Sept/Oct 1996

One Paycheck Away

A Family's Path to Homelessness

By Barbara Duffield

When the Sjoblom family realized they might soon lose their home in Matawan, New Jersey, Diane Sjoblom found the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) world wide web page and sent a message requesting help. Through email, letters, and telephone conversations, NCH has reconstructed their journey into homelessness and ensuing efforts to find living wage employment to improve their situation.
Russell and Diane Sjoblom felt fortunate. As superintendent of the Balmoral Arms apartment complex, Russell received $1,375 a month plus housing for his family. Diane worked part time at K-Mart and received a small stipend for assisting Russell. They were able to make ends meet and have enough left for hobbies and even a computer for their children, Russell Jr. and Alicia.

Moving heavy objects was part of Russell's daily routine. In January 1994, Russell's brother was helping him carry a refrigerator down a stairway when Russell's legs gave out. The refrigerator crashed down the steps, flipped Russell over, and crushed his back. He was diagnosed with compression fractures in three vertebrae and severe lower-back strain. He would spend the next five months in traction.

Russell began receiving weekly worker's compensation checks for $225. Despite a skyrocketing pharmacy bill and Diane's lay-off from K-Mart, they kept up with their bills. Even when worker's compensation reached its limit in August, state disability and Diane's new part-time job at Shop-Rite filled the gap until Russell could work again.

In October 1994, Russell returned to work on light duty. Soon after, however, he reinjured his back while working on a step-ladder. This accident would completely change their lives. Russell lost his job that December, and Diane, who had quit her Shop-Rite job to help when he returned to work, lost her job assisting him, since it was considered part of a package deal. What's more, the company that owned the complex began charging monthly rent of $685, plus electricity.

Although Russell again began receiving worker's compensation, they needed more money. Diane began looking for evening work, so she could bring Russell to doctor's and therapy appointments during the day. But none of the work for which she qualified paid enough to meet their expenses.

The Sjobloms inquired about Section 8 rental assistance, only to learn that the waiting list was six years. Because of Russell's worker's compensation, they were also denied Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

The community pitched in to help. Neighbors held collections. Organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul, the Elks, and the Cub Scouts contributed to rent, utilities, and the pharmacy bill. The United Methodist church donated food baskets, and the Marine Corps provided gifts for Christmas. Still, the family knew the community's generosity was not the answer to their problems.

On December 31, the Sjobloms' medical insurance from their former employer was terminated. In January 1995, they applied for Medicaid and Food Stamps.

Homeless Prevention?

Russell's worker's compensation ended that spring, and the family found itself two months behind in rent with no income besides food stamps. Diane began babysitting for a friend for $100 a week. They also became eligible for AFDC and were granted $298 a month, plus food stamps. Still, $298 from AFDC and $400 from babysitting would hardly cover even one month's rent, much less the three months owed.

A tenancy court date had been set for June. Because the Sjobloms had no means of paying back rent, they did not attend court on the assigned date. Accordingly, they were found in default of rent.

After applying for HUD's Homeless Prevention Program, Diane learned in June that their application had been denied because they had no anticipated means of income; assistance from the program would only delay, not prevent, their eviction. Their poverty thus disqualified them from this assistance.

Faced with the inevitability of their eviction, the Sjobloms began to seek shelter, and Diane postponed a chance to learn data entry through the Job Training Partnership Act. "...I had to call the social worker on Tuesday and have [school] rescheduled to January because of having to pack. Another case worker...said her supervisor told her to call me and tell me that being homeless doesn't give me any reason to keep me from attending school. I explained my situation again to her as well as the other worker. I also told her that I wish I didn't miss out on this opportunity." - Diane Sjoblom, email correspondence, September 7, 1995

The Warrant Arrives

On September 12, the official eviction notice, or warrant of removal, arrived. The Sjobloms had three days to "move all persons and property from the premises."

After staff at the National Coalition for the Homeless, having followed the family's frustrations via email, persuading the landlord to give the family another week, the Sjobloms found a small, two-bedroom shelter, the Spirit Inn, which had been renovated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, operating out of St. Joseph's church. The Sjobloms moved into the house the day of their eviction. In late October, however, after a septic system backup caused irreparable damage, they moved to another house/shelter owned by St. Joseph's.

