An average day for Aaron Moreau starts around 6 a.m.
The 22-year-old hits the ground running, organizing a food distribution program at the Winchester Rescue Mission’s Cameron Street location, which picks up food items from local restaurants and grocery stores.
That food stocks the pantry at the Mission and helps feed locals struggle with food insecurity.
Once the distribution program wraps up around 11 a.m., he’ll help serve lunch at the shelter. He might play a few games on his phone before heading to his full-time job as a mechanic at the Northside Lanes bowling alley.
He’ll work there until 10 p.m. or 1 a.m. depending on the day, repairing the pin setting machines and keeping the balls rolling. Then he hops on his bike and heads back home — to the shelter.
“I never imagined myself here at all but,” Aaron paused. “Things happen.”
He had his own apartment, staying at the ANS Inn and Suites apartments and he’s been working since he was a teenager. But when he lost his landscaping job over the summer, everything began to slip.
Without a job, he couldn’t pay his rent, so he was evicted. With a few hundred dollars left, he went to a motel and kept looking for work.
Still jobless, he ran out of money. He packed up, left the Echo Village motel and walked a few hundred yards down Valley Avenue to sleep under a bridge.
“I went under there and stayed there for about two to three weeks, eating out of dumpsters,” Aaron said. “I have no home, nothing but the clothes on my back, no money. It’s the lowest I’ve ever been.”
During one of the bad summer storms, he sought refuge in a friend’s barn, sleeping on a dog bed. But he overslept and his friend’s parents found him in the morning. Rather than kick him out, they made a few calls and got him a bed at the Rescue Mission.
Brandan Thomas, the Mission’s executive director, says Aaron working isn’t an exception when it comes to people who stay at the Mission’s shelters. It’s actually the norm.
“Most every individual in our facility, at this time, have some type of income,” said Thomas. “That 10 percent that doesn’t have an income, we’re working very hard to help them get that.”
The Mission has partnerships with NW Works and other companies to help get people back on their feet. But in Winchester and the surrounding areas, what income they do have isn’t getting them very far.
“If you’re only making anywhere between $200 to $400 a week, it’s almost impossible to find somewhere to live on that,” Thomas said.
He adds that a lot of the men who stay at the shelter have existing debt, medical bills, and child support payments that are taking most of the money they do make.
One example is Victor Medina who has five children with his wife, whom he’s separated from. He’s been at the shelter for a year and a half and was working up until the past few months, at a number of different jobs. But his carpal tunnel syndrome has made it impossible for him to work, so he’s waiting to get approved for disability benefits.
Without an income, though, there’s no way to leave the shelter.
“I wish it upon nobody to go through what I’m going through,” Medina said. “I miss my kids, I miss my wife. But nothing I can do, all I can do is go forward.”
Virginia’s minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour. With a 40-hour work week, that’s just $290 per week, or $1,160 before taxes. But according to the Blue Ridge Association of Realtors, the average rent for the city of Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke, and Warren is a whopping $1,300 a month, making it far out of reach for a person like Aaron, who makes $9 an hour.
“When your average rent is $1,300 a month, that means you have to be grossing $3,900 a month,” said Re/Max relator Katrina Smith, using a 1:3 ratio of rent to income. “Well, that’s an exceptional income for the Winchester/Frederick County area.”
The figure of $1,300 is high, but that’s not the only obstacle keeping people in need of housing out of it.
Jennifer Hall works for the United Way’s Valley Assistance Network. The VAN focuses on people like Aaron, which they call Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE.
“Fifty percent of the people we work with have housing insecurity issues,” said Hall. “Half of those 50 percent are living on the streets, living in motels, living in their vehicles.”
She says it’s not just the cost that’s prohibitive, but the lack of actual housing.
“I look at the listings literally every single day, because I have clients that are dying to get into a place,” she said. “They need to get into a place immediately and the inventory is just not there.”
While to some the 1:3 ratio may seem extreme, Hall says it’s a delicate balance.
“When people are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, something else is suffering,” she said. “Either they can’t buy the items they need for their kids or when that emergency comes up, they don’t have money in their savings account to be able to fix the car. And we know that once that happens, things spiral out of control.”
When asked about solutions, no one has a simple answer.
“It’s going to require new builds, it’s going to require rehabbing homes, it’s going to require individual landlords that aren’t in it to make a profit,” said Hall.
Smith agreed, adding that it’s a sellers market and buyers and renters are at a disadvantage before they even walk in the door.
“Somebody needs to take a stand. The current market is not going to deem us affordable housing,” she said. “I don’t know what the solution is, I just know that as a community, as a realtor community, as a member of the community here, we need to figure it out.”
Against the odds, Aaron is holding out hope that he can leave the shelter soon.
“I’m saving up money and I’m looking for a decent apartment. One that, if this does happen again, to where I can go a time without having a job and not having to worry about losing my place again,” he said. “I’ll do everything I have to to keep the ground underneath my feet.”
To learn how you can help those in need in the Winchester area, go to www.winrescue.org