Breaking the cycle of public housing

One of the older buildings of Milwaukee's Westlawn Apartments, the public housing complex where Nashika Thomas has lived for the last 8 years.

Public housing is supposed to be there to help people who have fallen on hard-times. But in cities across the country, it’s become a safety net that people have come to depend on for very long periods.

Nashika Thomas is one of those people. She lives in Milwaukee’s Westlawn Apartments. She has spent her entire 28 years in public housing. She moved to Westlawn eight years ago.

“I was living with my mom, so I was trying to find a home for me and my children to live,” Thomas says. “My mother, she told me, you know you can go and sign up for low income.”

Back then, Thomas was a high school dropout with two children. She now has four kids, ages 5 to 13.

“You know it’s a good place to live, nothing is wrong with it. But I don’t want to be here all my life, all my kids’ life. I want to give my kids a life that I never had,” she says.

Thomas says she’s getting her life together with the help of the Milwaukee Housing Authority.

“So one day I was sitting on the couch and I got a newsletter. So I’m like, ‘You know what? They got some programs going on.’ I’m like, ‘I need to get into something’,” Thomas says.

Thomas took advantage of the housing authority programs. She completed her GED, enrolled in college classes and is on her way to being a registered nurse.

She also finished a program called Make Your Money Talk. It teaches people how to budget and save.

“Helping the individuals that need to help themselves and want to help themselves transition out,” says Tony Perez, executive director of the Milwaukee Housing Authority.

His goal is sustainability. Perez says he doesn’t want to simply kick people out of public housing, especially the elderly and disabled. But housing authorities across the country are searching for ways to transition people out of public housing. Forty housing authorities have set up guidelines like work requirements or even expiration dates on your lease.

That worries Linda Couch of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “If families are, just because of program design, made to leave the programs before they’re able to financially afford their own housing, then we’re just putting at risk families back into the marketplace where there’s no affordable housing for them,” Couch says.

The program targets people who make less than 30 percent of an area’s median income. But Couch says the waiting list for affordable housing in many cities is years long.

So just how many homes does she figure it’ll take to solve the problem? About seven million.

 

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