A few weeks ago, I sat at the Santa Monica Public Library with two homeless individuals in their 60s as they searched online for housing. There was Mary, 64, whom I wrote about in January in a story about homeless women. Sitting next to her was her new friend Michael, 62, and his 6-year-old German shepherd service dog, Presley.
Until recently, Mary lived at Samoshel, a transitional shelter for the homeless in Santa Monica, for almost eight months. Michael has been there for three years.
There was something sad about watching two graying, wrinkled individuals scroll a website from page to page looking for a home. Michael has white hair on his balding head, a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, and gray eyebrows. Mary’s shaved head has started to grow bristles of hair again after a lice breakout from her time on the streets. Mary and Michael both had jobs until they lost them due to health problems. Mary bounced from one abusive boyfriend to another, while Michael faced eviction twice because his landlords wanted higher rents.
There aren’t many options for people like Mary and Michael to find permanent housing. With her age and health problems, Mary’s been unable to hold a steady job, so her only income is the $600 or so she gets monthly from Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance. She can’t afford rent in Los Angeles with those meager checks. Mary’s 85-year-old mother lives in Pennsylvania and is in poor health herself, while her siblings live in Wisconsin (her home state) and have problems of their own.
Michael has similar difficulties. When he was 16, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles from Brighton, Mich., and never looked back. He and his family don’t talk—he won’t explain why. Today he’s got lung disease, heart disease, psoriatic arthritis, and all sorts of other health issues. His medication alone costs at least $3,000 a month. Should he move out of state, he’d have to change doctors and health insurance programs, which would mess up his current treatment plan.
It’s not easy being homeless. It’s just as tough trying to get out of homelessness, especially in a high-cost, low-vacancy area like Los Angeles. For people like Michael and Mary, their only option to get out of homelessness is to apply for Section 8, a federally funded program that provides housing assistance vouchers to low-income renters. Once they secure vouchers and find housing, federal subsidies can make up the difference between their rent and what they can afford to pay.
The problem is, there’s a very limited supply of housing vouchers and too many people who need them. It’s incredibly hard to get a foot into the Section 8 program in Los Angeles: For the 20,000 spots on the voucher waiting list in 2018, about 188,000 people applied. Only 1 in 30 applicants actually score a voucher—and out of those, only about half actually sign a lease within the required six months because most landlords refuse to accept vouchers.
Mary and Michael were two of the lucky ones. It took Mary only six months to land a voucher. For Michael, it took (only) three years. And now, here they were at the public library, borrowing the Wi-Fi to search for available rental units on GoSection8.com, the largest affordable housing listing service in the nation. Since Michael has dyslexia, Mary did all the reading and note-taking for him.
“Look, I found a one-bedroom, one-bath unit for $1,525 a month,” Mary told him.
“Sounds good,” Michael said. “Where’s it at?”
She looked up the address: It was near Dodger Stadium, which wouldn’t be a bad place to live in comparison with the last apartment Michael visited in South-Central. The building was so old and dilapidated that it didn’t pass inspection from the LA Housing Authority.
“I’d take it,” Michael said, without looking over at her laptop.
“Don’t you want to look at pictures?” Mary asked.
Michael shrugged. “At this point, I’ll take any bedroom that’s available.” If he didn’t find an apartment within six months of getting his voucher, he would have to restart the whole referral process for assistance.
If $1,525 for a one-bedroom apartment sounds excessive, note that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in LA is $2,400 per month, according to Zillow. When Mary found another studio for only $1,300, they both looked at each other with squinted eyes of suspicion. Sure enough, when they looked up the address, the unit was right at the edge of Skid Row.
“Ooh no,” Mary exclaimed, quickly shutting down that window: “I might get typhoid there.”
“Yes, definitely not,” Michael said.
OK, on to the next option. This time, Mary found another one-bedroom unit within their budget … but it was all the way down in South-Central.
“Ooh no,” Mary groaned again, and Michael dryly remarked, “Yeah, you want to be alive in your new apartment.” Beggars can’t be choosers, but they still have certain standards.
Michael and Mary both have strict budgets for their rent: His is $1,535, hers is $1,522. That won’t get them much. Most of the places available for that price are crap—tiny, threadbare units with nasty toilets, no AC, no garbage disposal, and little sunlight, holed into old buildings with iron-barred windows, shedding roofs, and peeling paint. Most are located in gang-ridden and food desert neighborhoods. It would be challenging for someone like Mary to wheel her walker a mile or more to the nearest grocery chain store.
Mary found another one-bedroom unit for Michael. This one asked for $1,522 and was located in Elysian Park. She wrote down the landlord’s number for Michael, who immediately made the call. The call sent him to a voice message explaining the landlord’s voicemail was full. Michael hung up and sighed: “Typical.” He said he’d call back, but he didn’t expect much: Any available decent housing in Los Angeles doesn’t remain vacant for long.
At the end of the day, Mary and Michael each found two potential units. All they needed to do now was set up an interview with the landlords and ask them to accept their vouchers. Mary was particularly excited about a one-bedroom unit in East Hollywood—it was located on the first floor, which meant she wouldn’t have to worry about climbing stairs with her walker. It was close to public transportation. And it was near another one-bedroom vacancy she found for Michael. “We could be neighbors!” she yelped, pumping her fist into the air.
Michael looked a bit more subdued—resigned, almost. I could see the worry dimming his hazel eyes. He’s been through this house-hunting process many times. As a gay man, he said he’s experienced harassment from management when they found out his sexual orientation. He has a dog, and many landlords don’t accept pets. He doesn’t have a car, so it’ll be hard for him to travel around town visiting potential houses. How was he going to sign a lease in time before he loses his voucher?
Sensing his thoughts, I told him, “I really hope you get that apartment in Hollywood.”
He nodded, looking down. “Me, too.”
Then I asked, “Do you have hope?”
He lifted his eyes and looked straight into mine: “Yes, I always have hope. Sometimes, that’s all I have.”
To be continued …