The Long Wait for an Apartment in Cleveland

By Alex Grabtree

Editor’s Note: The most frequent and vocal complaint that we at the Grapevine hear is with regard to housing, and one of the last options, especially for homeless people, is to apply for public housing. Setting aside the stigma associated with living in “the projects” applying for an public housing apartment is one of the most frustrating and difficult bureaucracies to overcome. What follows is the story of one individual, William Russell, and his application for an apartment at Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. This is not an isolated story, this is typical of the process for a single homeless individual.

William Russell lives under a bridge in Cleveland. He works at least 30 hours a week, but has no credit background and has a federal drug conviction in his past. In Chicago, he was caught at the wrong place at the wrong time and was the only person 18 years old. The police decided that it would be a waste of time to bust the juveniles in the group, so they laid everything on Russell.

Actually, growing up in a drug-infested neighborhood, Russell was the exception in his neighborhood, never having served time as a juvenile. He spent six months in jail at 18 and left Chicago for Cleveland. He was too “ independent” to get a traditional job. He could never follow directions, and dreamed of setting up his own business. For a few years, he worked in a temporary service driving a tow motor. He found that after two years, he still was making minimum wage and he never had enough money to get a place.

He did smoke some dope in his spare time for enjoyment, and he had an expensive cigarette habit. Russell did not drink or take hard drugs, so was not qualified for traditional shelter programs that catered to drug addicted individuals. He spent his money on two good meals a day in an attempt to remain “independent”.

He did not go in for social services or meals for homeless people because he was too proud.

Russell made half-hearted attempts to sell street papers, flowers, and anything else he could find. At 28, he looked back and saw that this independence was taking a toll and he wasn’t really going anywhere. Russell came to the conclusion that he needed a house or a base of operation to set up his business. He knew he could never get a traditional paycheck so therefore no landlord would rent to him. Russell was making around $600 a month and could afford a $200 apartment.

In late 1997 (before 11/ 1/ 97), Russell applied for an apartment with Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. He went back and applied a couple of times because he did not hear anything. He stayed in a shelter for a period of time and got a shelter letter. Russell found a place that would be willing to accept his mail, and he secured the necessary identification. He got a letter verifying his income, and a letter verifying that he was staying under a bridge. After six months, he was notified that he needed to attend an orientation class for low income housing.

Russell took the day off and went to the seven hour class. The CMHA employees went over the rules and regulations of living in a public housing unit. They talked about what CMHA expected from those that live in a unit. There was the basics of cleaning and some good housekeeping tips offered. But what Russell came away with was the discussion of preferences. He clearly remembered the talk about three preferences for public housing : homeless, the involuntarily displaced and those that were trying to unify their family.

Russell said, “It is my understanding they gave me reason to believe that homeless people had priority over everyone else as long as they can prove that they live on the streets or in a shelter. I provided that information and it is true. I felt that I had a good shot.”

Russell took a certificate of completion away from the class.

As described in Grapevine issue 24, CMHA abolished its policy giving priority to homeless people for available public housing (see preference list in this issue). Russell did apply for public housing before this policy went into effect, and so he felt he had a good shot.

He was contacted again to sign paperwork and sign release of information forms. He interpreted this as another good sign. They were reviewing his application and it was moving through the system. He left a letter with the staff person at CMHA that he wanted to live in one of the high rises because he felt the townhouses were drug houses.

After a few weeks, Russell received a letter “telling me that I have no priority.” The letter reflected the new preferences that the CMHA Board had adopted in November 1997. It was absolutely contradictory from what he had been told in the orientation. “I thought that I was going to get an apartment,” until he was briefed on the meaning of this letter from his contact at CMHA. “Now I am never going to get into one of these houses,” Russell said.

After eight months and an all day class, he received a letter that said that his application was complete and he was on the waiting list. CMHA officials say that the active waiting list is around 5,000 people. With an “X” through the box next to “no priority.” Russell may be right that he has no shot at a CMHA unit.

Russell was angry when talking about his frustration in trying to get into a place. He said that he has no chance of getting a place if “they are talking that shit that homeless people don’t have no priority. What the fuck does that mean? Homeless people don’t have priority? That shit is fucked up.”

He claimed it was discrimination for single men to not have the same preference as homeless families. He asked , “Is this leading single women to get pregnant just to get some of the services and to get their own apartment? That is why a lot of their lives get messed up.”

Russell did have suggestions for improving the program. He felt that “public housing” should be for homeless people, un-doubling people, and getting people out of substandard housing. Russell also suggested that one person on staff should be available to answer questions or respond to concerns about applications. This is a suggestion mentioned by many on the waiting list who were willing to talk. What came out was a fundamental lack of communication between those seeking housing and the staff at CMHA and an unwillingness on the part of CMHA to bridge this gap.

Russell is at a crossroads. He has resolved himself to the realization that he will never get a public housing unit, and is worn down from spending the winters under bridges. He will either break down and slowly and quietly die in a traditional labor job or he will move to another city with the hope of starting a new life. He said, “If homeless people have no preference, and I am homeless what can I say?”



Resolution Authorizing Revision of local Preferences in the Selection of Applicant to all Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Owned, Managed, or Administered Housing Programs. Adopted October 1, 1997

WHEREAS, HUD made provisions for Local Preferences in the selection of applicants for housing which were implemented by the Low Income Public Housing Program in 1995, and :

WHEREAS, CMHA wishes to standardize applicant preferences across all housing programs, and

WHEREAS, CMHA desires to modify the existing Local Preference point system and the qualifying conditions in order to serve both the community at large concurrent with satisfying the needs of the Authority:

BE IT RESOLVED by the Board of Commissioners of the CMHA that:

Section 1: The Executive Director through her designee is authorized to revise the local preference system to reflect the following changes:

1) UNDOUBLING. Remaining tenant, Remaining Participant 640 POINTS

At least two persons over maximum occupancy standards. A household must be severely under housed and a current CMHA resident/ participant (not applicant): and the household must include two or more generations. Or the remaining tenants/ participants need not be underhoused, but must have been on the original lease. All remaining residents must meet eligibility requirements.


Conditions include: Successful completion of a 24 month residential substance abuse treatment program and continue drug and alcohol free status by the head of household. Or homeless families who have graduated from a transitional housing whose duration is at least 90 days. Or victim of a disaster resulting in the inhabitability of an applicant’s unit not caused by the applicant, family members or guests.


Conditions: Applicant works at least 25 hours a week; and applicant has been employed by the same employer for at least six months; and applicant household meets the definition of very low income.


The unit is substandard if it is dilapidated. Does not have operable indoor plumbing. Does not have usable flush toilet inside the unit for the exclusive use of a family. Does not have a usable bathtub or shower. Does not have electricity, or has inadequate or unsafe electrical service. Does not have a safe or adequate source of heat.

5) Currently enrolled in a County funded Welfare- to-Work Program: 40 POINTS.

Families whose head of household has completed at least 60 percent of the County funded Welfare to Work Program required course work.

6) Family Unification (to bring parents back with children) 20 POINTS

Families identified by local public agencies, whose children have been removed due to a lack of adequate housing, and families needing housing in order to be reunited with their children who are in foster care; or grandparents gaining custody of grandchildren.

7) Veteran 10 POINTS

Families whose head of household or spouse is a veteran or serviceman including families of deceased veterans or servicemen.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio Issue 27 May 1998