After suffering a stroke and spending five years in assisted living facilities, 47-year-old Frederick Williams had been approved for the housing choice voucher program and was awaiting the mandatory inspection of his would-be home. But on April 26, when news broke that his voucher would be rescinded thanks to uncertainty about federal funding, his hopes for a place were dashed.
Williams's back had been bothering him that night, so he took some pain medication, decided to call it early and skipped the evening news. The next morning, a neighbor at his assisted living facility knocked on his door. He laughed a little as he told Williams that the Houston Housing Authority’s program had been put on hold, but Williams tried not to think much of it as he closed the door. Why would he? He had already put $100 down for a deposit on an apartment. The ink was dry. It was a done deal.
A call came soon after. It was Paula Robinson, a relocation services manager at the Houston Center for Independent Living. She said she hated to be the bearer of bad news.
“So it was like a punch in the gut,” Williams said. “Twice.”
Many families across Houston got similar calls. The cuts, which are expected to last for at least nine months, come in light of an order from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Houston Housing Authority, citing a more than $9 million shortfall in the city’s federally funded voucher program.
Although the more than 18,000 residents who already depend on affordable housing will keep their vouchers, an estimated 28,000 families are set to remain on the waiting list until next year – 900 of whom, like Williams, were next in line and just waiting for the home inspection prior to moving in.
With the help of a subsidy, Williams said the price of the apartment he found would have dropped from $800 to $217 a month. Whether disabled, elderly or poor, for many recipients who had their vouchers revoked, it would have been a sense of deliverance to live affordably in a metro area.
“I don’t know what else to do. I’m just trying to be independent. I have a brace on my leg; I have a brace on my arm. Walking around, everybody looking at you, that’s the easy part. The hard part is what goes on up here,” Williams said, nodding his head to indicate a reference to his mind. “The psychological part – man, that’s a whole different story.”
For the past several years, he’s resided in an assisted living home, a situation Williams described as decent at best. Still, it’s a consistency of living that far outshines where he found himself after a stroke and a two-week coma in 2012, in a Medicaid-certified nursing home, where his fondest memories are of the consistently disgusting food, the neglectful employees and how he had bed bugs twice. As if the depression from his unexpected disability weren’t enough, he said staff kept him doped up because, he believes, they did not care about him.
The experience at the Medicaid-certified nursing home wasn’t an anomaly either, according to another Houston resident, who asked that her name be withheld. The woman said her son, 38-year-old James, has been confined to the same type of nursing home since his injury in 2013, when he was left paralyzed from the waist down after an argument with a neighbor left him with a bullet in his neck. Within a year of James’s tenure in the home, as the staff continued to neglect him, the woman said, her son eventually developed three bedsores, each as large as a person’s fist. None of them have ever healed.
“They throw you away in there,” the mother said. “I sit and cry because I know my child is over there in that nursing home and he’s not getting good care. He has to sit and clean himself every day, three times a day. I feel so bad. I want to go and I don’t want to go, because it’s horrible. The smell [of rotting flesh]. And I don’t want to tell my child, ‘Son, I can’t take this anymore.’ I can’t do that.”
Before the vouchers were rescinded, the mother said her son went to tour an apartment. Being the independent sort, she said, he opted to take the city bus on his own, where his foot got caught in an awkward position, snapping a bone. It didn’t stop him. But when he got to the apartment, she recalled, his wheelchair wouldn’t fit down the hallway.
This man has gone through so much,” she said. “I don’t know how he hasn’t cursed God and died. At least I can get up and walk away. My child can’t get up and walk away.”
The mother’s relationship as an advocate is complex at best. Both of her children, James and his 39-year-old sister, Natalie, who grapples with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, lost their housing vouchers. And while James refuses to come home because he doesn’t want to be a burden, Natalie isn’t allowed to live at home either because her mother is also raising two of her great-grandchildren (the grandchildren of her third child), who are under custody of Child Protective Services. Because of CPS policy, Natalie and the children aren’t allowed to live under the same roof. For the time being, Natalie is living with her ex-husband.
For advocates and the recipients who had their vouchers revoked alike, it’s a trying situation – what, as a “career houser,” Mark Thiele, vice president of housing choice voucher programs at the HHA, called “an incredibly challenging place to be” in a phone call days after the program was rescinded.
“I think we’re all kind of waiting and trying to do the best that you can, and leaning forward, and trying to house as many folks as you can house without really understanding what the funding is,” Thiele said. “It’s devastating.”
But for the disabled, the program was a symbol of more than just affordable housing. It was a road map to whatever opportunity was ahead. James's mother saw it as a chance for her children to rejoin the community, to contribute and to attempt to live healthy, functional lives. For her son, though his situation has been worse, he admitted how it could dramatically improve.
“We could sit here and probably talk about this till one or two o'clock tonight, but it’s everything, basically,” Williams said. “It’s everything.”
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