rich dark soil that exists in a band across Alabama but over time came to describe its majority African American population.

The link between soil type and demographics was not coincidental. Cotton was found to thrive in this fertile land, and that in turn spawned a trade in slaves to pick the crop. Their descendants still live in the Black Belt, still mired in poverty among the worst in the union.

You can trace the history of Americas shame, from slave times to the present day, in a set of simple graphs. The first shows the cotton-friendly soil of the Black Belt, then the slave population, followed by modern black residence and todays extreme poverty they all occupy the exact same half-moon across Alabama.

There are numerous ways you could parse the present parlous state of Alabamas black community. Perhaps the starkest is the fact that in the Black Belt so many families still have no access to sanitation. Thousands of people continue to live among open sewers of the sort normally associated with the developing world.

The crisis was revealed by the Guardian earlier this year to have led to an ongoing endemic of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that is transmitted through human waste. It is found in Africa and South Asia, but had been assumed eradicated in the US years ago.

Yet here the worm still is, sucking the blood of poor people, in the home state of Trumps US attorney general Jeff Sessions.

A disease of the developing world thriving in the worlds richest country.

The open sewerage problem is especially acute in Lowndes County, a majority black community that was an epicenter of the civil rights movement having been the setting of Martin Luther Kings Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.

Philp
Philp Alston talks to a resident. Many families in Butler and Lowndes counties choose to live with open sewer systems made from PVC pipe. Photograph: Bob Miller for the Guardian

Despite its proud history, Catherine Flowers estimates that 70% of households in the area either straight pipe their waste directly onto open ground, or have defective septic tanks incapable of dealing with heavy rains.

When her group, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (Acre), pressed local authorities to do something about it, officials invested $6m in extending waste treatment systems to primarily white-owned businesses while bypassing overwhelmingly black households.

Thats a glaring example of injustice, Flowers said. People who cannot afford their own systems are left to their own devices while businesses who do have the money are given public services.

Walter, a Lowndes County resident who asked not to give his last name for fear that his water supply would be cut off as a reprisal for speaking out, lives with the daily consequences of such public neglect. You get a good hard rain and it backs up into the house.

Thats a polite way of saying that sewage gurgles up into his kitchen sink, hand basin and bath, filling the house with a sickly-sweet stench.

Given these circumstances, what does he think of the ideology that anyone can make it if they try?

I suppose they could if they had the chance, Walter said. He paused, then added: Folks arent given the chance.

Had he been born white, would his sewerage problems have been fixed by now?

After another pause, he said: Not being racist, but yeah, they would.

Round the back of Walters house the true iniquity of the situation reveals itself. The yard is laced with small channels running from neighboring houses along which dark liquid flows. It congregates in viscous pools directly underneath the mobile home in which Walters son, daughter-in-law and 16-year-old granddaughter live.

It is the ultimate image of the lot of Alabamas impoverished rural black community. As American citizens they are as fully entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Its just that they are surrounded by pools of excrement.

This week, the Black Belt bit back. On Tuesday a new line was added to that simple graphic, showing exactly the same half-moon across Alabama except this time it was not black but blue.

blue belt south

It depicted the army of African American voters who turned out against the odds to send Doug Jones to the US Senate, the first Democrat from Alabama to do so in a generation. It delivered a bloody nose to his opponent, the alleged child molester Roy Moore, and his puppetmasters Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.

It was arguably the most important expression of black political muscle in the region since Kings 1965 march. If the previous entries in the graphic could be labeled soil, slavery and poverty, this one should be captioned empowerment.

Guayama, Puerto Rico, 10 December

So how does Alston view the role of UN rapporteur and his visit? His full report on the US will be released next May before being presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva.

Nobody expects much to come of that: the world body has no teeth with which to enforce good behavior on recalcitrant governments. But Alston hopes that his visit will have an impact by shaming the US into reflecting on its values.

My role is to hold governments to account, he said. If the US administration doesnt want to talk about the right to housing, healthcare or food, then there are still basic human rights standards that have to be met. Its my job to point that out.

Alstons previous investigations into extreme poverty in places like Mauritania pulled no punches. We can expect the same tough love when it comes to his analysis of Puerto Rico, the next stop on his journey into Americas dark side.

Three months after Maria, the devastation wrought by the hurricane has been well documented. It tore 70,000 homes to shreds, brought industry to a standstill and caused a total blackout of the island that continues to cause havoc.

Facing poverty, academics turn to sex work and sleeping in cars

Adjunct professors in America face low pay and long hours without the security of full-time faculty. Some, on the brink of homelessness, take desperate measures

There is nothing she would rather do than teach. But after supplementing her career with tutoring and proofreading, the university lecturer decided to go to remarkable lengths to make her career financially viable.

