Monday, November 18, 2013

How the Hearth Act Isn't Helping Homeless

Last week, during the regular Wednesday meeting at South Wilmington Street Center (SWSC), in Raleigh, NC, the center director, Frank Lawrence, told the collected faces of those homeless men living in the shelter that they had 30 days to find a job and then 30 days to find housing, or (assumably) they would be required to leave the program.

I was at a class when this happened, but the way everyone is talking about it, it's a done deal. Frankly, this stunned me, though, really it shouldn't have. Let me go into a little bit of the background of how SWSC has worked in the past.

As I stated in my book: 'Project Five-Star: The Five Points of Hope,' I've been coming to SWSC off and on since 2005. I'm currently in my 4th iteration of coming to the shelter. I come there because I have no job and no other place to live. That's what a shelter is for.

To put it simply, the only way you could be put out of SWSC was to break the rules. For whatever the reason, many of the men in the shelter seem eager to test the rules. For instance, the guy in the bed next to mine not only has food in the dorm, an infraction, but eats it late at night. So at 2:30 in the morning when I should be sleeping, the noise of his crunching penetrates my earplugs and wakes me up. Normally I turn a blind eye to such behavior, but this morning, I reported him. SWSC is short of staff, though, because of budget cuts and these things often slip by the wayside.

Cell phone use is also prevalent in the dorms, when that's also verboten. Why do they do it then? I think it's systematic of why they're in the shelter in the first place: They challenge authority, and sometimes authority bites back.

So the bottom line for SWSC was a kind of revolving door. Even now I see the same faces I saw back in 2005 when I first entered the shelter. They come in, use the emergency list to maybe get a bed for the night, get back on the waiting list for the program, get into the program, then after a few weeks break a rule and are asked to leave, starting the process all over again.

But those that follow the rules and make an effort to keep out of trouble and the sight of staff, didn't used to have to worry about leaving the shelter. But during Wednesday night meetings when the center director, Frank Lawrence, gets us all together, he began to warn us that things were changing. Something called the 'Hearth Act' loomed and the shelter was going to change.

In 2012 I was unemployed, living at the shelter and trying to find work when I was hit by a car. My shoulder was dislocated and ligaments in my knee were torn. My job search was temporarily put on hold while I healed. After two months of healing, I received a small settlement that barely dented my medical bills, but gave me a little bit to live off. I left the shelter to do some traveling and see if I couldn't start my own business. When the money ran out, I came back to the shelter, technically still healing, but a little bit more mobile than I was before. I found that times had indeed changed in the 4 months I had been away.

Now we have to report to groups based on what we were doing. Despite the fact that I was still injured and can not do physical labor, I was put in a group that was supposed to be searching for a job. We were told that our beds were only guaranteed for one week at a time (if we followed the rules) and at any point, we could be asked to leave the shelter if we did not follow the rules, which included weekly status meetings.

But the changes weren't all bad. The shelter now offered classes on a variety of topics, mostly given by Wake Technical Community College. They included truck driving classes, hospitality, agriculture, and such skills that some employers were looking for. I took advantage of the Hospitality class.

Yet despite all that I still could not find a job in a field that I could perform. Manual labor is right out, as I can't do any heavy lifting. I can't stand for long periods of time, as my knee gets very stiff. So three-fourths of the jobs that were presented by our 'facilitator', or group leader, were not an option for me. The ones I can do, however, have a large number of applicants, and would you rather hire a 20-something with energy or a fifty-something who looks like a truck ran over him? (It was a car.)

So after almost a year of being in the shelter, I was presented with a notice that said I had 30 days to find work or find housing or I would have to leave the shelter. I was very despondent.

But a ray of hope appeared in the form of a Section 8 voucher from the Raleigh Housing Authority (RHA). I thought my wishes had come true and that soon I would be out of the shelter.

The voucher from RHA had two limits to it: The amount of rent it would pay was limited to $526/month, and it had to be used within 60 days or it would expire. I thought for sure that I'd find a place quickly. I didn't want to stay in SWSC any longer than I had to. Then I started looking for housing. In Raleigh, I found, the average rent is considerably higher than $526/month, and not many complexes take Section 8 Vouchers. After a week of looking but not finding, I asked for help from the shelter. My 'facilitator', Shantavia Alexander, was unfortunately injured herself because of a pinched nerve in her back. She was in and out of the building to the point where I did not see her.

I continued my pursuit of a place to live, but in the meantime, 30+ men from the shelter were booted at the end of August 2013 because they had lived there too long. No other reason, other than they had not found jobs. I can't speak for all of them, but I tried like a maniac to find a job in my time.

I was not one of those booted, because I had that voucher and it still had 30 days left on it. Again I asked for help, but received nothing more than a list of places that at one time or another took Section 8. The problem with the list: most of the properties on there either had age restrictions, 55+, 62+ etc., or they wanted more money than the voucher paid for.

I was stuck between a rock and a hard place and time was running out. I went to RHA and, per their written instructions, asked for an extension in writing. They said they made it very clear that no extensions would be granted. I asked if they knew of any place that would take the voucher. They said no, but there must be a lot of them because they had plenty of applications. (Personally I couldn't see the sense of that statement. You had the applications, but you couldn't tell me where they came from?) I left my written request with them but could not track down a place before the voucher expired.

I moved around the shelter carefully, expecting at any time to be removed, but that day hadn't come yet. I did get a verbal aside from my facilitator that the day was coming, but she didn't give me a particular day. What she told me, though, was that there are no excuses for not having a job. I felt for her, really, because she missed so much time in August and was in a wheel chair or walker and moves slowly through the hallways, but she's not using her injuries as an excuse. Except for the time when I needed her the most, to help me find housing when I had a voucher.

