Another face of homelessness.
by Will Freeney | firstname.lastname@example.org
The visible homeless are only a fraction of those without a place of their own to sleep or take care of their other daily needs. Although those who drive past those with shopping carts, bike trailers of recyclables, or tents pitched on a canal levee may sum up those conditions as a “lifestyle choice,” there is little choice left to those who occupy the streets of Fresno as their only residence, and choices made to transform their situation are often thwarted by the very system that purports to want them off the street. Let’s consider the case of just one ‘homeless’ person as an example – Melody.
Melody was born in Japan, where her father was stationed in the military. Her family moved to California when she was 10 years old. She grew up and had four children (two sons – both now in the Marines – and two daughters). She worked for the IRS here in Fresno for over a decade – from June of 2004 to June 2015 – before being suddenly and unexpectedly fired. During that period, she and her partner had bought a house. However, Melody’s unemployment led to the loss of the house by the end of 2015, prompting them to move to Wisconsin to be near her family. She and her partner were both employed in the burgeoning water park industry of the Wisconsin Dells – at Wisconsin’s minimum wage rate of $8 per hour. That was not adequate to reestablish themselves in independence, and Melody returned to California in March of 2016.
There is, of course, more to the story. Melody admits having used methamphetamines from 1995 – 2016. She says it was a response to the loss of her children in 1992. The immediate effect of that loss was depression, which led to hospitalization and 5 suicide attempts – 2 while hospitalized. She has received multiple prescriptions to deal with her emotional state – Serquel so she can sleep, Buspar for her anxiety, and Effexor as an anti-depressant. During our interview, she was calm, lucid, and articulate, so they seem to be working for her. Her companion animal, Shadow, a charming, attentive, and well-behaved small dog, is also obviously contributing to her emotional well-being and quality of life. Having a place to call home would no doubt help immeasurably.
She receives $245 per month in General Relief and $173 a month in food stamps. It is not necessary to do a market survey to know that this is inadequate to house and feed one person on any terms.
Melody initially applied for SSI in 2016 and received 2 denials. She has an upcoming hearing for a third application attempt, dependent on the testimony of her mental health professional, a cardiologist and a general practitioner. To further limit her access to employment or services, Melody is unable to renew her driver’s license due to a back child support bill – for her children who are now adults, aged 27 – 32. She receives $245 per month in General Relief and $173 a month in food stamps. It is not necessary to do a market survey to know that this is inadequate to house and feed one person on any terms. Housing for Melody consists of her partner’s bedroom in his mother’s house here in Fresno. Fortunately for Melody, this is her protection from the visible homelessness of those in tents, now subject to being rousted, deprived of their belongings, jailed, and fined. For them, the burden of paying a $1000 fine would be just another barricade between homelessness and housing. Melody has barriers of her own, though.
She was finally able to get a CHAP (Section 8) voucher for subsidized housing and began searching for an apartment. The list of contacts quickly dwindled, however, as she was told that no units were available, the complex no longer accepted Section 8, the property’s new owner did not accept Section 8, or no one answered the phone. The CHAP authorization period (90 days) expired and she requested and received a 30-day extension (which expired in April of this year). Before its expiration, she did find one renter who would accept her application. They, in turn, denied her application. When she asked why, she was told it was due to a delinquent PG&E bill. The bill was from 2013, and PG&E supplied her with a document verifying that no repayment was required to open a new account. The prospective landlord persisted in their denial of her application. On further review of her rental process documentation, Melody discovered that the denial was actually based on a bad credit rating.
She was finally able to get a CHAP (Section 8) voucher for subsidized housing … however, she was told that no units were available, the complex no longer accepted Section 8, the property’s new owner did not accept Section 8, or no one answered the phone.
This brings us to Melody’s current plight. If she does receive her SSI authorization, she would be an appealing prospect for CHAP authorization, as the Section 8 program requires 30% of the applicant’s income go toward rent while HUD provides the supplemental difference. However, a check today on the Fresno Housing Authority’s website determined that CHAP is currently closed to new applicants. If she were able to apply and was again accepted, where would she find a landlord who would accept her application? Melody also told me that her initial authorization for CHAP was issued with an announcement that 3000 such authorizations were being issued – 1000 of which would be selected. Melody has some ideas of her own regarding the provision of more housing for the homeless. She mentioned both the University Medical Center campus at Kings Canyon and Cedar and the old Juvenile Hall – both of which are vacant – as prospective public housing sites.
While her children are faring better than Melody is at the moment, her elder daughter, Fiona, has known homelessness at the street level, and told me that she had begged officers to take her to jail to escape the hardships of that environment. She currently is staying with her husband at his parents’ house and is about to move into a Section 8 apartment next door. That was only possible because the landlord was an independent property owner who did not do a background check. Fiona was denied by the same landlord who refused Melody due to her credit score, because of a past felony.
If the goal is to assist the homeless in finding and occupying a home, perhaps all the participants in dealing with the homeless should be on the same page – namely that helpfulness is the universal mode of operation and housing for all is the ultimate goal. After the prospective tenant is required to fill out paperwork with the housing authority to get Section 8 assistance, should the landlord’s purview extend to requiring additional paperwork and background checks as a means of obstructing the process of housing the homeless?
Although Melody’s story contains elements of the boilerplate dismissal of the homeless, it also contains the typical elements of any American growing up and doing the best they can here in the United States. She is intelligent and articulate and hoping to do better for herself – to have a stable, safe, independent space. The system does not seem to be doing enough to meet those expectations.