Mark Elias

In a previous decade perhaps, Mark Elias estimates he could land a manual-labor or construction-related job any day of the week, and on short notice. 

But not in the Florida of 2011, where the economy has bottomed out and the housing bubble has long since burst, leaving day laborers with far fewer options for fast employment in a tourism-driven region. Even if occasionally there is work, the roughly $56 a day minimum-wage earnings don’t go too far in the South Florida economy, and with gasoline prices on the rise.  

A native of Panama City, Elias is not at all the picture of an indigent man living in the rough downtown Miami: clean-cut, articulate and focused, he sits down in an office at Camillus House to talk about his options. His new baby boy and a girlfriend are living with the woman’s mother while he deals with job-placement challenges after completing a nine-month comprehensive program for substance-abuse recovery at Camillus House

A full-service center for the poor sponsored by the Canada-based Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, Camillus includes a separate entity, Camillus Health Concern, a clinic for the indigent, nearby.  

“I went back out and relapsed, and now am unable to find any work at all in the state of Florida,” he said. “I am a people person and can work anywhere, but can’t even find a job at McDonald’s.” 

Elias said he used to work in the fire and burglar alarm installation business — which he said has thinned out in recent years as the biggest companies started buying up the smaller companies — even Brinks Home Security was bought out not long ago. 

“There were times you could go out and get a job the next day, but it does not exist. You can go stand there at 5 in the morning at a labor pool, and be lucky if they have something. I am employable, but the jobs aren’t out there.” 

“It’s unrealistic here in Miami.” Has he thought about leaving Florida? “No, this is my home,” Elias said. 

Camillus House, both previously and again now that he has come back for another stay after his relapse, has been a “blessing in disguise,” said Elias, who adds that he was living outdoors behind a church recently. Now he lives in the men’s dorm at Camillus. 

“You don’t sleep when you are living outside. Here I am with a roof over my head now, and [have] something to eat. That says it all. But there are so many people they are helping that you have to be patient and wait,” he said. 

When Elias’ mother was dying last year, Camillus counselors supported him emotionally and arranged for his hospital visitation to see her. “If you get to know the staff, you know it is the whole complete package of people who reach out to you; it is a family that you feel part of right away,” he said. 

“When I first came back it was like, ‘Where have you been?’ This is like my home.” 

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.

Effects of Joblessness (sidebar)

Even for the small percentage of homeless who are employed, the struggle to earn a living is daunting, especially for low-wage earners. Despite increases to the minimum wage enacted in 2007, the real value of the minimum wage today is 26 percent less than in 1979 because of inflation. 

13% - Percentage of homeless single adults who are employed 

59.9% - Percentage increase of unemployed from 2008 to 2009.

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Alesa Thurman (Chicago): Shelter keeps family together as mother searches for work

Christine Rodgriguez (Eugene, Ore.): Hard times help mother appreciate what she has in life