Still, I looked for work, and tried to establish my own business, called 'I Choose Not To Talk,' an organization that promotes a better understanding between introverts and extroverts. I established an Indiegogo campaign to raise money, and started designing buttons and T-shirts, hoping that enough money would be generated to get me out of the shelter before the hammer fell. So far, I've been wrong. The campaign is in its last 7 days. Please donate!

But then Wednesday came along and now everyone in the program has been given an ultimatum: Get out on your own or we'll put you out.

When I found this out, I was livid. Is this what a shelter is for? I know that Frank Lawrence, the center director is embarrassed by the fact that there are people living in his shelter who have been there more than a year. He made it sound like he was doing a bad thing by giving homeless men a chance to recover. Apparently other shelters don't give that much time, why should he?

Well, after having the 'Hearth Act' stuffed down my throat for the last 2 years, I sat down and read it today. Here are some highlights that have a bearing on me:

c) CERTIFICATIONS ON USE OF ASSISTANCE.—Each recipient shall certify to the

Secretary that—

(3) it will assist homeless individuals in obtaining—

(A) appropriate supportive services, including permanent housing, medical and

mental health treatment, counseling, supervision, and other services essential for

achieving independent living; and

(B) other Federal, State, local, and private assistance available for such

individuals;

Actually, SWSC has provided quite a bit of that assistance, but not the one I needed most: permanent housing. I tried to apply for a Shelter+ Care voucher, and was told that only disabled people qualified for that. Part of the problem with the Section 8 voucher was the limits put on it by RHA. Limits of $526/month. Shelter Care + doesn't have that limit, and I'm told neither did RHA until recently. The fact is I may not qualify for SSDI, but I AM disabled. I do have difficulty performing physical labor.

I am in the process of getting help from Vocational Rehabilitation. They recognize that I have a disability and have helped me in two regards so far: They arranged for all my teeth to be pulled and dentures made; and they are arranging for me to take computer certification classes at NCSU. Mind you, it took them almost a full year to begin those services after I applied, but the process has begun. I can't easily attend classes when I'm not sure where I'm going to sleep from night to night.

I don't believe that those who wrote the Hearth Act had it in mind that  people would be kicked out of shelters just because they've used it for longer than a year or even 60 days. As Frank has said, it is meant to hold shelters accountable for what goes on in them. Yes, I agree with that, but accountable should be to the occupants of the shelter, not to some government agency that seems to think that there should be a time limit to such stays.

Or better yet, SWSC should be accountable to actually providing the services that the act states it should provide. The problem is there isn't enough staff, and both staff and 'guests' are becoming frustrated with their end of the stick. Staff has too much work, and guests don't get enough of the services they need.

This is not what the Hearth Act is all about. Because if this is what they meant, to kick homeless people out of the shelter after a certain amount of time, then they lack empathy.

So let's look at ways the Act could help, if written properly:

  • Let's get homeless men and women priority in hiring for government jobs. Not that working for the government is stable, but every little bit helps.
  • Let's better define what makes a person disabled. I was denied SSDI because I can be retrained. Fine, I working on that. Give me time to finish that.
  • Separate those seeking help from those not. Give better service to those that are seeking help, and basic services to those not.
Those are just a few suggestions to make the Hearth Act a little better. I'm by no means an expert in any field, but I know what works and what doesn't and right now, the Hearth Act isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing.

So 30 days to find a job, then 30 days to find housing. What happens after that? I fear that revolving door will return. Or worse: that the shelter will close, because everyone will be kicked out. But don't tell that to Frank, because he insists the shelter will remain open.

Will I get the help I need to accomplish one or both of those goals? Because I sure didn't the last time through.


I have worked my butt off for the last 4 years to prevent being homeless or to get out of being homeless without much to show for it. I take that back. I've become old and tired before my time. But even that works against me, making it that much harder to find a job or get income rolling in.

But neither my facilitator, nor the case manager, nor the center director, nor Wake County government, nor the State Assembly, nor the Governor of North Carolina, nor Congress, nor the President of the United States knows what I've gone through to find a job and live at this shelter.

As I stated in my book, the only thing keeping me alive at the moment is Hope. Wasn't that the theme of a recent presidential election? I'm not seeing much of it right now.

The staff sees a sheet of paper once a week showing how many jobs I applied to, but they don't see me walking 45 minutes each way to use Wake Tech's computers to not only apply for jobs, but to do what I can with no money and limited time and energy to build my own business. I may lack the business skills to make it work, but I have the drive and initiative to make it work. But I can't do it alone and my energy is running out.

And so, apparently, is time. I'll have to live in the woods, go to classes two nights a week, then drag myself back to the library to put more effort into raising money.  It might pay off someday, but I don't have time to wait forever.

All because someone thought giving homeless a time limit in shelters was a good idea. And I'll bet that person never spent one night in a shelter.

If you can't give me a job, a business loan or housing just give me the one thing I need the most right now: Hope.

There are no excuses for a lack of empathy.

The Indiegogo campaign for 'I Choose Not To Talk' is in its final days. If you'd like to donate, please start here: http://igg.me/at/ichoosenottotalk/x/5011549.

Alternatively, if you'd like more information on Project Five-Star, you may purchase the book at http://www.amazon.com/Project-Five-Star-Five-Points-Hope/dp/1463765053/