A House of Thin Glass

Robert Karash

The goal of many programs, advocacy agencies, and society-at-large is to help the homeless get back on their feet. This frequently entails assisting these individuals to get permanent housing and out of emergency shelters or off of the street. Of the outcomes available, the very best a homeless person could hope for is subsidized housing. Among these, the “gold standard” is the so-called “Portable Section 8 Voucher”. After being awarded such opportunities, many homeless people are able to just run out and get an apartment quickly. Yet others, after having spent years in situations of homelessness, are left confused. To these latter individuals a determined search for an apartment and actually closing the deal on it can prove a formidable challenge.

One can apply to his local public housing authority (PHA) for differing types of permanent housing, such as public housing projects owned by the PHA, or for other kinds of housing, as well as for vouchers. The portable Section 8 Voucher, or
personal Housing Choice Voucher (HCV), allows a person to get a market rate apartment in any place he chooses in the United States, with subsidized rent. Generally, he will only pay thirty to forty percent of his income towards the rent while the PHA pays the landlord the difference.

Generally, a person cannot progress in this application process without an official “Certificate of Homelessness” from an agency. This document assures that he is homeless by all legal definitions, and is therefore a “Priority One” applicant.
With the Certificate of Homelessness in hand, a person applies to the PHA for all permanent housing from multiple lists. One list could be for public housing projects, another for an Enhanced SRO (Single Room Occupancy), yet another for a site-based Section 8 voucher. The portable HCV represents a different list entirely.

He applies then waits. He will have screening interviews, then submit a myriad of papers, like a birth certificate, proof of citizenship, income tax forms, and references.

For an uncomplicated Priority One applicant, waiting could take up to two years or more. If the person has a criminal record, credit issues, or other complications, there might be a problem in passing the preliminary screening interviews. The process is typically unforgiving since there are so many people applying. If a person doesn’t reply to an action letter from the PHA, he could be scratched off the waiting lists and have to start from square one.

If all goes well for the applicant, after the waiting period and screening processes he gets an offer of housing.
If the offer is for a place in a public housing project, he must take it. The PHA tells you where it’s located. Originally, he had checked off in his application which public housing projects he was interested in, so it’s no surprise. It’s a done deal after final qualifying interviews. No apartment search was needed.

If it’s a site-based Section 8 offer, then he’s limited to the apartment assigned to him. Still, he might be able to convert this into a portable voucher in the future.

If he gets a portable HCV, then he’s hit the jackpot. He can go out on his own to look for a market rate apartment, anywhere in the U.S., as long as the monthly rent is below the “payment standard” for a studio, one bedroom apartment, etc. After locating a potential home, he will be interviewed by the potential landlord, submit the papers to the PHA, have the apartment inspected by the PHA, sign the lease, and move in. If all goes according to this plan, he’s succeeded in transcending homelessness.

But in some cases, even with a voucher in hand, invisible barriers exist between the person and his ability to find an apartment into which he can eventually move.

For some people, this determined apartment search, approval, inspection, and lease signing might be a very complicated, even emotional process. It must get done in a specified amount of time, sixty or ninety days, as determined by the PHA. Otherwise, he will forfeit his voucher and be back to square one, maybe even in a homeless shelter.

Counselors and case managers will say that if a person isn’t a bit nervous about moving out into his own place, then that’s a red flag, paradoxically.

For some, having an HCV in hand presents a tough task ahead. They are leaving a known environment, a milieu, and going out on their own again. Starting over can be scary. The moment of truth has arrived.

If the person holding the voucher goes back to his PHA and asks for help in the housing search, he might be startled by the agency’s response. They tell him that their job is done. It’s up to you now. For someone who’s been homeless for years, this award become dubious. To whom can he turn for help? Perhaps no one. In some cities social service agencies will assist in the housing search, but he has to find them himself. Then he has to worry about getting furniture. He has to be mindful of the ticking clock and the time necessary to find an apartment and get everything signed, which is now looking very short.
He’s told to get a copy of the local newspaper and look through apartment listings, only to find that most apartments are priced above the PHA’s payment standard. He sees cheaper apartments in the listings but they’re in rougher neighborhoods. Or the landlord might not be so quick to help the apartment pass inspection by the PHA. He has to weigh the options.

Then there are landlords who just don’t want HCV tenants because maybe they’ve heard some horror stories in the past. These discriminatory practices by landlords might insidiously complicate the ability of HCV holders to obtain reasonable housing.

Luckily, some PHAs publish a weekly list of landlords who have apartments available for HCV holders. Despite the person’s having been screened by the PHA to get the voucher, the landlord may do his own check of the person and his financial record. If the landlord refuses the potential tenant, he has to start looking for another apartment while the clock on the voucher continues to tick.

Then there are the dead-end calls, where apartments listed in the newspaper are “already rented” and the others that landlords have to offer are more expensive and above the PHA payment standard.
This all takes up time in the search.

This is not the fault of the PHA whose job was to investigate and get the person a voucher for housing and to administer it when he finds a potential place. In major urban areas, PHA leasing officers are very busy serving a large number of clients.
Some of the voucher holders are so discouraged by the housing search that they lapse into inaction, scared that after years of waiting for a voucher, they’re not going to find an apartment after all.

This sounds absurd. But it’s a fact. It’s hard to transition seamlessly from homelessness to being the sort of clean cut and well-dressed potential tenant that landlords favor.

In some extraordinary cases, the PHA will grant an extension to the time limit to use the voucher.

Most people, with some help, do find an apartment and get through this process. Others do not.

Sometimes, receipt of a “gold standard” voucher can cause unforeseen emotional damage. This can result from trying to reconnect with family or friends and being rejected, from rejection by a potential landlord, or from bad memories of a past plagued by a criminal record or substance abuse.

As an example, suppose the voucher holder wants to move back to his hometown and near his family, calls them for help, and finds they are not excited about it. Helping him look for an apartment in his hometown, close to his family, turns out to be emotionally complicated for all involved. Old memories come back and they might not be good ones.

In some cases, it would have been better for the individual to have been accepted into a public housing project apartment. They wouldn’t have had to search or had to present themselves so formally. It would have been a done deal at the offering of the apartment. But others benefit more from having more choice.

This is all very hard to imagine for people who have never been in such a situation. It may appear absurd, but it happens. The most we can hope for is that the voucher holder is determined, has good supports, and has someone to help him look for a place if he needs help.

A society and community must help in any way it can, should the person or the situation present itself. One could help to look through a daunting stack of real estate ads and prune them, recommend neighborhoods and buildings, possibly go with someone to look at an apartment. There are ways to help.

No one wants to walk on thin glass or live in a house made of thin glass. This is what the housing search feels like for some struggling people.

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