The Sjobloms also found themselves with only $300 to live on for four months. They had little choice but to begin selling their belongings.

"The thing about welfare is, they make you feel guilty for owning things. But...it wasn't always like this. I worked hard for many years for the things I have, and now they're telling me that because I'm having some hard luck, I should sell them...." - Russell Sjoblom, telephone conversation, October 21, 1995

Off to Work

While the Sjobloms looked for a long-term solution to their problems, Diane began working about 30 hours a week at K-mart. Unfortunately, she was hired as a "seasonal employee" at barely above minimum wage.

The Sjobloms were due to renew their application for public assistance in November, and were anxious that the decision would depend on how their "living expenses" were defined. For example, Russell feared officials would question his purchase of a truck alarm to protect the tools he stores there.

"See, welfare will probably tell me to just sell the tools. But I really want to hang on to them, because maybe in the future I'll be able to find some work, and I could use them. Besides, these tools were given to me by my father and his father. I know Russell Jr. is only 9 years old right now, but I'd like to pass them on to him when he comes of age. Who knows how much tools will cost when he gets older." - Russell Sjoblom, telephone conversation, November 9, 1995

Saying Goodbye to Stosh

The Sjobloms were slowly losing many treasured possessions. To pay overdue bills and avoid storage costs, they had to sell or get rid of most of their furniture and belongings.

In November, they had to give up something far more valuable than furniture: their dog, Stosh. Russell's sister had been keeping the dog, until her landlord protested. But they could not keep pets at the shelter. Wanting to make sure Stosh would not put to sleep, Diane found an organization, Friends of Animals, that agreed to find a home.

"It's gonna be especially hard on the kids. ....[They] basically cried themselves to sleep last night. Then, when Diane and I got [to Friends of Animals]... it was our turn. We got on the parkway and we were still crying. I was ready to turn around and go back and get him." - Russell Sjoblom, telephone conversation, November 28, 1995

Back Online!

The family computer ranked high among household items the Sjobloms missed. The children wanted it for school work, and Russell and Diane wanted to use email to avoid long-distance phone calls, which were charged to their calling card. They decided to move the computer to the shelter from a friend's apartment. Shortly after, they made a friend who had read about their plight on the NCH home page and began helping pay for their account.

Two Steps Back

In December, Russell was denied Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits because the office had determined that he could still work. Russell's condition was deteriorating, however, and he filed for reconsideration.

Meanwhile, Diane was working 30-40 hours a week at K-Mart. That made the Sjobloms ineligible for AFDC, even though Diane's job was to end after the holidays and they would be left with only food stamps (also reduced due to her increased work hours).

"It's like you're in a hole, and every time you try to climb out, they throw you back. Then they wonder why people are on welfare for so long. You try to support a family of four on a little minimum-wage job, and they take money away from you - when you try to work an extra 6 hours a week, they take it away. ....There's just no way to advance." - Russell Sjoblom, telephone conversation, December 15, 1995

Although Diane had been hired for the holiday season, she continued working into January, though she hoped to find better paying work.

Diane's hopes of attending data entry class were dashed, however, when she learned she was no longer eligible because they had stopped receiving AFDC. Thus, Diane could not get help to improve her job skills because she already had a job, even though it paid too little to support her family.

"I told Diane we'd have been better off if she had not taken the job - if she had just sat around until January. Then at least she'd be in school. Just when you get your hopes up, you get shot back down again. When is it gonna end?" - Russell Sjoblom, telephone conversation, January 5, 1996.

Later in January, Diane's hours were cut to two days a week, five hours a day. Still, they received no AFDC in February because Diane's gross income exceeded the eligibility limit. Yet her earnings could not cover rent for even the cheapest two-bedroom apartment in the area. To find permanent housing, they would have to find a way to increase their income.

In March, St. Joseph's church informed the Sjobloms that funds for maintaining the shelter had run out and they would have to leave at the end of the school year. Again they faced the possibility of searching for a place to stay.

His Day in Court

Russell went to court in March for his Workers' Compensation case, which had been pending for several months. Russell's attorney argued that Russell had not received the maximum treatments available under New Jersey law, and that he was due payments since May 1995, because compensation had been cut off when he should have been receiving treatment.

