On the House: Layoff sets off a search for shelter

Posted: June 14, 2009

Rita Hernandez's experience is not uncommon. Not in less-affluent, big-city neighborhoods, where opportunities are few and despair can be quite abundant.

Recessions bring these experiences to the wider world. How often lately have you passed a homeless man curled up in a corner of the Concourse and wondered if, or when, that could be you?

Hernandez, 41, lived much closer to that edge, so it took just one life-changing event to push her over it.

She is the single mother of a very active 3-year-old named Cesar. She never finished high school, so high-paying, long-term employment has never been available.

That said, about two years ago she found a daytime job with a cleaning company and was doing well enough to find an apartment in Frankford. The rent was $500 a month, and it was near public transportation. "I've got a driver's license but no car," she said.

Hernandez worked for the cleaning firm for just four months, then was laid off in early 2008. She began scrambling to find work, "but it was either too far away, so I couldn't get there, or it was second or third shift."

"I'm not going to leave Cesar with a sitter at night," she said. "Even if you trust the person, things can happen."

She hadn't made much as a cleaner; other jobs wouldn't pay enough to cover proper child care. Her brother tried to help, lending her enough money to stay in her apartment for two more months while she looked for work.

"When my income-tax refund came, it was $1,000, so I paid him back," she said. "My brother said, 'Why are you paying me back? You could use the money for two more months' rent.'

"I told him that if I used it for the rent, I'd still owe him money, and I didn't want to do that."

Hernandez and her son left the apartment. They spent a couple of weeks with an uncle, then with her grandmother, and finally with her mother, but the arrangements didn't work out. Options gone, she and Cesar spent 10 months in a homeless shelter.

"It was awful," Hernandez said. "It was full of all different kinds of people, each with their own story. The food was bad, and there were so many rules. I tried to potty-train Cesar quickly so he wouldn't have to use the bathroom."

Part of the state assistance she received paid the shelter fees; most went to savings for rent so she could move to one of 50 transitional apartments maintained by Public Health Management Corp.'s HELP Philadelphia program (www.phmc.org), which also has 40 permanent units.

Hernandez was accepted into the program, but "there were 24 people in front of me," so it took time. Finally, with the $818 in savings needed to get it, she and Cesar moved into a one-bedroom unit March 2, waiting, and hoping, for permanent digs.

Hernandez is still looking for work, trying to fit a high school equivalency diploma in with child care and job searches. But Cesar is now potty-trained.

"I'm glad, too," she said, because she watches every penny. "A box of Pampers costs $22.99."


"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home-improvement columns appear Fridays in Home & Design.

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