Gabor Degre | BDN
By Callie Ferguson, BDN Employees •
November 19, 2018 6:00 am
When Lawrence Bergeron and his 4 teenage grandchildren have been evicted from their Capehart condominium in March, that they had nowhere to go however their Toyota minivan. For concerning the subsequent six months, the household slept sitting up of their automotive seats, because the 52-year-old grandfather searched in desperation for a place that might settle for his federally sponsored housing voucher.
“It was hell,” Bergeron stated.
In Maine and throughout the USA, individuals with low incomes who’re struggling to afford their lease can apply for one thing called a housing voucher — public help to cowl virtually the complete value of their residence. They don’t have to be homeless like Bergeron to apply for the assistance, and with so many American communities struggling to present sufficient reasonably priced housing, individuals can spend years on waitlists to obtain a coveted voucher.
However the ready doesn’t cease there, as Bergeron skilled this summer time. Even after somebody receives the assistance they want to pay for a roof over their heads, they will nonetheless go weeks or months earlier than signing a lease, in accordance to knowledge and interviews.
There isn’t a centralized knowledge assortment in Maine on how lengthy it takes for somebody utilizing a voucher to find a house, however individuals in Maine steadily wait up to 4 months, or typically longer.
As Bergeron witnessed firsthand, utilizing a voucher introduces its personal hurdles. The subsidy can sluggish the rental course of as a result of it requires some coordination with the federal government, primarily within the type of an inspection, which ensures the house is up to code and protected to live in. However that oversight can deter landlords and provides individuals who pays money a aggressive edge. What’s extra, the inspection disqualifies substandard housing that some landlords are unwilling or unable to restore.
There’s additionally the stigma of receiving public help — a difficult-to-prove however frequent think about individuals’s incapability to find a place to live.
“I mean, some days, I was at my wit’s end,” Bergeron stated, recalling the nearly 100 Bangor-area landlords with locations that wouldn’t cross inspection, had no obtainable models or didn’t return his telephone calls. “No matter where I was, I was hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall.”
Making issues worse, his search performed out within the midst of an reasonably priced housing crunch in larger Bangor, a drawback that has metropolis officers assembly to research the issue. Homeless households might be particularly deprived, as they’re typically looking for cheap, multi-bedroom houses, that are in even shorter provide.
These forces converged to maintain Bergeron’s household from signing a lease for nearly half a yr, in what was a notably dire-case state of affairs of what homeless households in Maine endure to find housing.
‘Boom. We’re out’
Earlier than his eviction March 29, Bergeron was dwelling on Bald Mountain Street in Capehart, a public housing complicated made up of previous Air Drive base models that’s run by the Bangor Housing Authority.
Bergeron, a former TV cameraman, has been elevating his grandchildren since they have been little. He turned their authorized guardian a few years in the past when their mother and father — Bergeron’s son and daughter, every single mother and father — died. In 2015, his 17-year-old grandson and 12-year-old granddaughter misplaced their mom to most cancers. Two years earlier his 15-year-old and 13-year-old grandsons misplaced their father to a drug overdose.
Grief has compounded the challenges of elevating 4 youngsters on restricted means, Bergeron stated. These challenges have made it nearly inconceivable for him to maintain down a fulltime job and be a single dad or mum, he stated. Throughout a current interview at his eating room desk, his cellular phone rang nearly each 20 minutes with an appointment — a physician, a counselor, a Maine Division of Well being and Human Providers employee. Or it was one of many youngsters themselves.
Bergeron stated the March eviction was the results of some dangerous luck and an trustworthy mistake. Throughout Thanksgiving 2017, the police have been called to his condominium after a drunk visitor acquired indignant and called 911, after which officers discovered a needle on one other visitor, he stated.
The needle put Bergeron on probation with the housing authority, which means a single violation of his lease would value him the condo. That occurred on March 1, when Bergeron missed an appointment with the housing authority associated to his lease recertification, in accordance to a paper discover he acquired.
Considered one of Bergeron’s grandsons had run off that morning, Bergeron stated. “I had to go chase him down, and I forgot about [the appointment].”
He pleaded with the housing authority to let him keep, however the eviction proceeded.
“So boom. We’re out,” he stated. “Then the homelessness started.”
