By Kelly Kasulis

Yolaida M. counted on her hands as she sat at the kitchen table, each swollen finger representing a dead end in the search for new opportunity. The firefighter’s exam was out. The police academy was out. And on the floor of the room where she lived, at a Jamaica Plain shelter for homeless families, Yolaida’s old ambulance uniform rested inside an open cardboard box.

“I love Boston. This is my city,” Martinez said. “And I wish I could stay working here, I really do.”

An emergency knee surgery ended [Yolaida]’s five-year career as a per diem EMT last September, but she was already homeless six months before that. A breakup halved her family’s resources and her $15.48 hourly wage wasn’t enough to cover rent. It took three day-long visits to the application office before she got shelter for herself and her two children, ages 10 and 15, a “right” for families in the state of Massachusetts provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

“We’ve been through so much – so, so much,” [Yolaida] said. “But like I said, everything is for a reason, you know, and I’m thankful for what we have.”

Trying to break out of poverty, 29-year-old [Yolaida] looked to other jobs as a firefighter or police officer as her way out. But after months of studying and physical training despite a recovering knee, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, lung scarring and Hashimoto’s disease – a thyroid disorder that causes pain, stiffness, muscle weakness and swelling. Her doctor told her it would be nearly impossible to do any of those jobs.

“It’s just figuring out what my options are. It’s a change, but we should move on forward,” [Yolaida] said. “I don’t like being home. I like working. I’m used to that.”

Even as a shelter resident, [Yolaida] always had a job. As much as 44 percent of the nation’s homeless population is working, according to a 2007 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but they’re living “several dollars below the self-sufficiency wage needed to support a family.” In Massachusetts, more than 70 percent of adults living in poverty worked either full-time or part-time jobs. The state’s minimum wage is $10, which is still a full $9 less than what is considered the bare minimum to make rent and live in Boston.

Yolaida is one of several thousand millennials who struggle to find their way up. About 44 percent of the nation’s total homeless population is under the age of 25, and nearly 10,000 homeless parents in the same age bracket were recorded on a single night in January 2015 nationwide. A significant number of youth are affected. Across Massachusetts, more than 19,500 public school students were homeless during the 2014 – 2015 school year. They’re more likely to develop risk behaviors such as substance abuse and mental illness because of it, and low wage jobs along with impossibly high college tuition costs offer little hope for moving up.

“Is it worth your sanity?” Yolaida asked. “Because, you see the working class and they’re constantly working nonstop the way I do. People can barely afford it.”

According to Robyn Frost, the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the issue of family homelessness isn’t a matter of meritocracy.

“[Families] work their butts off to keep the roof over their heads, but the folly is that the rent is too damn high and the income is too damn low,” she said.

The DHCD’s Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter regulations require families to spend at least 30 hours a week working, taking classes or doing other activities that promise stability. As an EMT living in shelter, [Yolaida] spent as many as 15 hours a day between work and escorting her children to school and back home. After losing her job, she continued to volunteer unpaid as the church administrator at Pabellon De La Fe in Jamaica Plain, teaching Bible study to adults on Wednesdays and to children on Sundays.

She also works by phone as a fitness coach and retail seller for Shakeology Beachbody. [Yolaida] said the company charged her a $15.95 monthly fee and in two months, she earned about $300.

“I can definitely see myself making a career out of this. All that matters is you try,” said [Yolaida], whose ministerial intonation makes words linger in the silence. Naturally pretty with sharp eyebrows and spiral curls, her easy smile almost hides the glassy look in her eyes when she talks about her children.

“What hurts me the most is for my kids – how they’re feeling and what they’re going through,” she said. “And being a mom, their sole provider, it’s hard on me mentally, you know?”

A good conversationalist who always rebounds with an optimistic quote to share, she sat on the sidelines of her son’s Friday night basketball game and occasionally stopped mid-sentence to cheer “papi” on.

She told him to drink water instead of Gatorade and promised to make seaweed snacks when they got home. Diagnosed with mild autism, her son has difficulty coping with the sudden changes of moving from shelter to shelter, she said, and basketball is one way that he can cope with his frustration.

“Hopefully soon – hopefully, if they do the [Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program] and we do get $120 million – I’m able to get my voucher for a while until I can really get myself up for me and my kids,” [Yolaida] said. But since then, she has been relocated to a three-bedroom shelter in Dudley Square and is still looking for work.

In February 2016, [Yolaida] had spoken from the statehouse podium alongside major politicians such as Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. She advocated for a $120 million budget for the MRVP, which is $20 million more than the FY’17 budget. Essentially a state-funded version of Section 8, it pays a portion of families’ rent for private market apartments. The tragedy, experts say, is that the governor’s proposed budget would create no new vouchers despite the growing demand.

“It’s like ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ and getting the golden ticket – very few people get it. There’s just not enough subsidies available,” Frost said.

In order to qualify for shelter, homeless families can make no more than 115 percent the federal poverty line – that’s $20,160 annually for a three-person family.

“We have a severe affordability problem,” said Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at UMASS Dartmouth. “It puts a lot of pressure on our working and middle-class families.”

But despite their financial struggles, the working homeless are largely unseen. They are Massachusetts’ hospital workers, hair cutters and stadium ushers. They’re a population who often grew up poor themselves, unstable housing leading to inconsistent educations. They’re the ones helping elderly people with disabilities into vans, the ones pitching tents for the extravagant outdoor weddings, the ones listening to patients and entering their information into the computer. And they’re people who get up in the morning looking for an answer that may not be there.

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