They came straggling into the conference room, situated in one of the Los Angeles homeless centers I oversee. You would think they would be excited, hopeful, maybe even exuberant.
A half a dozen case workers sat at the table with them going through preliminary paperwork to help these people access Section 8 vouchers, subsidized rental assistance from the federal government. The wait for these coveted housing vouchers can be multiple years, since jurisdictions around the country have only a limited supply in comparison to the thousands and thousands of people in need of housing.
These people walking in were homeless, and they literally looked defeated with eyes peering down, feet shuffling, and indifferent facial expressions. The hard years on the streets took a toll on them, defeating any sense of hope.
They did not look like eager concertgoers waiting in line in hopes of landing a coveted ticket to their favorite pop singer. Instead, these homeless people were in line thinking this might be the last chance they may ever land in a permanent house.
By the end of the day, eleven people were lucky enough to appear ready to apply for housing. Of the eleven, seven people were disabled homeless seniors. We looked at these so-called "lucky" applicants thinking that a home should be a right for homeless seniors who should be enjoying their golden years rather than struggling to figure out how to find housing.
Were they lucky? Maybe because they are now on the path to accessing a Section 8 housing voucher, but in reality they should not be struggling on the streets. Besides, they had just taken the first of many confusing steps in the application process.
To gain a housing voucher that is highly in demand means overcoming three very difficult barriers.
The first barrier is time. The application process is time consuming and long. It could take months to go through the process. They don't set you up in a hotel or an apartment so you can wait for your application to be approved. Instead, you're still on the streets hiding from harm and in search of food with no idea if your application was accepted.
A laundry list of strict rules is the second barrier. You have to fit every category in order to be approved. Each local public housing authority (PHA) develops its own list. In some local jurisdictions, it means that if you struggle with alcoholism and drugs, you don't make the cut. If you committed some sort of crime, you're out. You also need your driver's license, social security card, a personal budget. You have to apply for other public benefits, like food stamps, etc. Some PHAs ask for a credit report.
Finally, perfection is king. Any errors on an application result in failure. Going to the end of the line probably means a lifetime of homelessness. A personal interview can also be mandated, so a wrong answer could be disastrous. Checking an incorrect box or using the wrong word could also end your quest for housing.
Subsidized housing is such a bureaucratic nightmare for people living on the streets who in reality should have the right to be housed. How does a hurting, struggling homeless person overcome these barriers and navigate a dizzying system of rules and procedures by themselves?
No wonder why homelessness persists in this country. You practically need to be a CPA to follow the rules in a game of subsidized housing that is designed to turn people away, not embrace the most needy.
I can't imagine how a chronically homeless person who has been languishing on the streets for multiple years and struggling with some sort of disability has any chance of overcoming the barriers of subsidized housing.