That first night time, the household piled into their silver Toyota Sienna minivan, the primary of two automobiles the place they might sleep for nearly six months. Bergeron slept within the entrance seat, whereas the youngsters leaned towards each other within the again. He appeared for discreet locations to park the automotive in a single day — the driveways of deserted buildings, parking tons and quiet aspect streets.
When summer time arrived Bergeron borrowed cash to pay for a motel room on the most well liked nights. In any other case, he positioned t-shirts over the automotive home windows to block out the solar and stored the engine on in a single day to run air con. Nonetheless, they woke within the mornings coated in sweat.
“I did not like that, especially when I had strep throat,” Bergeron’s 17-year-old grandson, Trevor LaRochelle, stated.
Solely as soon as did the idling automotive immediate a police officer to knock on the automotive window.
“I said, ‘Shh! The kids are sleeping!’” Bergeron stated.
Gabor Degre | BDN
In late June, he might not sustain with the funds for the van, and the household moved into a smaller, black Toyota Avalon. He glued a plastic silver cross to the hood and two extra to the again bumper. The sedan was cramped, however by that point it solely wanted to sleep 4 of them. In Might, Bergeron discovered certainly one of his grandsons intoxicated in a snowbank and despatched him away to a four-month residential remedy program in southern Maine.
It was his similar grandson who had run away the morning of March 1 and whose father had died simply three years earlier than of a drug overdose. “He’s kind of a rebel at the moment. He’s trying to figure himself out,” Bergeron stated.
He feared the ways in which loss and grief had affected his grandson’s teenage rebelliousness. This fear unfold to all his grandchildren, who bore the deaths of their mother and father and the stress of dwelling in a automotive with “incredible resilience,” he stated.
For nearly six months, they ate chilly cuts, showered on the YMCA and, for leisure, watched films on the small display of Bergeron’s Android telephone within the backseat of the automotive earlier than falling asleep.
However “it’s weird how things will trigger [tears],” Bergeron stated. “The smell of a flower, a car, something on television.”
When faculty let loose, it was more durable to hold as watchful an eye fixed on the youngsters, however he did his greatest.
And through the remainder of his waking hours, Bergeron spent his time on the Bangor Public Library, scouring listings and filling out rental purposes. He plunged into the bureaucratic world of making use of for a housing voucher after which in search of a place to live.
12,00zero on one waitlist
Housing vouchers are the choice to a place like Capehart. Within the mid-1970s, the federal authorities moved away from funding public housing tasks and shifted towards a voucher system, which higher built-in individuals with low incomes into present neighborhoods.
The change was meant to break up concentrations of poverty, in accordance to Allison Gallagher, director of the Housing Selection Voucher Program for the Maine State Housing Authority, a quasi-state company.
However it additionally meant voucher holders, who typically face stigma and discrimination, relied extra on the approval of personal landlords to home them. That may hamper Bergeron all summer time lengthy.
Making use of for a voucher may be complicated and hectic, particularly whereas making an attempt to present for one’s primary wants. In Bangor, a handful of organizations exist to assist the homeless navigate all the necessities and paperwork.
Right here, Bergeron was in luck. Simply months earlier than his household turned homeless, one such program particularly to assist households began in Bangor. The brand new service from Households And Youngsters Collectively pairs homeless households with a social employee to help with the housing course of. Bergeron called after seeing an commercial for the service on a bulletin board. (The group has since launched Bangor’s first household emergency shelter in a decade, on Oct. 2.)
Across the similar time, in mid-April, Bergeron was recognized with nervousness and melancholy. That made him eligible for a specialised housing voucher by way of the Shelter Plus Care Program, which supplies housing and case administration providers to individuals, like Bergeron, who’re homeless and have a psychological well being analysis. Individuals are additionally eligible if they’re homeless and have a substance use dysfunction or HIV/AIDS.
(The most typical type of housing help comes from the Housing Selection Voucher Program, previously often known as Part eight. It helps greater than three,800 Maine households every month by subsidizing a part of their lease; 12,00zero candidates are at present on the waitlist.)
To get a Shelter Plus Care voucher, there have been two locations Bergeron might flip to that distribute the help: the group Group Well being and Counseling Providers and the town’s personal public well being division.
Bergeron utilized to each. He was initially waitlisted by Group Well being and Counseling Providers, however Bangor granted him a two-bedroom voucher on April 24.
That may be a squeeze, he thought. His granddaughter would wish her personal bed room, leaving a single bed room for the three boys and himself.
