Rent assistance snag: It’s in the mail

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Dec 21, 2009
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Rent assistance snag: It’s in the mail

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Dec 21, 2009
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BOB MOON: Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays — or so the song tells us. But plenty of folks won’t be singing that festive tune for Christmas this year. A lot more Americans are homeless these days. And they find themselves turning not to Santa but to the federal government for help. Applying for programs like Section 8 housing, for vouchers to pay the rent.

But the wait can already take years. And the lines are only getting longer as the downturn drags on. Keeping your place in line can mean the difference between the street and a warm bed. But as Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer explains, it’s a lot tougher to keep your place than it seems.


NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: Vermetra Bogany and her two kids live in the Park Wilshire Hotel, in downtown Los Angeles.

It’s on one of L.A.’s busiest streets. Bogany’s kids like to play outside. She’s afraid they’ll dart out into traffic.

VERMETRA BOGANY: Come on here. And I need Ayisha over here…

The Park Wilshire is what used to be called a flop house. If Bogany qualified for the Section 8 program, she’d receive vouchers she could use to rent a new place. Earlier this year, the L.A. Housing Authority sent Bogany a letter. Come in for an interview, it said. Or you’ll be dropped from the Section 8 waiting list. Bogany had been on the list for seven years. But she never got the letter from the L.A. Housing Authority.

BOGANY: I would have been running down there like the roadrunner. Because I’m really good, like if someone asks me, OK, Vermetra I need you to bring this information or I need this document from you, I would have come down there and brought it to them.

Bogany says her landlord confiscated her mail. He wanted to get back at her for talking to police when they raided her building, looking for parole violators. Because Bogany didn’t answer the letter, she was knocked off the list, and lost a shot at a nicer place to live, with the federal government paying the rent.

Susie Shannon is a homeless advocate for the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness. She says there are thousands of people in Bogany’s situation.

SUSIE SHANNON: For years and years and years they keep waiting, thinking that they’re on this list. But they’re not on the list.

Shannon says it’s the same story across the country. She wishes housing authorities could call people on their cell phones. Or call their caseworkers.

Rudolf Montiel heads the L.A. Housing Authority. He agrees it’s crazy to contact homeless people by mail.

RUDOLF MONTIEL: It is counterintuitive because a homeless person, by definition, doesn’t have a permanent residence. Unfortunately, the federal regulations are very strict when it comes to how people are served.

Montiel says the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the Section 8 program, requires that people be notified by mail when it’s their turn to come in and discuss their case. A HUD spokeswoman says it’s decided to start allowing housing authorities to communicate by e-mail. But housing authorities still can’t call people. Montiel says e-mail wouldn’t work in a lot of cases.

MONTIEL: Many homeless people do not have access to e-mail. So we don’t think that really is going to move the needle much.

Montiel is thinking about other electronic solutions. L.A. might set up kiosks in bus stations and clinics where people could check their status on the waiting list. But Montiel says there’s a better solution — more Section 8 vouchers. HUD asked Congress for about $18 billion in Section 8 funding for next year. Congress included the funding in a massive year-end spending bill that just passed.

BOGANY: Any homework you guys have? Did you do all your homework?

But that won’t help Vermetra Bogany and her children. She can get back on the waiting list. But there would be about 20,000 people ahead of her.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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