Dee Bowers thought that she'd found a steal at a recent yard sale - a bucket of old marbles for $3.
Seeing the bargain as an investment opportunity, the 63-year-old retired typist separated the marbles into Baggies, set them out at a friend's flea market table and hoped.
When one man bought the whole lot for $15, Bowers knew right away what she wanted to buy with her profit: Goldfish crackers.
"I needed to get a few dollars," she said, "to get my Goldfish to eat."
The crackers are a rare treat for Bowers. Paying to keep an apartment, a telephone line and the lights on takes most of her money each month - in Bowers' case, almost 40 percent of her income - and there's little left to buy food and gasoline or meet her health care costs.
Bowers faces the most basic dilemma of being poor: Putting a roof over one's head is the first and often costliest need. The strain to make the monthly rent payment can make it difficult to save - so much so that one large unexpected bill can topple an already-wobbly financial balance.
30 PERCENT IS THE BRINK
In Virginia, 290,000 households spend more than half their income on housing costs alone, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition reported. Nationwide, from 2000 to 2003, 1.5 million more families began paying at least 50 percent of their incomes for housing, raising the number to 13.9 million, according to the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Far more spend well above 30 percent of their incomes on housing. The 30 percent figure remains the standard for the most that anyone should spend on housing costs.
But when shelter costs that much, any number of unexpected expenses - a hospital visit, a car repair, a spike in utility prices - can make the monthly rent payment an overwhelming burden.
Bowers gets $500 a month from alimony and $280 from Social Security, and nothing more.
Her subsidized rent is $162 a month. Her last electric bill was $69; her last phone bill $57.60. So even with subsidized rent, paying for shelter, lights and a phone link with her out-of-state son and daughter takes 37 percent of her monthly income. Her rent just went up $60 a month because her alimony increased $100 and the subsidy program immediately responded.
Bowers has a few more monthly costs that she sees as necessary, including $15 for a newspaper subscription, $13 for basic cable, $23.12 for a policy that would cover $3,000 in cremation costs - something that Bowers doesn't want her children to worry about - and a $20 contribution to a network of charities run by Pat Robertson, the Virginia Beach evangelist.
"I believe in tithing," Bowers said, referring to the practice of giving one-tenth of one's income to the church. "I'd like to give more, but I just can't afford to."
If her medical bills and prescription costs go up, as she expects, she'll face a decision on how to spend each dollar that she has.
"I have to have a place to stay, so I go with that," Bowers said.
"But I'd have to go without everything else. You have to pay so much out of your pocket, you can't afford to be sick."
DEMAND VERSUS SUPPLY
Even in her delicate month-to-month situation, Bowers fares better than many of the poor.
Public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers stretch only so far in Hampton Roads. In both Hampton and Newport News, where most of the Peninsula's poor live, thousands of families are on the waiting list to get Section 8 vouchers. Hampton's waiting list, with 1,260 families, hasn't been open for sign-ups in five years. The last time that it was open, 5,500 applications came in during three weeks.
"The demand is far greater than the supply," said Edith Peters, who runs the Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority's Section 8 program.
Without government help, renters often turn to nonprofit agencies. In Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, the Southeastern Tidewater Opportunity Project offers rental assistance and financial counseling.
Shirley Harris oversees the group's housing services division. She recently ticked off the rent-to-income percentages for the last 20 people who asked for assistance in the rural communities.
A few were in the normal, stable range (below 30 percent); most were above 40 percent; and many were in the 60 percent range.
"That 29 (percent) or 30 percent is nowhere in the picture," Harris said.
As winter approaches, Harris worries about what poor families will try to do to make ends meet. Faced with higher utility bills in winter, many pay to keep the heat and lights on and neglect the rent or the mortgage. Others pay the rent and try to do without the others.
"Hopefully, we don't have people lighting candles because they don't have lights or using the stove because they don't have heat," she said.
'IT'S JUST GETTING BY'
Lisa Cotton, a Newport News woman who's struggled with paying rent and utilities, has faced that decision before.
A few years ago, she lived in a home with a rent of about $425 a month and natural gas bills of hundreds of dollars in the winter.
"That was all my salary - my rent and my gas," said Cotton, who's worked in the accounting department of a local company since 2000. She asked that the company not be named.
"There were times when I couldn't pay the gas and it was just shut off. I just used a little space heater."
Cotton has had various second jobs since then, often working 16-hour days, and now lives in an apartment with higher rent but lower utility bills. Still, her rent takes half her income from her full-time job.
When she sat down to draw up a budget, her necessary expenses exceeded her take-home income.
"Everything is do or die," she said. "It's just getting by."
Cotton said her struggles with money reached into every corner of her life. They present stress on a daily basis and keep her from some simple pleasures that many people wouldn't consider.
"The hair salon is out of the question. It's at home, perm-in-a-box," she said. "I don't have time to date. A lot of girls would be impressed by jewelry or something. Me, I want someone who would say, 'Let me see your keys, I'll check the oil in your car. Let me check your tires.' That's what endears me to a man."
At Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia, housing and credit counselor Donna Watkins sees dilemmas like Cotton's regularly. The charity offers free counseling on debt reduction, credit problems and emergency housing situations. Watkins said there's a common thread among the people who came to her for help: They're all one unexpected expense away from big financial problems, and their costs are so high, they can't afford to save.
"Most people who live paycheck to paycheck are one step away from being delinquent," Watkins said.
Many of Watkins' clients are retired and get by on a small pension or Social Security. The average income of her retired clients is $800 a month, and their average rent is $300 to $400. "Clients at the poverty level pay quite a bit more," she said. "Or there are reasonable rents to be had, but the conditions are horrible."
DEPENDS ON WEATHER
William Watkins, a single father raising two of his children in Suffolk and helping provide for a third, works as a heavy equipment operator. He is not related to Donna Watkins.
When the weather is good, he can make more than $2,000 a month. But the work can be sporadic, and with 4- and 9-year-old children at home, his salary stretches thin.
"You've got to raise three kids - feed them and clothe them. You hope to God they don't get sick," he said. "I'm behind on all my bills right now. I just say, 'I'll send you what I can.'"
Watkins' rent for a downtown Suffolk apartment is $500 a month, and in winter his heating bill alone approaches $200 a month. Add in other utilities - and the slower work schedule winter's poor weather brings - and those basic expenses can take more than half his income. Watkins is looking into a second job as a mechanic.
"If you don't do something on the side," he said, "you can't make it out here."
$100 MONTHLY LOANS
Back at her one-room efficiency apartment, Dee Bowers has been getting $100 loans each month recently to help defray the rest of her expenses, once housing and utility bills are paid.
At a check-cashing business, she can get $100 forwarded but must pay back $115 the next month. Despite the high interest rate, Bowers said, she needs the loans to buy staples throughout the month.
"Gas, food, whatever," she said. "Now it'll start being for medicine."
Bowers said she's so pinned down by constantly wrestling with money woes, she often feels beside herself. She makes crafts to keep her busy and her mind at ease. She pieces together porcelain figurines with things like seashells and driftwood to make "scenes." Boxes of stuff that she might use clutter her apartment, but she doesn't mind. She has notes from several doctors, written on prescription pads, that say her crafts are an important hobby to ease her stress.
She hopes to sell some of her pieces, too. If she had extra money, she would like to go to the grocery store, rather than rely on handouts from churches and food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She often neglects to eat the USDA food because she's so sick of it.
"I am trying to get good enough at something, so that I can sell something," Bowers said.
"I'm not wanting a million dollars here. I just want to be able to go to the store. I don't want anything great."
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