How AmeriCorps Made Me Homeless

I joined AmeriCorps out of desperation when I graduated during the 2008 recession. I hope Gen Z doesn’t make the same mistake during COVID's dismal job market.

t’s AmeriCorps Week! Every year in March, a cheerful email celebrating AmeriCorps week drops into my inbox, and I am reminded of how I became homeless 6 months into my term of service. Earning about $3 per hour from my AmeriCorps living stipend, I think about the hypocrisy of a government-funded program paying people less than minimum wage as the debate rages on over raising the federal minimum wage, student loan forgiveness, and the legality and ethics of unpaid internships. I remember AmeriCorps Orientation Day, when everyone seated in the North Seattle hotel conference room gasped as we were taught how to apply for food stamps. Most of the people in that room had never been on food stamps before. That was when I should have realized that AmeriCorps is just a gilded ticket to a poverty tourism cruise.

Many AmeriCorps members who had wealthy parents or boyfriends to live with and supplement their $3 per hour taxed AmeriCorps stipend have criticized me over the years for being naive when I tell my story. And yes, I absolutely agree. I was very naive to think that a government-funded organization, designed to support nonprofit programs where graduates help disadvantaged populations, would care if the structure of AmeriCorps makes members homeless if they lack familial safety nets. I also didn’t know that AmeriCorps makes you sign a contract, promising not to work any other jobs for supplemental income. I was very naive to think that my AmeriCorps leaders would care that I had been sexually assaulted by my housemate’s cousin and couldn’t find any other affordable housing in the expensive city I had been assigned to.

I was not the only homeless AmeriCorps member. Three people in my cohort became homeless. We were assigned to positions across Washington State to help disadvantaged students and refugees access education. It was the 2008 recession, and I had applied to hundreds of jobs with my newly minted diploma. Even Starbucks barista positions with health insurance benefits were hard to come by, so out of desperation I accepted an AmeriCorps position. I worry about all the Gen Z graduates today who are facing a similarly dismal job market in the COVID pandemic.

AmeriCorps was not my first time being homeless. I was homeless when I began college. At age 18, I had signed student loan agreements, all while being reassured by every adult around me that it was an investment in my future, guaranteed to pull me out of poverty. (Over a decade later, I am still paying the interest for those loans). I don’t blame the social workers who helped me fill out my FAFSA application; they were naive too. But to become homeless again within a year of graduating college was not how I had planned things. I also had not planned to graduate during an economic recession, just as Gen Z students never planned to attend college via Zoom during a global pandemic.

Within 6 months of joining AmeriCorps, my housemate’s cousin sexually assaulted me. I feared for my physical safety when he continued stalking me. In a very strange twist after the assault, he had tropical fruit baskets with creepy poems delivered to the house in the weeks before I moved out to live in my car. It had been difficult to find a room to rent with the meager stipend in the expensive city where AmeriCorps had assigned me to work. I also had to travel between 3 different campuses for my assignment, so having a car was necessary in a city with unreliable public transportation.

Every March during AmeriCorps week, I am reminded of how callous my AmeriCorps leaders were when I asked them to help me find housing after I had been sexually assaulted and became homeless. Reading through old emails, I feel more sympathy for who I was back then. I was so lost and naive, and AmeriCorps has mastered the art of exploiting idealistic college students. AmeriCorps is a predatory organization that touts itself as a champion of social change and generosity, but it is actually just an unethical PR washing front. I’m not sure if AmeriCorps’ underlying motive is to make the American government look kinder, or if there is another political angle at play that I don’t see. Regardless, until AmeriCorps volunteers are guaranteed safe housing and a living stipend that is at least minimum wage, AmeriCorps should be dismantled because it is a harmfully hypocritical government-funded organization that leaves many of its members homeless and worse off than the populations they are tasked with helping.

I sometimes wish that I had done an unpaid internship instead. At least an unpaid internship would have permitted me to work a second job to afford rent. Plus, I would have known what I was signing up for with an unpaid internship. At least the Peace Corps doesn’t make people homeless.