He had 30 days, plus a 15-day extension, to find a place earlier than he would lose the voucher. It expired earlier than he acquired shut to signing a lease. However his luck modified on June 7 when the opposite group, Group Well being and Counseling Providers, provided him a voucher. He was eligible for $1,589 per 30 days, which is truthful market lease for a four-bedroom condo.
In contrast to the earlier voucher, this one allowed him a number of extensions after 30 days of in search of an house, in accordance to a written discover. He wanted them. It took him one other 114 days to signal a lease.
‘They know it’s not going to move’
At first it was simply troublesome for the household to find any out there flats in any respect. Bangor’s brief provide of housing, mixed with residents’ low median incomes, has made the Queen Metropolis much less reasonably priced than Portland, Maine’s largest metropolis, in accordance to Maine State Housing Authority knowledge.
What extra, three-quarters of Maine rental models have two bedrooms or fewer, in accordance to a 2015 research of the state’s housing inventory, with simply 5.9 % of flats having what Bergeron wanted, 4 bedrooms.
Bergeron’s current eviction deterred some landlords from renting to him, he stated. However when that wasn’t a problem, and he did spot a itemizing that was the appropriate measurement and in his worth vary, he encountered a irritating sample. He would categorical curiosity within the house, solely to lose it to one other renter who might pay in money, or he can be advised the unit wouldn’t move an inspection, he stated.
On a wet afternoon earlier this month, Bergeron dug by way of a submitting cupboard and positioned a printed listing on his eating room desk. It had the names of 70 landlords and property administration corporations within the Bangor space that he’d called over the summer time — solely a portion of the individuals he’d reached out to, he stated. He’d written “inspection” subsequent to 15 of them, which means the owner had explicitly advised him the unit wouldn’t move. The remaining didn’t have a unit obtainable or didn’t name him again.
Bergeron stated the state of affairs received so dangerous that he ultimately stopped letting potential landlords know that he can be paying with a voucher, in hopes it might improve his probabilities of getting a displaying. However within the 5 or 6 occasions Bergeron acquired that far, he stated, the condo was out of the blue rented to another person when he introduced up the voucher.
Bergeron’s wrestle sounded acquainted to different housing navigators working in Bangor. Maine has a number of the oldest housing inventory within the nation, and models fail inspections for a variety of causes — from electrical points, to plumbing issues, to the dimensions of their home windows.
“For whatever reason, [some landlords] don’t want to go through the length of time [to schedule an inspection], or they know it’s not going to pass,” stated Nick St. Louis, a housing navigator on the Bangor Space Homeless Shelter.
“Or they’ve got another person with ‘cash in hand.’ That’s something I hear a lot,” he stated, including, after a pause, “whether or not it’s true.”
St. Louis was alluding to a suspicion that Bergeron typically felt however couldn’t show: that some landlords didn’t need to lease to him due to their fears related with people who find themselves homeless.
Underneath Maine regulation, it’s unlawful for landlords to decline to lease to individuals as a result of they obtain public help, however loopholes have made it potential for them to get round taking in individuals with vouchers. Maine’s highest courtroom has dominated that landlords can refuse a Housing Selection voucher if it might drive them, towards their will, to comply with further authorized necessities, corresponding to an inspection, or pay for the repairs to move an inspection.
What extra, a discrimination go well with typically requires a landlord to state their reasoning instantly, which doesn’t occur typically. These forms of instances constituted solely zero.5 % of the 709 complaints filed final yr with the Maine Human Rights Fee.
Nationwide research have confirmed that landlords ceaselessly don’t lease to voucher holders due to social bias and “administrative and procedural factors,” reminiscent of inspections, in accordance to each The Poverty and Inequality Analysis Lab at Johns Hopkins College and the City Institute.
The Johns Hopkins report additionally discovered that two-thirds of landlords surveyed in three main cities stated they vowed to cease accepting vouchers after one unfavourable expertise with a tenant. The end result was lengthy, “daunting” searches, in accordance to the City Institute.
‘120 days to lease an apartment’
Over time Bergeron grew impatient with landlords.
However the identical housing navigators who validated his frustration additionally cautioned towards making broad generalizations. There are lots of of landlords in Bangor, making up a numerous group of individuals whose considerations shouldn’t be missed, they stated.
