Stigma of Public Housing: Far Reaching Impact


By Clara E. Bell

    American taxpayers are funding a Social Stigma (disease) and allowing it to fester and thrive. I choose to use the medical definition for Stigma to describe this issue: “Any characteristic of a specific disease or any harmful/destructive condition” as it relates to being a (P.H.) public-housing tenant. The federal housing program causes every man, woman and child, whose name appears on a lease, to become immediately infected with this Social Stigma.

   At the physical level, there is no branding iron used to publicly identify P.H. tenants; however the psychological effect of this Stigma classification creates a fear, similar to being told that you’ll have to be quarantined, thus containing this social disease to P. H. tenants only. Members of the private or unsubsidized housing communities must try to understand that by allowing a Social Stigma to exist, the side effects will always spill over into every sector of the community at large. Survival becomes the rule of thumb. Any person when faced with destitution or degradation, either by the loss of a job, death, divorce or loss of health, will be at risk of becoming a part of the “low-and-no-income” population. Many will be forced into homeless shelters, relatives’ homes, rooming /flop houses, or if they are lucky enough, they might get a P. H. apartment.

   The list of losses gets bigger for those who move into public housing, such as alienation from your friends and family members who are afraid to visit a P.H property for fear of being robbed or hurt. It seems that even if you still have the same clothes, car, furniture or jewelry that you moved in with, some value is lost due to the new environment of P. H. After reading hundreds of articles and attending hundreds of meetings as a P. H. tenant leader, I have yet to find the “value scale” or “typical model” of who will or won’t be a “winner.” My best guess is there never will be tools of this nature, mainly because humans are too complex. What I did come to understand is that unless you have a deed to a property, then you are a tenant, no matter who you pay rent to—be it a bank, mortgage company, estate manager, a friend or a relative.

    Like all Social Stigmas, other titles are added to describe the person or thing. For an example the word “projects” should be dropped after an estate is built. When the proposal for funding to build a P.H. Complex, a project number or title is assigned; however in the all-too-often used system of lumping all things together, it has been an easy way to identify low-income/public housing, and now some HUD housing programs are classified as “projects.”

   For large P.H. complexes, the term “brick city” is often used. Another problem with using a “lump” system to look at a person, place or thing is that of limiting the reason for the condition or state of being that is now under scrutiny. Finally, the most outrageous feature of this Social Stigma that is closer to a myth in its ideology, is that all homeless and low-income persons are lazy, on welfare, dirty, and addicted to some drug or are criminals. Our answer, or vaccine for those who feel this way, can be found in a simple equation: “Those who feel that a person’s income equals their mentality add-up to being stupid or apathetic individuals, because intellect and income are not synonymous.”

   The tragedy of tragedies related to public housing and the Social Stigma associated with it is that with the loss of jobs and decrease in funding for quality education nationally, the split between the “haves & have knots” has intensified over the past years. Of all the other federally funded social programs, schools and hospitals, housing is at the top of the needs list, but is constantly under attack at the funding levels. Where are the advocates and awareness campaign promoters who will fight for a cure? Perhaps a super dose of tolerance and empathy can be injected into those whose minds keep Social Stigmas alive, thus preventing the spread of this foolish disease to forthcoming generations. Please remember the famous last words of, “Be it ever so humble: there is no place like home.” Whether that home is a shelter or public housing, in the richest nation in the world, everyone should have a roof over their head.

 Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #67 Cleveland, Ohio December 2004