At the end of the hearing, the judge ordered the insurance company to send Russell to a rehabilitation facility for evaluation and possible treatment, and to begin sending him biweekly payments of 70 percent of his former salary plus rent.

The Sjobloms planned to use $300 of the first check to enroll Diane in an office computer skills class through the welfare office that provides job placement upon completion. Meanwhile, however, the check rendered them ineligible for welfare assistance.

First Day of School

Diane's computer class began the day Russell was scheduled to begin treatment.

"I wanted to tell you how I made out with school. There's about a third of the class that is there sent by welfare (18 students in the class) ....The first day...the teacher [asked] why everyone decided to come to this class. ....I told them that I am homeless and would like to get out of the position that I am in by going to this class so I can get a better job to support my family and myself. There are two teenage girls there who seemed disturbed about that. But, I guess that they may be just too young to understand what it's really like.

We were being taught the different parts of the computer; hardware, CD ROM, RAM, etc. ....I think the teachers were impressed with me today, everything that they were explaining, I already know. And when we went on the computer, the teachers explained what we were about to do and I was already there like in "windows" and "word."....One of the teachers asked me to help one of the students, in the meantime the principal came in and was talking to the other teacher. ....She was telling him that I know the computer pretty well.

It's going to be something when I start learning something new like the Lotus!" - email correspondence of May 20, 1996.

That June, the church extended the Sjobloms stay at the shelter because they had nowhere else to go. Still, they knew the arrangement was temporary and were eager to find permanent housing.

After completing treatment, Russell reached maximum medical benefits from temporary Workers' Compensation. During treatment, Russell had been told that he would always have pain, and the best he could hope for was a reduction in pain through medication, physical therapy, and psychological counseling. This combination has increased Russell's mobility and changed his outlook about what he will be able to do in the future.

While Diane continued her computer classes, Russell began applying for the New Jersey Department of Labor's Vocational Training for Disabled Individuals program, through which he can attend the school and course of study of his choice.

A New Start

Alicia and Russell Jr. began attending a new school this year, after pleading to change schools because children in their old school had teased them about being homeless.

The children - unable to take part in many usual summertime activities such as going to the beach or the movies or playing with friends - had spent part of their summer break using the internet and email. Alicia began a correspondence with a girl from Pennsylvania who started a home page about homeless children, Kids Helping Kids, from which Alicia and Russell Jr. have received many email messages.

In September, Diane's office training class ended. The class covered computer programs, along with bookkeeping, some business law, and general office operations. The school is said to place 90 percent of its graduates in jobs, many paying between $10.00 and $12.50 an hour. Even with area rents of $700 for a two-bedroom apartment, such income would allow the Sjobloms to afford housing (although still paying over 40 percent of their income for rent). In addition, Interfaith Neighbors, a local charity, agreed to help the family find affordable housing once Diane found work.

Diane's certificate of completion for the course was slightly delayed because she owed $150 for tuition. She and Russell met with the school's president to discuss the matter, and express concern that the course's instructor had left halfway through, leaving an inexperienced assistant to finish. This instructor, in turn, had quit a week and a half before graduation. Many of the students were anxious that without a solid grasp of the skills they were to have learned, they might have trouble finding work and performing well enough to keep better-paying jobs. Further, those receiving welfare who are unable to find work may have their benefits reduced. The president acknowledged these difficulties, and agreed to waive Diane's remaining tuition and let her return for two weeks to make up for the instructor's early departure. Diane left the school with her certificate proudly in hand.

Now Diane can begin her job search for an office assistant position with new skills and an improved resume. And the family recently received more good news: Russell was found eligible for New Jersey's Vocational Rehabilitation program. The paperwork is expected to be completed in time for Russell to start computer programming courses in the spring.

With these recent developments, the family's chances of solving the worst of their financial problems and finding permanent housing look much brighter.

Copyright 1996


Barbara Duffield is director of education for the National Coalition for the Homeless. A longer version of the Sjobloms' story, and other information on homelessness, can be found on the NCH web site: http://www.nationalhomeless.org


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