There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, until her rental assistance was terminated.

13 01 2011

I’m a preventive worker. We’re supposed to prevent families from being separated.

We do that by providing the family with counseling, approaching them from a strengths-based perspective and utilizing the family systems approach. This way we can reorganize their dysfunction, create appropriate boundaries and subsystems, and send them on their merry way.

And that’s exactly what everyone comes into our office hoping for.

Well, that and a place to live.

We’re in the midst of a housing crisis. We’ve all heard about the foreclosures (If you haven’t, I will for once suggest going to sources aside from SocialJerk for your news.) People living beyond their means, with mortgages they can’t afford, bubbles finally bursting. I have some friends and family who were only able to afford houses because of those foreclosures.

I mean, not me. I’m a social worker. I’m still paying off the sandwich I’m eating.

I’m not talking about people who were able to buy a home. I’m talking about people for whom that isn’t even a pipe dream.

So many people referred to my office come in asking for help with housing. They’re facing eviction, or they’re in an overcrowded apartment. Five of the families I work with are coming out of or going into the shelter system. I work with one family with six children who live in a one bedroom apartment.

Question: How do you fit three cribs into a one bedroom apartment?
Answer: You can’t!

I think I messed up the punchline.

For these families, the number one goal, greatest hope, is NYCHA. Public housing.

Public housing is important. But it’s rough. You don’t choose it if you can avoid it.

When that’s the dream, you know that the reality is bad.

All of my families who are not currently in a NYCHA apartment are on the waiting list. A waiting list that doesn’t seem to be moving. They wait for a year, and then are overjoyed to get an appointment, only to be crushed when they find out that it’s just an interview.

They have to wait another year to hear about apartments for which they are eligible, and then wait for one to open up. In that time, they might have added children to their family, so they have to wait even longer for a bigger apartment.

Well, in the meantime, there’s always Section 8, right? To help pay the rent on a regular apartment.

Only problem is, there is no Section 8. Not for people who don’t already have it.  But New York is having a little budget problem.

We have no money.

At first, Section 8 was only accepting new applicants who had to move due to domestic violence. Then they were only honoring existing vouchers, for people who hadn’t managed to find an aparment yet.

Shortly after, even people with vouchers were out of luck.

This presented a problem for my clients who had gotten out of the shelter system with the help of Advantage vouchers. Advantage programs are intended to help people coming out of shelters to become self-sufficient, by providing rental assistance for a year. At the end of that year, the voucher program ends, and tenants turn to Section 8.

Shit.

Because they can’t get Section 8, my clients were told that their vouchers would continue paying their rent. And sometimes this happens. DHS will sometimes send in a few hundred dollars. When the mood strikes.

As a result, one of my young mothers owes $5000 in rent, another owes $4000. Both have received eviction notices, and no one at DHS will even talk to them. They’re far from alone.

One has already decided to return to the shelter system she escaped the previous year. She and her five year old son are less than thrilled.

The other is still fighting to stay in her apartment. I remember when she first moved in with her two and four year old daughters. She told me that having her own place after leaving an abusive boyfriend and spending months in a shelter made her feel like she was, “on top of the world.”

We turned to her former worker back at the shelter, who had helped her a great deal with a program called Homebase.

People are being turned away from Homebase and told to do for themselves, supposedly as a control group in a study, to see if helping people…helps.

But given what I see on a daily basis, it seems like that might be just another excuse.

My client, and her now three and five year old, have to wait for another eviction notice. Then hope that they will qualify for the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement,  better known as FEPS, and formerly Jiggets. (I wish they stuck with Jiggets, because at least that is fun to say.)

We’re hoping that FEPS will help, even though, like everyone, they’re also short on cash.

All these programs and acronyms might have driven me mad.

Everyone I talk to who does not work in this field (there are a few, yes) has no idea things are this bad. There’s still the idea that the government is paying all of these people’s rent, whether they work or not. It just isn’t true.

Is it right, or fair, to tell someone, to promise them, that they’ll be helped? That their rent will be paid, they don’t have to worry? This program is going to help you build your own life?

And then to snatch it away. And not even have to decency (or the balls) to offer an explanation or warning. To pretend like everything’s fine, meanwhile sending hordes of (primarily) women and children into shelters unnecessarily?

I’m not certain what the answer is. But this can’t continue. It is not effective, it is not sustainable.

And it is not right.

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16 responses

13 01 2011
Esther

We have the same problem here. Utah received money for “Rapid Rehousing vouchers”. Other states used the money to prevent people from losing their homes, making a one-time, or two or three-time payments to get them caught up on their mortgage payments. Utah has chosen to use it to help clients get out of the shelter by helping pay their rent for three months and getting them into apartments and out of the shelter. The problem I see with this is What happens after three months and this family has signed a one-year lease? Supposedly they can apply for an extension up to a year, but the few people I’ve talked to that requested extensions were denied.
It’s a crisis. It sucks. Our Section 8 housing is also stuck. There are 10,000 names on the wait list. I know for New York City that may seem like a small number, but here it’s enormous. I think the most they’d ever had before was 4,000.
I will say that the County Housing Authority here does a great great job of keeping people housed who already have vouchers. And they are genuinely concerned about everyone.

14 01 2011
socialjerk

“What happens after three months and this family has signed a one-year lease?”

Exactly! People not involved in these situations seem to think that the time will make a difference, but without meaningful change- education, job training, child care, counseling- that time is wasted.

Thanks for commenting. It’s interesting to hear about what’s going in other parts of the country.

14 01 2011
cb

Wow. It makes me so angry. We constantly have battles with housing but not on those scales although our overlords .. um.. I mean government.. have now decided to go down a similar path and seemingly arbitrarily cut housing benefit (state assistance for rent). It is going to have a devastating effect on people living in London where rents are generally high.

