Commentary: Give Me a Home

by Bryan Gillooly

Housing homeless people is a high priority for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), yet the process these government offices set up to distribute Section 8 vouchers and certificates in greater Cleveland virtually eliminates the possibility that local homeless people will benefit.

For the past five years, homeless people applying for a Section 8 housing subsidy were told the list was closed to newcomers. In the winter of 1993-1994, it was announced that the old Section 8 list was exhausted, and the opportunity to apply was near.

At the same time, federal housing officials came to Ohio and professed that housing homeless people is high priority. These were the top people, Mr. Henry Cisneros, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Mr. Andrew Cuomo, the assistant secretary.

The Problem

The market forces of supply and demand do not provide safe, decent and affordable housing for people with low or very low income. There are thousands upon thousands of people in greater Cleveland in need of housing, and tens of thousands more whose housing needs improvement. In Cuyahoga County, it is estimated that 10,000 people go homeless over the course of each year.

Government housing subsidies help house poor people living in existing apartments or houses charging a fair market rent. Our country, however, can only afford so much in housing subsidies. As a result, the local housing authority has less than 1,000 Section 8 subsidies to distribute in 1994.

The Section 8 Housing Subsidy

In general, the Section 8 Program allows low-income people to pay only an affordable portion of their income (usually 33 percent) toward their rent, and HUD pays the difference between that portion and the total rental cost to the landlord. These subsidies are often granted for two- and five-year periods. Each year, HUD grants funds for CMHA to distribute a limited number of new Section 8 subsidies. HUD requires five populations to be given special consideration in the 1994 distribution of Section 8 subsidies. These federal preferences are:

  • Persons living in substandard housing
  • Homeless persons
  • Persons being involuntarily displaced (flood, fire, etc.)
  • Victims of (in-home) domestic violence
  • Persons paying more than half of the total household income for rent and utilities.

The Message from the White House

 As a part of the proposed 1995 budget, the Clinton administration suggested to Congress that HUD should issue 70,000 new Section 8 subsidies. Of these 70,000 new subsidies, the President recommends that 15,000 be set aside especially for homeless people. This concept of a “set-aside” adds teeth to HUD’s federal preference by suggesting that in this program, 20 percent of our housing resources should be specially directed to house homeless people.

CMHA’s Response

Like public housing authorities in many large cities across the country, CMHA set up a Section 8 pre-application lottery. This is an all-American approach, consistent with drawing straws. Who can argue? The idea is to give everyone the same chance at a limited number of resources.

CMHA recently contracted with a company to organize the local pre-application process for Section 8, where potential clients are expected to read about the availability of these important housing subsidies in the newspaper, and then telephone CMHA to express their interest in being considered as an applicant. CMHA will then review the huge pool of applicants, randomly select 5,000 names, and mail a notice to those people selected, giving them an appointment date to come to the CMHA office and apply for Section 8 assistance.

The Same Old Problem

Living a day-to-day existence does not allow for people to buy and read a paper, use the telephone or even wait for help. Homeless people need immediate help, and that is something both CMHA and HUD should already realize.

Unlike their superiors, it appears the housing officials at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority do not appreciate the crisis of homelessness enough to coordinate any special outreach efforts or selection process.

The second day the pre-application phone bank was open, city and county officials met with CMHA. Among the issues they discussed was the phone bank. It was only after they suggested that homeless people be able to walk in their applications did CMHA permit it.

Walking in a pre-application, however, does not resolve the problem of notification. Most people living on the street do not have a mailing address that they can consistently use for a full year. It is unlikely that a homeless person could receive and respond in ten days time to a phone or mail message from CMHA to come and apply for Section 8.

            The phone lines at CMHA are able to accommodate over 1,000 people per day for 15 days. A modest estimate is that 20,000 people will pre-apply. From those 20,000, only 5,000 will be selected, which leaves 15,000 disappointed people. If any are selected to pre-apply, CMHA will lose contact with many homeless people. Homeless or not, CMHA has been awarded less than 1,000 housing subsidies for the 5,000 households they intend to select. This in itself forecasts another five-year waiting list.

A Workable Solution

Since January, NEOCH members and community leaders have suggested to CMHA in writing that a fair portion of Section 8 certificates be set aside to be specially distributed. Homeless shelters and transitional housing providers could arrange to complete the applications while the homeless person is staying in that location. Additionally, they could only collect applications as long as there are subsidies to distribute. The set-aside would ensure that the housing assistance would actually help homeless people, as the federal priority intends, and prepare CMHA for the President’s set-aside recommendations for 1995.

Published by the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio May 1994 Issue 6