By GREGORY N. HEIRES
Employed and homeless.
This is not supposed to occur in the United States, the self-described richest country in the world.
But put together a little bad luck, a low-wage job and years of frozen pay, and you have a recipe for falling down.
Welcome to Deborah Mars’ world.
She lives in a Bronx homeless shelter with her 15-year-old son, Kobie. They became homeless after a friend of Mars’ moved out of the apartment they shared to live on her own.
A Custodian Assistant at City College of New York, Mars scratches by on her modest pay, which is less than $15 an hour. What’s more, she earns $150 less than she used to earn until 2011, when she started working during the day and lost her nighttime pay differential.
Most of her pay is eaten up by transportation costs, daytime meals and the occasional dinner outside the shelter and school expenses, along with a storage fee of more than $100 a month for her belongings, her cell phone bill and incidental daily expenditures.
“Living paycheck to paycheck is wrong,” Mars said. “Sometimes I only have $20 left from my paycheck. I have to ask coworkers for help with my MetroCard.”
Mars said another Custodian Assistant at City College is also homeless, but he doesn’t share his circumstances with coworkers. Though she maintains her dignity, Mars doesn’t talk about her living situation either.
Homelessness is perhaps the most disturbing sign of how workers have been harmed by years of austerity at CUNY, which has grappled with budget constraints since the 2008 financial meltdown. The Great Recession led municipal and state governments around the country to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers, reduce the pension benefits of their employees and make deep cutbacks in services.
As the 10,000 CUNY workers represented by DC 37 cope with seven years of frozen wages, most are seeing their living standards drop. The economic squeeze forces them to assume credit card debt, cut back on household expenses, drop car insurance, scavenge for cans and bottles on the streets for extra cash, and skip meals.
Thousands of the CUNY workers like Mars earn less than $15 an hour, which amounts to about $31,000 for a full-time worker. Mars’ annual pay is $29,0o0.
The union expects CUNY workers to be covered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $15 an hour minimum wage plan after the contract is in place. DC 37 hopes to return to the bargaining table soon since CUNY’s financial situation is clearer now that legislators and the governor approved the state budget March 31.
“It’s a struggle,” said Mars, whose financially pinched life reflects the situation of the tens of millions of workers in the United States for whom the country’s out of balance economy doesn’t work.
“We are living in some sad times, Mars said. “Sometimes I don’t want to think about it. I cry.”
Over the past four decades, inequality has grown and workers have received a decreasing share of productivity, causing the middle class to shrink. In 2014, 50 percent of wage earners took home less than $29,000 a year, according to the Social Security Administration. Mars lacks a high school diploma, so her employment opportunities are limited. Her search for another job is going nowhere.
“When I say I am homeless, their faces suddenly change,” she said, describing her disheartening and humiliating experiences with job interviews.
The broken American Dream
While frustrated with her pay, Mars nevertheless does appreciate having a public-sector union job with a decent benefit package, including health insurance. “If I didn’t have my health benefit, I would have to go to the emergency room,” she said.
Mars, 55, and her father immigrated to the United States from Trinidad in 1990, hoping for a better life. But unfortunately, 25 years later, it hasn’t worked out that way.
“The American Dream is no more,” Mars said. “The word today is survival.”
Living conditions at the noisy and unwelcoming shelter are harsh. Mars and her son occupy a room with a dirty rug and a hole in the floor. Chilly air filters in from the radiator in the winter. A plastic sheet covers a hole in the bathroom ceiling above the shower.
“This is not an environment for me to be bringing up my son,” Mars said. “The food is tasteless, fights break out frequently, stabbings occur and the police are often called,” she said.
A good student, Kobie attends the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, which requires a long commute on two buses. But he is at a disadvantage in school because the shelter does not allow residents to have personal computers with Internet access in their rooms.
“Why does my son have to go through this?” Mars said, tearing up. “I am supposed to be providing for him.”
The shelter is in an industrial area, where Mars feels unsafe. She gets up at about 3:30 a.m. to take the train to work at City College in Manhattan, where she works from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
“I thank the lord I have not been assaulted,” she said. For now, Mars has no way out. Her income is too low to be eligible for affordable housing.
Meanwhile, she hopes her circumstances will change once CUNY agrees to return to the bargaining table and settles the contract with DC 37.