She first opted for her side gig during a particularly rough patch, several years ago, when her course load was suddenly cut in half and her income plunged, putting her on the brink of eviction. In my mind I was like, Ive had one-night stands, how bad can it be? she said. And it wasnt that bad.

The wry but weary-sounding middle-aged woman, who lives in a large US city and asked to remain anonymous to protect her reputation, is an adjunct instructor, meaning she is not a full-time faculty member at any one institution and strings together a living by teaching individual courses, in her case at multiple colleges.

about

I feel committed to being the person whos there to help millennials, the next generation, go on to become critical thinkers, she said. And Im really good at it, and I really like it. And its heartbreaking to me it doesnt pay what I feel it should.

Sex work is one of the more unusual ways that adjuncts have avoided living in poverty, and perhaps even homelessness. A quarter of part-time college academics (many of whom are adjuncts, though its not uncommon for adjuncts to work 40 hours a week or more) are said to be enrolled in public assistance programs such as Medicaid.

They resort to food banks and Goodwill, and there is even an adjuncts cookbook that shows how to turn items like beef scraps, chicken bones and orange peel into meals. And then there are those who are either on the streets or teetering on the edge of losing stable housing. The Guardian has spoken to several such academics, including an adjunct living in a shack north of Miami, and another sleeping in her car in Silicon Valley.

The adjunct who turned to sex work makes several thousand dollars per course, and teaches about six per semester. She estimates that she puts in 60 hours a week. But she struggles to make ends meet after paying $1,500 in monthly rent and with student loans that, including interest, amount to a few hundred thousand dollars. Her income from teaching comes to $40,000 a year. Thats significantly more than most adjuncts: a 2014 survey found that the median income for adjuncts is only $22,041 a year, whereas for full-time faculty it is $47,500.

We take a kind of vow of poverty

Recent reports have revealed the extent of poverty among professors, but the issue is longstanding. Several years ago, it was thrust into the headlines in dramatic fashion when Mary-Faith Cerasoli, an adjunct professor of Romance languages in her 50s, revealed she was homeless and protested outside the New York state education department.

We take a kind of vow of poverty to continue practicing our profession, Debra Leigh Scott, who is working on a documentary about adjuncts, said in an email. We do it because we are dedicated to scholarship, to learning, to our students and to our disciplines.

Adjuncting has grown as funding for public universities has fallen by more than a quarterbetween 1990 and 2009. Private institutions also recognize the allure of part-time professors: generally they are cheaper than full-time staff, dont receive benefits or support for their personal research, and their hours can be carefully limited so they do not teach enough to qualify for health insurance.

This is why adjuncts have been called the fast-food workers of the academic world: among labor experts adjuncting is defined as precarious employment, a growing category that includes temping and sharing-economy gigs such as driving for Uber. An American Sociological Association taskforce focusing on precarious academic jobs, meanwhile, has suggested that faculty employment is no longer a stable middle-class career.

Adjunct
Adjunct English professor Ellen James-Penney and her husband live in a car with their two dogs. They have developed a system. Keep nothing on the dash, nothing on the floor you cant look like youre homeless, you cant dress like youre homeless. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

The struggle to stay in housing can take many forms, and a second job is one way adjuncts seek to buoy their finances. The professor who turned to sex work said it helps her keep her toehold in the rental market.

This is something I chose to do, she said, adding that for her it is preferable to, say, a six-hour shift at a bar after teaching all day. I dont want it to come across as, Oh, I had no other choice, this is how hard my life is.

Advertising online, she makes about $200 an hour for sex work. She sees clients only a handful of times during the semester, and more often during the summer, when classes end and she receives no income.

Im terrified that a student is going to come walking in, she said. And the financial concerns have not ceased. I constantly have tension in my neck from gritting my teeth all night.

To keep their homes, some adjuncts are forced to compromise on their living space.

Caprice Lawless, 65, a teacher of English composition and a campaigner for better working conditions for adjuncts, resides in an 1100 sq ft brick house near Boulder, Colorado. She bought it following a divorce two decades ago. But because her $18,000 income from teaching almost full time is so meager, she has remortgaged the property several times, and has had to rent her home to three other female housemates.

I live paycheck to paycheck and Im deeply in debt, she said, including from car repairs and a hospitalization for food poisoning.

Like every other adjunct, she says, she opted for the role thinking it would be a path to full-time work. She is so dependent on her job to maintain her living situation that when her mother died this summer, she didnt take time off in part because she has no bereavement leave. She turned up for work at 8am the next day, taught in a blur and, despite the cane she has used since a hip replacement, fell over in the parking lot.

If she were to lose her home her only hope, she says, would be government-subsidized housing.

Most of my colleagues are unjustifiably ashamed, she said. They take this personally, as if theyve failed, and Im always telling them, you havent failed, the system has failed you.