14 01 2011
socialjerk

The most infuriating part (or one of the most infuriating parts) is that no one is talking about it.

It’s awful to think that other countries will be switching to a system more like ours, which is failing so miserably. The sky high rents in New York make it even worse-$750 for a two bedroom? Sure.

14 01 2011
sarahk

Ok, this whole post was depressing, but I used to work in Brooklyn and we helped people with that thing where you can move to a nycha building in another borough if you’re being abused by someone in yours… and I totally forgot about “Jiggets” – just remembering that word was enough to start my day with a laugh! Jiggets!

14 01 2011
socialjerk

Sorry for the depressing–such is the subject! I just wish more people knew what was going on. I feel like it’s this big secret in a way.

And Jiggets is one of those terms that is officially out of use, but people still say it all the time–which makes me happy.

PS Brooklyn! Greatest place on earth.

14 01 2011
Carolyn

Oh my gosh, I am so going to stop complaining (unless you can seriously get a two-bedroom for $750). We have our local subsidized housing. Wait list of hmmmm, a year if you are lucky! Two programs, they have their own buildings or they could simply pay part of your rent to your own landlord. You don’t get to choose which one, so even if you are in a home you love, if another apartment in one of their buildings comes up first, off you go. One bedrooms here are going for about $1,000. There is another housing program, non-profit, but very small and only has four or five buildings. Starting to get into the “housing first” scheme of things, but it is slow going.

14 01 2011
socialjerk

Never stop complaining! 🙂 (And you definitely cannot get a two bedroom for $750)

Tenants here do officially get a choice of where they live. But the problem is that there is not enough affordable housing to go around, so they kind of have to take whatever they can get.

The things that probably drives me the craziest is how convoluted the system is. It’s so complicated and hard to keep up with.

Perhaps we should charter some kind of social work island and build affordable Gilligan-style huts for all of our clients?

14 01 2011
Bad Mummy

In Toronto, the waiting list for subsidized housing (that is, the rent is geared to income – the household pays 30% of their income for housing) is up to 10 years long. There are 142,000 families on the waiting list.

While market rent for a 2-bdrm apartment (for Toronto Community Housing) is about $1200/month, welfare will provide only $385/month in housing allowance to a family of 1 parent/1 dependent. Something is wrong with the math.

14 01 2011
socialjerk

$385 a month? That’s pretty meager. And that is a mind-blowing waiting list. How is the quality of the housing for people who do get in?

Math does not seem to be the strong suit in terms of public assistance programs, ever.

14 01 2011
Bad Mummy

Not great. Small. Crowded. The buildings are a mix of market rent and subsidized. A friend of mine who is a social worker moved out of her TCH building last summer into a co-op. Much more space at $250 less a month.

There is a local journalist, Joe Fiorito, who has turned his attention to conditions in TCH buildings. Here are two of his articles that give you a good idea as to the conditions and the people running things:

http://www.thestar.com/news/article/916281–fiorito-a-game-of-hardball-after-wellesley-fire

http://www.thestar.com/news/bedbugs/article/831812–fiorito-tchc-plans-to-have-a-plan

In that second article, he references Al Gosling. Mr Gosling was an 82-yr old man who was evicted from his unit and, as a result, ended up dying. More info here: http://www.thestar.com/topic/algosling

15 01 2011
sarahk

The public housing wait list in Chicago is also up to 15 years. Housing is probably the single most complicated thing I deal with, and it’s the thing I feel least competent and least hopeful about. When my clients are out of food, hearing voices, having a heart attack, feeling suicidal, sure that’s fixable. But when they come to me and tell me they can’t afford their rent my response is basically, No shit.

There is a lottery every 5-10 years for section 8. You get placed on a wait list and they’ll tell you whether you’re in the 1-3 years group, 3-5 years, 5-10 years, or 10-15 years. Even my clients in 1-3 years have been waiting more than 3 though. Then for CHA (projects) they occasionally have a lottery for their wait list. None of my clients have ever gotten in.

Your best bet around here is to find individual buildings through charities that have subsidies, and apply to all of them. I drive people around and have them put in applications anywhere with an open waitlist. You have to keep track of them and go back every 6 months (and of course they all have their own weird hours – one place is only Thursdays, one is only from 10am-noon, etc) to “update” or they kick you off the list. As of yet, I’ve never had anyone make it through the waitlist to actually get housed.

Most of my clients pay $550-600 for a studio in a bad part of town, plus $30 or so for electric. They get $674 per month from social security (they are disabled) which leaves about $40 to buy toilet paper, pay the cell phone bill, or buy cigarettes (your choice!)

15 01 2011
socialjerk

I totally agree about housing being the most difficult–even when you look at how hard it is to deal with family systems, mental health, and all that. People think you’re going to be able to help them, but you’re really pretty powerless. I always feel like I’m letting people down, even though I know I can’t really do anything about it.

It’s insane that a 5-10 year wait is what’ s accepted. Anywhere. And that those are really just “guidelines.” No one can tell people when they’re really going to be housed–as if this isn’t somehow an extremely important issue!

Thanks for commenting.

14 01 2011
Tamara G. Suttle

So glad to have found your blog tonight and happy to add you to my RSS! Such an important topic but, of course, gains little tread or attention why? Because it’s about women and children.

You’re right. IT’S NOT RIGHT!

15 01 2011
socialjerk

Thank you so much! And an excellent point. Glad to find that there are so many others who see it and are working against it. Silence and looking the other way are the real enemy here.

16 01 2011
Weekend Links | Fighting Monsters

[…] SocialJerk – talks about housing. An old chestnut in  my own practice experience and while expressing some of realities of the housing problems in New York, I worry that it may be a foreshadowing of what could be to come in London when this government’s housing benefit changes roll into place. […]

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