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In N.Va., Let Down By a Rising Economy

Robert Messick and Toni Willingham wait at a Fairfax library for a church to open where they will spend the night.
Robert Messick and Toni Willingham wait at a Fairfax library for a church to open where they will spend the night. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The descent from working class to homeless was swift and methodical. Rob Messick lost his job as a contract worker for a technology firm in Alexandria in September. The bills, already high, piled higher: rent, child support, car insurance, medical expenses, utilities. The odd jobs he scored didn't keep pace. The eviction notice arrived in November.

A few miles away and three weeks later, Messick's girlfriend, Toni Willingham, soon to be the mother of one of his children, also found herself jobless. Her position at a government contracting firm ended. Then she lost the $200-a-month room she was renting.

The young couple found themselves at the Lord of Life Lutheran Church off Braddock Road, where they and several dozen others sought shelter against the cold and the wind and vagaries of lives gone awry in the heart of Fairfax County, the country's second-wealthiest jurisdiction.

"I guess this is going to sound typical, but we really didn't know what hit us," Willingham, 26, said. "Six months ago, you're living a normal life, on your own. Then you make a wrong turn or things get too much, and you're where you thought you'd never be."

Messick, 25, and Willingham, 26, represent a growing underside of the vibrant, rapidly shifting economy of Northern Virginia, where the high cost of housing and the unpredictable nature of the job market can plunge workers into poverty and homelessness.

Although Northern Virginia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, tens of thousands of its jobs are contract work, where moderate income employees such as Messick and Willingham are at the mercy of employment that can end suddenly and disappear forever. Often, workers are able to jump to new jobs without disrupting their lives -- Messick did it for six years. Other times, finding work can be elusive.

"These jobs are becoming a growing share" of the region's economy, said Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, who estimates that 200,000 federal contract workers are employed in Northern Virginia and thousands more in the private sector. "Particularly at the low end, [people] work only as long as it's available."

At the same time, the region's high-powered economy has increased housing prices so much that many moderate income workers are not able to keep up. In Northern Virginia, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,286, according to a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

To afford that level of rent and utilities, without paying more than the federally recommended ratio of 30 percent of income on housing, a household must have an income of $51,440 a year. Messick, who received about $32,000 between his day job and odd jobs, was putting nearly 60 percent of his income into housing.

The situation in Northern Virginia is similar to those surfacing nationwide. Recent research by national poverty experts found that a higher percentage of Americans dropped below the poverty line for at least a year in the 1990s than in the previous two decades -- and they estimate the trend has continued for the past six years.

Large contributors to this temporary "acute poverty" were the rising cost of housing, the volatility of contract work and increasing health care costs, said Mark Rank, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, who co-authored a 2004 study.

About 3,000 people were counted homeless in Northern Virginia last year, and, like the more than 16,000 across the Washington region, many were drifters and drug addicts. But unlike elsewhere, many homeless in Northern Virginia are members of working families who cannot keep up with rising costs. In each of the area's largest jurisdictions, the majority fit that description.


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