by Robert Samuels
The Washington Post
November 30, 2014
Belle McDowell scans the barren walls on the first floor of the house she can finally call home.
“One day, when I have more of a budget, I’ll be able to put up some pictures or curtains,” she said. “It’s not lavish, but it’s home.”
Just a few years ago, McDowell and her young son had no choice but to sleep squeezed together in an easy chair at a friend’s apartment. She had lost her job, then her apartment. She found a new two-bedroom apartment through the city’s rapid rehousing program, which heavily subsidized her rent for a year before forcing her to make it on her own.
Somehow, McDowell did it. Not only did she find a job as a staff assistant, but it paid enough for her to afford the $1,050 rent.
Hers is the kind of success story the city is seeking as it relies heavily on its rapid rehousing program to end a surge in homeless families. The program places families in apartments and subsidizes their rents for up to a year, at which point they are expected to pay the market rate.
But advocates say the strategy may prove inadequate to the task, given the number of homeless families and that so many of them are headed by young, single mothers with little job experience.
The city does not track the progress of the hundreds of families who have left the program, so it’s not known how many manage to hold on to housing. City officials say they consider a case successful if a family doesn’t reapply for shelter within a year.
The lack of clear results has made some shelter residents hesitant to accept vouchers, fearful that they will wind up back where they started.
“I tried it, but it didn’t work for me,” said Doniece Douglas, 24, who was recently applying for shelter at the Virginia Williams Resource Center. Douglas said she couldn’t afford rent after she was unable to find a job because of complications with her recent pregnancy. “Now, I’m homeless again.”
Maturity, persistence, optimism and a little bit of luck, as well as work history, all appear to play a role for families who become self-sufficient after the subsidies run out. Still, their lives remain far from ideal. Paychecks come with a price.
Nkechi Feaster recently found herself in a courtroom packed with tenants who owed their landlords money. She searched for months before finding a 30-hour-a-week job that paid $18 an hour.
“I am finally able to pay my rent, but I still am underwater trying to pay my bills,” said Feaster, who was featured in The Washington Post after her subsidy expired six months ago. “They say I’m ‘successful’ because I no longer need government help. But I owe $5,000 to my landlord. Imagine how much more successful I’d be if they didn’t cut me off while I still needed help.”
Yet independence also brings simpler pleasures.
“We finally have our own dumpster,” McDowell’s 10-year-old son, Jaden, told her one evening.
“That’s right!” McDowell responded. “Remember when we’d just throw it down the alley and run, just so we wouldn’t get hurt?”
Help after a sudden crisis
Feaster is 39, and McDowell is 46, older than the typical heads of homeless households in the District. They both did clerical work before losing their financial footing during the recession and slid into homelessness.
Both fit a profile of those who appear to benefit most from the rapid rehousing program, said Nan Roman, president and chief executive of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The program works best as a “crisis-intervention” strategy for those with substantial experience in the workforce who are struck by sudden hardship, she said.
But that’s not the profile of most families in the District’s emergency shelter system. According to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, more than half are headed by single mothers younger than 24.
“I don’t think the city can assume that rapid rehousing can be the first strategy for young people who have never lived on their own and have never had meaningful employment,” said Maggie Riden, executive director of the city’s Alliance of Youth Advocates. “And those are skills that can take longer than a year to obtain.”
McDowell was a teen mother who “took a while to grow up.” By the time she had Jaden, her second child, she was earning $45,000 a year as a staff assistant for the city. She was laid off in October 2011.
For six months, she and her son slept on a chair in a friend’s home, until her friend could not pay the rent either. She tried moving in with her sister in Ohio, but she discovered the job market there was just as bad.
Along the way, the city hooked her up with case managers at a nonprofit organization, Community of Hope, which enrolled her in the rapid rehousing program.
She was placed in an apartment at the edge of Southeast Washington, where trash crowded the alleys and men hung out in the hallways. In exchange, she had to contribute a third of her $335 unemployment check for rent, then 40 percent. She would drop her son off at school each morning before heading to Community of Hope to search for jobs.
“She had a lot of strengths,” said Carla Turnage, a program manager there. “She was self-
motivated and willing to make changes, with guided support and diligence. She was willing to do the work, and that’s why she got where she is.”
McDowell estimated that she applied to 500 jobs. The only ones she found were too far away, or paid too little money.
“Ten dollars an hour?” she recalled. “You can’t live on $10.”
She handed her résumé to everyone in the office. Nothing. When she sank into depression, she went to classes offering free yoga. In May 2013, the case manager told her time was up.
The day after McDowell’s subsidy was cut off, she remembered walking to the bus to pick Jaden up from school. Her cellphone rang.
It was from another city agency that was looking for a staff assistant. She didn’t apply for the job, but a friend of her case manager passed along her résumé.
“The one job I didn’t find is the one that hired me,” McDowell said. “How ironic is that!”
At $37,000, her paycheck was less than what she made before but was enough to start footing the rent. Still, she felt unsafe raising a son alone in that chaotic apartment complex. She searched the newspapers and Craigslist but found no other affordable option in the city.
Desperate, she tried to come up with a solution.
‘I can pay the rent!’
Three months passed without Feaster being able to pay rent or find a job. Her son, now 19, began having panic attacks. Her power was shut off. She had to move out without telling her landlord, fearing she’d lose the apartment once and for all.
Then, in October, luck struck. Ed Davies, executive director of DC Trust, read about her in The Post and sent her an e-mail. The nonprofit organization was looking for a second receptionist and offered her the job.
Feaster ran the calculations.
“I can pay the rent!” she said.
But after putting half of her monthly take-home pay of $1,700 toward the rent and covering food and other expenses, Feaster has a little more than $500 left. With that, she must find a way to pay the $5,200 she owes her current landlord.
At D.C. Court Building B, her building’s attorney reserved a room to try to hash out agreements with tenants.
“My goal is to get him to settle on me paying them as little extra as possible,” Feaster said as she waited to see him. “I’m going to pay them $50. At most, I can do $200.”
Gary Wright, the attorney, greeted her as she walked in. Before she could suggest a possible payment, he lobbed the terms at her:
“I have the authority to allow you to pay rent by the 5th of each month, then an additional $500 on everything you owed.”
So much for her plan.
“That is a lot,” she replied. “I was thinking more like $200.”
Wright looked her in the eyes and shook his head.
“The best I can do is $300,” he countered.
Feaster sighed, then signed the agreement.
“It’s going to be harder than I thought,” she said. “But I can do this.”
‘I’m going to make it’
“I AM LOOKING FOR A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR MY SON,” McDowell wrote on Craigslist.
Instead of looking for ads for a new apartment, McDowell decided to post one. She explained she had terrible credit but was willing to have a landlord withdraw money directly from her bank account to ensure rent payments.
It took two months for someone to agree. The owner of a three-bedroom home on a quiet street in Congress Heights agreed to charge her $1,000 each month. In her new home, McDowell has finally paid off the $1,900 she owes Pepco. She still owes her old landlord $5,000, but she said her budget is so strapped that she tries not to think about it.
She recently marked her first year living there. Money gets so tight in the middle of the week that she can afford to eat only sandwiches, but it’s better than living on food stamps. she said.
“We’re still struggling, believe me,” McDowell said. “But I’m going to make it. Anyone can do it if they try.”
Most of all, she’s glad for a place with so much space. Sometimes her son will knock on her bedroom door just to make sure she’s okay.
Then he’ll go back to sleep in a bedroom of his own, sprawling wider on the mattress than he ever could on that old easy chair, where he and his mom had clung to each other and dreamed of something better.
This column originally appeared in The Washington Post on November 30, 2014.