Two parents, both working steady jobs – they’re probably not the first people you think of when you imagine someone who’s experiencing homelessness, but increasingly, that’s the face of homelessness on Cape Cod.
“That’s something I had never really seen before in all the years I’ve been doing this,” said Paula Mallard, Housing Assistance’s vice president of homeless services.
Rising rents and shrinking inventory have left many individuals and families without housing and without options, she said. A report commissioned by Housing Assistance in 2022 found that Cape Cod’s rental vacancy rate is just 1% and the average home price is over $600,000.
For some families, even a second job isn’t enough. Rent for some two-bedroom apartments is upwards of $2,900 a month.
“Most landlords want you to earn three times the rent,” said Mallard, “A job that pays $20 an hour doesn’t get you into that $2,900 a month apartment. The math just doesn’t work.”
Mallard described how the housing landscape shifted quickly during the COVID pandemic. Many landlords sold their rental homes to second-home buyers, leaving the tenants to search for housing in a rapidly shrinking market.
“The tenants looked and looked and looked on the Cape because their kids were in school here or they had jobs here, and eventually they’d come into a family shelter because they could not find anything,” she said. “If they eventually found another place to live, it was in another town or off-Cape and the kids had to change schools.
People want to stay on the Cape if they’re from the Cape, but it’s extremely hard. The housing market on Cape Cod has always been pricey, but now it’s pricey and non-existent.”
Mallard said that in the past, she said some of the parents in family shelters had difficulty finding work, but that’s changed. “Now it’s about the housing piece. You can get that job easily, but then where are you going to live?” she said. “That’s an interesting turn for those of us that work in the family shelters. You can have a job, but you are going to be hard-pressed to find a place to live.”
Retirees who rent are also feeling the pinch, she said. “We’ve never seen the influx of elderly that we’ve seen in the last few years,” she said. “People who are retired or close to it and hoping to enjoy those next years in a peaceful, happy way – some of them have had the same rental for 20 years and now they’re scrambling to keep a roof over their head.”
Patty Alonso, a Housing Assistance outreach coordinator and community liaison, said it’s hard to give people hope when housing options are so limited.
“I have to be honest with them,” she said. “It’s a very difficult rental market right now. The vacancy rate is less than 1 percent and things are expensive.”
In the five years Alonso’s been with Housing Assistance, the number of elderly homeless people has risen over 50 percent, “and we’re seeing new people every week. It’s definitely a much bigger volume than it’s ever been. They worked their whole lives and now can’t afford to live anywhere.”
Alonso said homelessness does not just affect mentally ill or people with substance abuse issues, the way some people think. “These are functional, contributing citizens who lose a rental and can’t find a new place,” she said. “There’s just nothing out there.”
Every client has a different story, but Alonso said she knows they all have one thing in common.
“I’m sure not one of our clients has ever said, when I grow up, I want to be homeless.”