Abby Smith, a housing navigator on the Hope Home Shelter in Bangor, stated it’s potential that the landlords who refused Bergeron over the summer time “were just being honest” about their lack of ability to afford repairs to their models.
Jesse McCue, a companion at Maine Actual Property Administration in downtown Bangor, was fast to push again on the concept a firm like his can be unreceptive to voucher holders. His giant firm is used to working with totally different sorts of rental help, he stated.
“For us, it’s not an issue. We’re doing it all the time, so I’m not seeing the side of it where it’s slowing us down,” he stated.
However when landlords seem unwilling, housing navigators could make a distinction. A part of their job is constructing relationships with landlords, which may begin with explaining to them how a voucher works.
“I have a few [landlords] I love to death,” St. Louis stated. “If they have an opening, they’ll call me.”
Gallagher estimated “about 90 percent” of individuals within the Housing Selection Voucher Program administered by the Maine State Housing Authority find a lease inside 30 days once they’re paired with a housing navigator.
That’s much better than when individuals are on their very own. The authority administers about 4,00zero of the 12,00zero Housing Selection vouchers that the federal authorities points to Maine annually. (The remaining go to native housing authorities.) And it tracks, in 30-day increments, how lengthy it takes for a new voucher holder to signal a lease. Simply fewer than half find housing in fewer than 30 days, based mostly on extension knowledge since 2015. The remaining individuals take longer, though most find a place inside 120 days, or 4 months.
“MaineHousing’s policy is 120 days to lease an apartment,” Denise Lord, senior director of planning and communications, stated. “We did this in part because voucher holders were having a difficult time finding an affordable unit in 60 days, and, rather than process extensions, we opted for a longer time period.”
Group Well being and Counseling Providers — which presently homes 173 Shelter Plus Care voucher holders in Penobscot, Pisactiquis, Hanock and Washington counties — doesn’t formally monitor the variety of extensions it points. Usually, Maine doesn’t have very exact or complete knowledge on the typical size of time a individual with a voucher waits for housing.
Nevertheless, Josh D’Alessio, supervisor of homeless initiatives at Penobscot Group Well being Care, cautioned towards studying an excessive amount of into extension knowledge. These numbers are troublesome to compile and doubtless don’t get on the full drawback, he stated.
“Is it poverty, lack of health care access, lack of services, lack of education, lack of jobs, lack of affordable housing, lack of subsidies, ability, addiction, mental illness, crime [that’s slowing down the process]?” he stated.
In different phrases, it may be very case by case, he stated. “Somewhere in there is an average that typically falls between 90 and 120 days.”
‘Somebody to give him a shot’
Twice throughout his search, Bergeron had the choice to view or lease an house however selected not to.
Each models, he stated, have been in neighborhoods that might have been unfit to increase his grandchildren: decrease Ohio Road and close to Second Road Park, the place there have been stories this summer time of underage consuming and a “fight club.”
“I have three teenage boys,” he stated, shaking his head on the reminiscence. “No way.”
These have been selections no guardian needs to face, and Bergeron made them, he stated, figuring out the impact that homelessness had on his grandchildren.
Gabor Degre | BDN
On Sept. 26, Bergeron lastly discovered a four-bedroom, single-family house in Hermon, on outer Hammond Road simply throughout the Bangor metropolis line.
“I told [the owner], straight up, here’s the deal: I’ve got four kids, schools coming up. I need to rent it. And it needs to pass inspection,” Bergeron stated.
The proprietor, Jacob Newcomb, might inform Bergeron “was just struggling to find somebody to give him a shot — a house,” he stated in an interview. Two different individuals have been desirous about his property, which Newcomb had simply sunk $15,00zero into to renovate, however the landlord selected Bergeron due to the urgency of his state of affairs, he stated.
It was Newcomb’s first time working with a housing voucher, one thing he’d thought-about earlier than however, after researching, turned cautious of due to all of the authorized necessities, he stated.
However working with Group Well being and Counseling Providers was straightforward, he stated, and he scheduled an inspection and ready a lease for Bergeron lower than a week after the 2 first spoke.
Bergeron and his household moved in on a Friday night time. They didn’t have furnishings but, in order that first night time they slept on the ground, Bergeron stated, however “the kids didn’t mind it at all and neither did I.”
Maine Focus is a journalism and group engagement initiative on the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to [email protected]