A precarious situation

Even more desperate are those adjuncts in substandard living spaces who cannot afford to fix them. Mindy Percival, 61, a lecturer with a doctorate from Columbia, teaches history at a state college in Florida and, in her words, lives in a shack which is in the woods in middle of nowhere.

Lecturer
Lecturer Mindy Percivals mobile home in Stuart, Florida. Her oven, shower and water heater dont work. Photograph: Courtesy of Mindy Percival

The mobile home she inhabits, located in the town of Stuart, north of Miami, was donated to her about eight years ago. It looks tidyon the outside, but inside there are holes in the floor and the paneling is peeling off the walls. She has no washing machine, and the oven, shower and water heater dont work. Im on the verge of homelessness, constantly on the verge, she said.

Percival once had a tenure-track job but left to care for her elderly mother, not expecting it would be impossible to find a similar position. Now, two weeks after being paid, I might have a can with $5 in change in it. Her 18-year-old car broke down after Hurricane Irma, and she is driven to school by a former student, paying $20 a day for gas.

I am trying to get out so terribly hard, she said.

Homelessness is a genuine prospect for adjuncts. When Ellen Tara James-Penney finishes work, teaching English composition and critical thinking at San Jose State University in Silicon Valley, her husband, Jim, picks her up. They have dinner and drive to a local church, where Jim pitches a tent by the car and sleeps there with one of their rescue dogs. In the car, James-Penney puts the car seats down and sleeps with another dog. She grades papers using a headlamp.

Over the years, she said, they have developed a system. Keep nothing on the dash, nothing on the floor you cant look like youre homeless, you cant dress like youre homeless. Dont park anywhere too long so the cops dont stop you.

James-Penney, 54, has struggled with homelessness since 2007, when she began studying for her bachelors degree. Jim, 64, used to be a trucker but cannot work owing to a herniated disk. Ellen made $28,000 last year, a chunk of which goes to debt repayments. The remainder is not enough to afford Silicon Valley rent.

At night, instead of a toilet they must use cups or plastic bags and baby wipes. To get clean, they find restrooms and we have what we call the sink-shower, James-Penney said. The couple keep their belongings in the back of the car and a roof container. All the while they deal with the consequences of ageing James-Penney has osteoporosis in a space too small to even stand up.

James-Penney does not hide her situation from her class. If her students complain about the homeless people who can sometimes be seen on campus, she will say:Youre looking at someone who is homeless.

That generally stops any kind of sound in the room, she says. I tell them, your parents could very well be one paycheck away, one illness away, from homelessness, so it is not something to be ashamed of.

Ellen
Ellen James-Penney teaching an English class at San Jose State University in California. She tells her students, youre looking at someone who is homeless. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

I hung on to the dream

Many adjuncts are seeking to change their lot by unionizing, and have done so at dozens of schools in recent years. They are notching successes; some have seen annual pay increases of about 5% to almost 20%, according to Julie Schmid, executive director of the American Association of University Professors.

Schools are often opposed to such efforts and say unions will result in higher costs for students. And for certain adjuncts, any gains will come too late.

Mary-Faith Cerasoli, 56, the homeless adjunct who captured the publics attention with her protest in New York three years ago, said that in the aftermath little changed in termsof her living situation. Two generous people, a retiree and then a nurse, offered her temporary accommodation, but she subsequently ended up in a tent pitched at a campground and, after that, a broken sailboat docked in the Hudson river.

But there was, however, one shift. All the moving around made it hard for her to make teaching commitments, and in any case the pay remained terrible, so she gave it up. She currently lives in a subsidized room in a shared house in a wealthy county north of New York.

For Rebecca Snow, 51, another adjunct who quit teaching after a succession of appalling living situations, there is a sense of having been freed, even though finances continue to be stressful.

Author
Author Rebecca Snow, now retired from adjuncting, has moved to a small apartment just north of Spokane, Washington. Photograph: Rajah Bose for the Guardian

She began teaching English composition at a community college in the Denver area in 2005, but the poor conditions of the homes she could afford meant she had to move every year or two. She left one place because of bedbugs, another when raw sewage flowed into her bathtub and the landlord failed to properly fix the pipes.

Sometimes her teenage son would have to stay with her ex-husband when she couldnt provide a stable home. Snow even published a poem about adjuncts housing difficulties.

In the end she left the profession when the housing and job insecurity became too much, and her bills too daunting. Today she lives in a quiet apartment above the garage of a friends home, located 15 miles outside Spokane, Washington. She has a view of a lake and forested hills and, with one novel under her belt, is working on a second.

Teaching was the fantasy, she said, but life on the brink of homelessness was the reality.

I realized I hung on to the dream for too long.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty