For five months, Marc Johnson woke up every day at 5 a.m., dressed and brushed his teeth, just like countless other working people across Colorado Springs.
Before heading off to work, he made the sheets on his bunk. Then he walked out the door of the homeless shelter.
Johnson earns $17 an hour and said it’s not enough to get an apartment, which usually requires first and last months’ rent and a security deposit up front. And even if he had that, there’d be nothing left over after paying rent to buy food.
“It’s just the little everyday kind of expenses that is eating up the money,” Johnson said. “It’s killing me.”
As one of the working homeless, he’s not alone.
In a city with a severe affordable housing shortage, not even a job can be enough to help people move off the streets and into a house or apartment of their own.
Johnson was among more than 60 people living at the Springs Rescue Mission, which typically shelters about 300 people a night during the summer, who hold regular jobs. Many others live in their vehicles, motel rooms or sleep on friends’ couches.
Nearly 10% of those living in homeless shelters in Colorado Springs are employed, according to data from the Homeless Management Information System.
More are likely employed, because some shelter residents believe they would not get a bed if they admitted they have a job, said Jennifer Mariano, director of homeless programs for Community Health Partnership.
The reasons for homelessness are diverse and complex. Whether it’s because of a past with crime, financial hardship, addiction or mental illness, the road back is often a bumpy one.
In addition, rents are rising faster than wages for low-paying jobs — a leading culprit preventing people from finding a permanent place to live, said Steve Berg, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Even if you’ve got a job, it can be hard to find a landlord that will rent to you,” Berg said. “People are leery about renting to someone who’s homeless because they have all kinds of stereotypes about what homeless people are like.”
In Colorado Springs, the average rent in the second quarter this year was $1,216 — the latest in a long string of records, and a 5% increase over the same time last year.
At that price, not even someone earning $22 an hour could afford an apartment, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development, which considers housing unaffordable if it costs more than 30% of income. U.S. Census Bureau data shows many people living on minimum wage end up paying upwards of 50% on rent, Berg said.
“The problem with that is it’s not very sustainable,” Berg said. “Some sort of crisis comes up and there is no margin for error.”
For those living on low wages, one error or emergency can mean the difference between having a home or living on the street. And once homeless, keeping a job becomes more difficult.
A rough divorce led Johnson to the Springs Rescue Mission.
Six months ago, he moved to Colorado Springs from Riverside, Calif., seeking a fresh start. He also wanted to escape California’s highly competitive job market, where work was hard to pin down.
Leaving wasn’t easy.
Johnson’s 4- and 5-year-old sons remained in California with his ex-wife. Johnson believed the move would be worth it for him, and someday, his sons.
Johnson arrived in Colorado Springs in February. He started work as a day-laborer making $70 a day and spent $50 a night to stay in cheap motels.
After a month and a half of searching for more reliable income, Johnson found he couldn’t afford the cost of the motels. He would have to stay at the Springs Rescue Mission’s entry-level shelter.
“I remembered I didn’t want to be there,” Johnson said. “I thought I was better at the time. I had that arrogance about me. I was probably angry that I was there and had to resort to that.”
Now, Johnson is a foreman for a landscaping company. Over the last five months, he has saved up several hundred dollars from his $17 hourly wage. It’s not enough to get an apartment.
His story is not unique.
Even with a job, being able to afford first-and-last month rent in order to secure a place to live can be unmanageable because of the immediate expenses homelessness demands, said Cathy Alderman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, including prioritizing vital needs such as food and transportation.
The stipulations of staying in entry shelters can make it nearly impossible to maintain a job, she said.
The check-in and out times can conflict with work schedules; there is usually no storage and belongings can be stolen; pets aren’t always allowed, although they are at the Springs Rescue Mission, couples can’t stay together and access time to laundry and showers are limited, Alderman said.
While Johnson has been able to save money, emergency expenses including a cracked car windshield, broken cellphone and extra gas costs have steadily drained away his savings.
Acknowledging the difficulties that residents face having jobs while staying at the shelter, Springs Rescue Mission created a program that aims to make life easier for the working homeless.
The program, called the advanced shelter program, gives guests a guaranteed bed, bins to put personal items, as well as access to showers and amenities such as a kitchenette and TVs. Participants have to pay a $150 to $200 fee a month for access to the program.
In mid-August, 53 people were in the program.
“We’re trying to promote growth,” Williams said. “We’re working on programs that empower people to move forward.”
The advanced shelter program makes it easier for Johnson to maintain a work schedule with access to showers, a laundry room and the freedom to come and go as he pleases, Johnson said.
But the real solution for Johnson will only come when he can find a place of his own.
“I’ve been trying to save my money to get into an apartment,” Johnson said. “That’s my next step.”
His hunt for an apartment has become more urgent now that his two sons are with him.
Due to family issues in California, Johnson had to drive there and pick up his sons.
Since then, Johnson has been staying in motels with them. But as Johnson knows, motels eat up money — fast.
“I want to get into a place as soon as I can,” Johnson said. “I want the boys to be out here, it’s just sooner than expected.”