The students loved this teaching aid. They didn’t know he lived in his car.

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They called his name and Charles Peacock rushed 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 his emotions would overwhelm him.

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

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

“Myself, like most others, I have to work multiple jobs just to get by. I put in over 80 hours a week, every week, between four jobs to barely make it,” he said, the words dancing over muffled sobs, “After four years with the county, I am earning a minimum wage that equates to less than a thousand dollars a month.”

Peacock paused, took a breath, and looked at the painting.

“Personally, I have been homeless,” he said. “At least one of your staff – one who excels at their job, has been nominated for Para of the Year, who loves their students beyond measure – is homeless. Living from his car. Crash on the couches from time to time. Take showers with friends. I dare you to look me in the eye here, right now, and tell me it’s okay.

His three minutes were up.

At the Volusia County School Board meeting on November 9, teaching assistant Charles Peacock said he was homeless and urged members to fight low pay. (Video: Volusia County School Board)

Peacock had arrived at the Nov. 9 school board meeting as one of 610 teaching assistants in the district, earning an average annual income of $16,800 and engaged in salary negotiations with the board.

But he also represents a large number of Americans who struggle beyond the reach of public policies because they do not fit into traditional definitions of poverty. He was homeless, but he technically wasn’t poor.

Unraveling the difference for the council, or explaining it in public, was nothing compared to knowing that after the reunion, his family would now have questions.

“It wasn’t hard to face the set,” he said later. “Dealing with my children was more difficult.”

“We were all exhausted”

A typical Peacock day starts at 7 a.m. He is at school at 8 o’clock in the morning. He’s finished at 4 p.m., but then leaves for a local bar where he works security. This concert ends between midnight and 2 am. On weekends, he referees youth baseball games.

For all that hustle and bustle, Peacock estimates he earns between $22,000 and $25,000 every year.

“It was exhausting, and I wasn’t the only one of my colleagues trying to stick to that kind of schedule,” he said. “We were all exhausted.”

The struggle requires total effort but gives few rewards or signs of advancement. And this does not fit into the country’s official scale of struggle. Peacock’s annual income is above the federal poverty level 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 measure is missing a larger portion of Americans. A measure that has since emerged was developed by Centraide: 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 who live above the federal poverty level but struggle to pay for necessities.

“We jumped into this because the federal poverty level didn’t tell us what was happening on the ground,” said Stephanie Hoopes, national director of United for ALICE. “We calculate the bare minimum for living and working in the modern economy in every county in the country, and we work out how many people live below that. We found ALICE in every community across the country.

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

“If you look at poverty over the past 10 years, it’s been stable,” Hoopes said. “But ALICE’s numbers soared during the Great Recession and continued to rise in most places during the so-called recovery.”

A 2018 ALICE report for Florida noted that over the previous two years, while the number of families living in poverty had declined, the number of families living above the poverty line but below the ALICE 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 busy schedule.

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

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 had known since he was a referee asked Peacock to lead an after-school program. Two years later, he started as a teaching assistant.

He had found a career, but unfortunately it was not paying enough to support his family. Peacock found himself rushing from one side job to the next. “I was doing all sorts of other jobs to keep up, and that unfortunately played a part in the cost of my marriage.”

After her divorce, Peacock could only afford to rent a room in a friend’s house. The profession he had chosen—he earns $11.65 an hour—could not meet his basic needs on its own.

“I earn next to nothing doing work that I love,” Peacock told the board in November. “But when is that love balanced with the need to survive, and dare I say, thrive?”

That’s the question that prompted him to fill out an application as a salesperson at a new car dealership, where he was told he could make over $100,000 in the first year. He left the app on the dashboard of his Kia Soul. On good days, it was motivation to stick to the grinding schedule; on the bad, a taunt that a better quality of life was possible. The app was still on the dashboard when the Kia became its only shelter.

In late October, her roommate’s landlord informed her that Peacock was not on the lease. He had to go. On his pay scale, Peacock had not accrued the required down payment and security deposit for a new location.

His car was his only option. He slept on friends’ sofas when he could. Otherwise, he parked his car in front of a friend’s building and slept in the Kia. The situation caused cycles of self-reproach. “I could make $15 an hour giving change at a gas station,” he said. “Yeah, it would suck to quit a job I love, but staying is almost like making a selfish decision.”

But he also realized that he was not alone in this. “If I’m in this situation, how many other paratroopers are on the brink?” He decided to speak in front of the council and publicly detail his own situation. “It was hard trying to swallow my pride,” he said.

In his comments to the board, Peacock made it clear that he was not looking for a “pity party”. Rather, it was about fair wages for him and his colleagues, who are essential contributors to a key part of the economy. The message seemed to resonate.

“Sad that someone like me, your former student, is earning more,” one former student wrote in a text message to Peacock after his speech made local headlines. “You’re out there teaching future teachers, nurses, etc.”

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

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

Peacock said her episode of homelessness has only strengthened her dedication to pushing for fairer living wages for her colleagues. He was not alone, as the numbers showed, both in Volusia County and beyond. “We are an army,” he said.

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