The Invisible Homeless: Single Mothers

A bureaucracy meant to help single unemployed mothers creates a confusing search for housing

AT 10:30 on a Thursday morning Carmen Adorno is looking for a home. Unemployed, on welfare, and a single mother with two children, she sits in a small room with eight other women at a community center.

She says she is No. 10,700 on a list to obtain subsidized federal housing. ``It'll probably be a year before something opens up,'' she says optimistically. Temporarily living in an apartment provided by the state, she receives $518 a month from welfare.

The eight women have gathered for a workshop here designed to help them understand the maze of federal and state rules that control and confuse their ability to find a home.

Ms. Adorno is one of 5 million women in the United States on welfare, according to the Public Welfare Association, a lobby group in Washington. And the Women's Statewide Legislative Network in Massachusetts says single mothers in the US are five times as likely to live in poverty as other women. Of all Americans on welfare, single mothers are the largest percentage.

In essence, many of these single mothers become the unseen homeless, not the weary men and women in old clothes seen sleeping or begging on city streets. They are women in transition often unable to find suitable, safe housing for themselves and their children as they grapple with the bureaucracies of housing authorities, job searching, and the demands of life.

Blaming themselves

``Many of these women blame themselves for what has happened to them,'' says Linda Johnson who conducts workshops for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. ``And all the messages that come from welfare and other places blame them for what has happened.''

Adorno left low-income housing in Brighton in metropolitan Boston because of the dangers. ``The gangs were operating there on the streets,'' she says, ``and my 15-year-old son was starting to get involved.''

She and her children first went to live with her father in his apartment, then to her mother's where they slept on the floor. Then came four months in a welfare motel while she tried to get a job and care for her children.

At the workshop she learns that she should apply to as many housing authorities as possible because thousands apply, and the lists constantly change. ``Each authority keeps their own list,'' says Ms. Johnson, ``and many rank their own preferences.''

The task of obtaining housing and understanding the process is formidable. A staggering maze of rules, preferences, and bureaucracies face applicants. Three types of preferences control all federal housing programs: federal preferences, local preferences, and ranking preferences.

Maze of preferences

Under federal preferences, housing goes to the ``involuntarily displaced,'' people made homeless by fire, flood, public action (a building condemned), domestic violence, and landlord action; to witnesses or victims of a crime who may face reprisals; and to disabled people.

Preference also goes to people living in substandard housing such as a homeless shelter or motel, in transitional housing or, ironically, in substandard public housing.

And preference goes to people who are required to pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing costs (rent plus utilities) for a minimum of 90 days or more. Local authorities can also develop preferences based on local needs.

Further complicating the process, but providing more options, are the state-run programs using funds provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. And throughout Massachusetts there are also nine regional nonprofit housing authorities to provide rent subsidies. These in turn may have differing preferences and priorities.

What the applicants are trying for is approval for a certificate or a voucher, both administered under the ``Section 8'' program. An applicant can choose between the two only if both are avaliable at the time of granting the subsidy.

Certificates and vouchers are tenant-based. A tenant-based subsidy moves with the tenant from apartment to apartment. A project-based subsidy remains with the apartment.

But certificate holders have limited mobility. They are able to search for housing only within the state, and his or her share of the rent is no more than 30 percent of gross adjusted income. A voucher holder has nationwide mobility, and the tenant can choose to pay more or less than 30 percent of income.

``People who get subsidies the quickest,'' Johnson tells the women, ``are the ones that put the most work into it. Your job now is to look for housing and keep at it by calling the housing authorities every day.''

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