This is the second article in a series authored by students at Covenant College alongside Marvin Olasky.
By Hunter Couteaud, Annie Payne, and Marvin Olasky
Most homeless people have mental health and/or addiction/alcoholism problems, but suite-level generalizations can be dehumanizing. That’s one reason it was good to meet Lindsey Stamper, who wore a pink camouflage fleece as she sat under fluorescent lights at the Maclellan Shelter for the homeless in Chattanooga. She spoke of the Section 8 apartment in Florida from which she had fled: “nothing but blaring of the radio. Drug dealing… shootings and stabbings…. We did not feel safe there anymore, so we left.”
Families all over the United States have stories like that of Stamper, her eighth-grade son Dylan, and her partner Richard Sigmon. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines Section 8 housing as “the federal government’s major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled…. participants are able to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses, and apartments.” That sounds much nicer than it often is.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year ran a 5-part series headlined “crime, squalor at Atlanta-area housing complexes.” It pointed out how many poor residents were behind the (Section) 8 ball, faced with bad plumbing, mold, roaches, sinks overflowing with brown sewage, holes in ceilings—and chronic gun violence.
Stamper and Sigmon were glad to have Maclellan as an alternative. Sigmon, a tow truck driver for 15 years, has not worked since a car fell on him. It injured his back and left him with two herniated disks and a loss of mobility on his right side, but made him eligible for disability payments. Government regulations say Sigmon can work up to 20 hours per week, and he is physically capable of doing light labor, but that would probably decrease his disability income. Stamper explained, “You don’t want to take that chance of them saying, ‘Your check’s cut.”
Stamper and Sigmon have also suffered recent losses of crucial relationships. Last year Stamper’s father and Sigmon’s brother, his one remaining close relative, died. Stamper said, “My father was my rock, I could call him anytime, talk to him and say ‘hey dad what’s going on? I need a piece of advice.’” They need it: Stamper detailed their hard experiences living in broken-down and unsafe Section 8 housing, three different motels, and a Chevy Silverado that Sigmon had.
Her next move will not be to Section 8 but to a superior alternative: an apartment in a building owned by the nonprofit CHATT Foundation next to the Maclellan shelter. CHATT sets aside the building for low-income residents and is doing renovations following water damage. Dylan Stamper, who fiddled with a Rubik’s Pyramid as the grown-ups talked, will be able to stay at the same school in Chattanooga: He’s had to change at least five times in the last five years.
Stamper has another son, Jake, whom she placed for adoption when he was three. Stamper said, “I don’t believe in taking the suckers’ way out, which is abortion. I didn’t want him to want or need for anything. I also didn’t want him to struggle, because I am already struggling to take care of his brother.” Stamper receives from the adoptive parents emails about and photos of Jake, but the one video chat they had proved too much for Jake and he left before saying a word. Stamper hopes for more interaction later, when Jake is ready.
The problems she had with Section 8 are nationwide. A Pew Charitable Trusts study showed that “Getting a Section 8 voucher is hard. Finding a landlord willing to accept it is harder.” The Atlantic headlined one article, “How housing policy Is failing America’s poor: Section 8 was intended to help people escape poverty, but instead it’s trapping them in it.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out that out-of-state companies from New York, Florida, and elsewhere control two-thirds of the 272 apartment complexes on its list of “dangerous dwellings.” Getting such entities to do repairs and improve livability is different from dealing with a mom-and-pop landlord. Sometimes ownership is concealed behind anonymous limited liability companies, middlemen, and subsidiaries.
It’s 23 years since an excellent urbanologist, Howard Husock, showed in City Journal that Section 8 “ruins neighborhoods and perpetuates poverty.” The title of his article was “Let’s end housing vouchers.” Every year we put hope in them is a year the low-cost housing problem festers.