The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students loved this teaching assistant. They didn’t know he was living in his car.

Charles Peacock poses for a portrait in his Kia Soul outside the Volusia County Schools DeLand Administrative Complex in DeLand, Fla., on Nov. 24. Peacock spoke to the county school board about increasing pay as an assistant teacher living in his car. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)
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They called his name and Charles Peacock hustled up to the microphone to address the Volusia County School Board. The public comment period gave him three minutes. He had practiced his speech, but the 40-year-old knew that somewhere in that time frame, his emotions would overwhelm him.

He introduced himself as a teacher’s assistant — called a “paraprofessional” in the district — at New Smyrna Beach High School, a school of nearly 1,900-students near Daytona Beach, Fla. The divorced father of three detailed how overworked he and his colleagues are, how the ranks have thinned due to high demands and low compensation.

Then he paused, knowing that his next sentences swung from workplace complaint to raw confession.

“I myself, like most others, have to work multiple jobs in order to simply scrape by. I put in 80-plus hours each week, every week, between four jobs to barely make it,” he said, the words bobbing along on muffled sobs. “After four years with the county, I make a minimum salary which equates to less than a thousand dollars per month.”

Peacock stopped, took a breath, and looked at the board.

“I personally have been made homeless,” he said. “At least one of your employees — one who is great at their job, has been nominated for para of the year, who loves his students beyond measure — is homeless. Living out of his car. Crashing on couches from time to time. Getting showers at friend’s houses. I dare you to look me in the eyes right here, right now, and tell me that this is okay.”

His three minutes were up.

During the Nov. 9 Volusia County School Board meeting, teaching assistant Charles Peacock said he’s homeless and urged the members to address low wages. (Video: Volusia County School Board)

Peacock had arrived at the Nov. 9 school board meeting as one of the district’s 610 teaching assistants making average annual income of $16,800 and locked in pay negotiations with the board.

But he also represents a large number of Americans who struggle outside the reach of public policy because they don’t fall inside the traditional definitions of poverty. He was homeless, but he technically wasn’t poor.

Untangling the difference for the board, or explaining it in public, was nothing compared with knowing that after the meeting that his family would now have questions.

“It wasn’t hard facing the board,” he said later. “Facing my kids was harder.”

‘We were all exhausted’

Peacock’s typical day starts at 7 a.m. He is at the school by 8 a.m. He is done by 4 p.m., but then it’s off to a local bar where he works security. That gig ends between midnight and 2 a.m. Weekends, he umpires youth baseball games.

For all of this scramble, Peacock estimates he makes somewhere between $22,000 to $25,000 each year.

“It was exhausting, and I was not the only one of my colleagues trying to keep this kind of schedule,” he said. “We were all exhausted.”

The struggle takes total effort but gives few rewards or signs of advancement. And it doesn’t register on the country’s official scale of struggle. Peacock’s annual income is above the federal poverty line of $12,880 for a single adult or $17,420 for a family of two.

For decades, poverty experts have warned that the federal government’s official measurement misses a larger chunk of Americans. One measure that has since emerged has been pioneered by the United Way: the ALICE threshold, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Since 2009, United Way and its partners have used the criteria to take a high-definition snapshot of people in Peacock’s position — those living above the federal poverty line but scrambling to pay for necessities.

“We got started on this because the federal poverty level wasn’t telling us what was happening on the ground,” said Stephanie Hoopes, national director of United for ALICE. “We calculate the bare minimum to live and work in the modern economy in every county in the country, and we figure out how many people live below it. We’ve found ALICE in every community across the country.”

According to a 2020 national ALICE report of 2018 data (the latest available), 16 million households in the United States — or 13 percent of the country’s 121 million households — earn income below the federal poverty line. But an additional 35 million, or 29 percent of households, were fell below the ALICE threshold.

“If you look at poverty over the last 10 years, it has remained flat,” Hoopes said. “But the numbers for ALICE shot up during the Great Recession and have continued to increase in most places during the so-called recovery.”

An ALICE report for Florida from 2018 noted that in the previous two years, while the number of families experience poverty dropped, the number of families living above the poverty line but below the ALICE threshold had increased, including in Peacock’s Volusia County. The bare minimum for a single adult to survive in Florida is $24,600 a year — the amount Peacock was able to scrape together with his hectic schedule.

But the bare minimum is no cushion for unexpected financial shocks, as Peacock learned.

Nowhere to go

Education was a surprise detour for Peacock. He had done everything from work on a boat assembly line to pest control. Six years ago, a principal he knew from umpiring asked Peacock to run an after-school program. Two years later, he started as a teaching assistant.

He had found a career, but unfortunately it did not pay enough to support his family. Peacock was left rushing from side job to side job. “I was doing all sorts of other jobs to keep up, and that did unfortunately have a part to play in costing me my marriage.”

After his divorce, Peacock could only afford to rent a bedroom in a friend’s house. The profession he had chosen — he makes $11.65 an hour — alone could not support his basic needs.

“I make next to nothing doing a job that I love,” Peacock told the board in November. “But when does that love get outweighed by the need to survive, and dare I say, thrive?”

It was the question that drove him to fill out an application as a salesman at a new car dealership, where he was told he could make more than $100,000 his first year. He left the application on the dashboard of his Kia Soul. On good days, it was motivation to keep up with the grinding schedule; on bad, a taunt that a better quality of life was possible. The application was still on the dash when the Kia became his only shelter.

In late October, his roommate’s landlord informed her that Peacock wasn’t on the lease. He had to go. At his pay scale, Peacock had not piled up the necessary down payment and security deposit for a new place.

His car was his only option. He slept on friends’ couches when he could. If not, he parked his car outside a friend’s building and slept in the Kia. The situation occasioned cycles of self-reproach. “I could make $15 an hour handing out change at a gas station,” he said. “Yeah, it would suck to leave a job that I love, but to stay is almost making a selfish decision.”

But he also realized he wasn’t alone in this. “If I’m in this situation, how many other paras are on the brink?” He decided to speak before the board and publicly detail his own situation. “That was difficult, trying to swallow my pride,” he said.

In his comments to the board, Peacock was clear he wasn’t looking for a “pity party.” Rather, this was about fair wages for him and his co-workers, who are essential contributors to a key part of the economy. The message seemed to resonate.

“Sad that someone like me your past student makes more,” a former student wrote in a text message to Peacock after his speech made the local news. “You are out there teaching out future teachers, nurses, etc.”

The union representing Peacock and other teaching assistants is still negotiating higher wages with the district. (The Volusia County Superintendent of Schools did not respond to a request for comment.) After the meeting, Peacock said he was flooded with offers for housing, jobs, even a GoFundMe fundraiser.

The only one he accepted was an offer to rent a room in a fellow school employee’s house. He no longer has to worry about where he will sleep.

Peacock said his bout of homelessness has only strengthened his dedication to pushing for more equitable living wages for his co-workers. He wasn’t alone, as the numbers showed, both in Volusia County and beyond. “There’s an army of us,” he said.

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