August 8, 2016 by poverty2professional
Hot, sunny mid-March 2009, my dad and I were more anxious than excited. We finally had our housing voucher, the government-issued assistance that would subsidize the rent of wherever we secured a lease. If we secured a lease. I took time off from school to spend a couple afternoons rolling through Los Angeles neighborhoods with my father, scouting for a potential new apartment. Section 8 Voucher in hand, we were anxious to hurry up and find a place. Reason 1: The voucher had a time limit to be used; if we didn’t secure a place within 60 days we would have to start the application process all over again, possibly spending an additional year or more in homelessness. Reason 2: We couldn’t wait to get out of the Pound.
“I don’t even know where some of these joints are,” my dad grumbled around the cigarette between his teeth. He studied the short list that the shelter had provided. There weren’t many apartment complexes that accepted Section 8 vouchers. Finding a landlord, especially in cities that go for a premium (such as LA), who takes Section 8 is a small feat alone. Although the voucher would guarantee the landlord that at least some of the rent would always be paid (the renter makes up a smaller difference), the rent is also controlled at a lower rate. Being in a recession worked slightly in our favor, but not too much.
“Do you think we’ll find anything near my high school?” I asked. My father had been extraordinarily diligent about sending me to the same high school throughout our strenuous trials in homelessness. Even though we were displaced to a shelter in different city, every morning we hopped into our rickety, old Bonneville and made the trip both ways.
Dad snorted. “We’ll try. Let’s just hope some of the landlord representatives we talked to call us back.”
April came. Still no cigar.
While I was offered to compete in the second round for Alumni Scholarships at UCLA, I watched my family grow increasingly nervous. I know my dad wanted me to have a home while I was in college. I also wanted to make sure that my father had a safe, stable place to be while I would be busy with pursuing a degree. We both gave each other grief about it.
“You were too stiff to the manager. They remember that shit,” my dad lectured me.
“This is a crappy neighborhood anyway.”
“You won’t be saying that if it’s July and we’re still at the Pound.”
The first week of April stretched by. The stresses of finishing high school piled on – the last round of AP exams, confirming my college selection, submitting additional financial documentation to UCLA – and then my dad called me out of after-school tutoring early.
“Find someone to take your place or whatever today. We gotta get out to this one place. They might have a unit for us!”
We drove the ten-mile loop from my high school over to a dusty apartment building facing a freeway entrance so old it must have been built at a time when cars drove 30 miles per hour. There was no on ramp at all.
An forty-something woman greeted us out front. She was the representative for the building’s landlord. Two units were leasing. My dad and I explored each one. As I walked into the second unit’s smaller bedroom I tried not to get too attached. I had really liked the first apartment we surveyed back in March and it letdown of not getting the offer was a blow after you even think about putting down roots.
Of course sitting on the new fluffy carpet of the little bedroom, I couldn’t help but fantasize what might go where if this place became our home. The window looked out trees like my last bedroom had. Like my old home.
“Okay, kid, let’s go.” My led us out. We thanked the rep for her time. Then we jumped back in Betsy and drove off to the Pound.
“Did you like what you saw? You spent a lot time in that one room.”
“It’s nice,” I said noncommittally.
“Hmm,” my dad dragged on his cigarette. “I noticed that my bigger room didn’t have fresh carpeting like yours. The one you were in must’ve been where the murder happened.”
I gave him a look. “Is that what they told you?” He was probably joking.
“Of course they ain’t gonna say that! They want us to rent it, right?”
“Do you think we’ll get the offer?”
“For a place like that I think they’ll take what they can get. The neighborhood has a bad drug and gang history.”
On the bright side, we got the offer.
“Really?” I asked excited over the phone at the Homework Lab the next day. “We got it?”
“Yeah, we can move in on the thirteenth. Now we just have to get our caseworker to sign off. Yeah, yeah, I groaned too, but don’t jinx it.”
When my dad picked me up from school that day, we raced back to get to our caseworker at the shelter. In suit with all the other times he made our experience even more difficult – withholding emergency funds, stealing from donations (our shelter had a big debacle over staff appropriating donated tickets for the Independence Day fireworks show at the Rose Bowl) – he left early after my dad had called to tell him the news.
“Do you think he wants us to get housing?” I asked.
Dad just grunted.
Eventually, we had our paperwork finalized. While the shelter promised to provide some materials to move in with, our caseworker only gave us two air mattresses and one functional pump. My dad actively reached out several other nonprofits for food and basic furnishings to get started. If anything, I was grateful we had managed to hang on to a storage unit for our old possessions.
Dad and I spent our first night in “The Unit” eating tacos off a crate that was doubling as a table.
“I’ll look for more furniture on curbside tomorrow.”
“You make it sound like an actual store,” I said.
“Hey, some of the stuff people toss out on the sidewalk is perfectly good furniture.”
The next day our little apartment grew a coffee table and sprouted some miniature bookshelves. Gradually, bit by bit, my father and I began settle our “Unit” into a home. Dusty, framed family photos began to line the wall. When I got my high school diploma a couple months later, we hung that up, too. I had a place to actually study for my Advanced placement exams and do homework.
“And it’s nice to finally watch the news without someone telling me to change the channel,” Dad commented dryly when I asked about seeing the latest episode of America’s Got Talent.
When I curled up on my air mattress, I didn’t mind that it was already sinking or that bits of my old stuff was still in boxes. The room was quiet. I could get a full night’s rest, stress-free. I could get my health back. No one was going to tell me when to wake up, sleep, or even eat. I had independence again. No one was going to belittle me because I didn’t have a place to go at night. I didn’t have to spend all day in a park or a library because I didn’t have a secure, private place to relax or just be.