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Is it possible to help too much?

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“People need to understand that all children need a place to grow up,” a landlord told Stacey Doty. He’d been urged to evict a particular tenant, but she had two little children. The landlord knew those two youngsters needed a place to bathe and do homework, so he worked with her.

Is it possible to help too much? When it comes to shelter and other basic needs, the question is worth wrestling with. Doty, who is Crawfordsville Housing Authority’s director, has borne witness to the need both in Montgomery and Parke counties, where she previously served.

Children and youth need stability at home and with their school to build healthy relationships, complete homework and to sleep safely. Section 8 and HUD housing serve kids, they also help disabled and elderly people obtain affordable housing that accommodates their physical needs and budgets. Vouchers provide housing for domestic abuse survivors, who need to move several counties away from their abusers, and that’s just some of the common local populations that CHA serves. Stable, safe housing is proven to improve educational outcomes, help manage mental illness, help addicts with recovery and reduce recidivism for ex-prisoners. Options in housing reduce chronic homelessness. The voucher program as well as subsidized housing complexes are just two options to put a roof over everyone’s heads.

The Section 8 Voucher Program started in the 1970’s as part of Nixon’s “war” on poverty. It helps about 5.2 million of the 11 million Americans with extremely low incomes obtain housing. Nationally, the program’s populations are 62% women, 41% are younger than 18 years old, 13% are older than 62, and 24% are disabled. That’s similar to the people that the Crawfordsville Housing Authority serves. The vast majority of Montgomery County’s 357 vouchers go to the disabled who cannot hold a job or buy a house, Doty said. Many have been on the program for more than 20 years, and often live in apartments. It also helps single mothers and children, and works with Pam’s Promise and the emergency shelter to house domestic abuse survivors.

Here’s the rub. There is a nearly 127,000 rental unit shortage in Indiana for those with extremely low incomes, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The shortage of housing options, along with a lack of income are the leading cause of homelessness. In rural counties like ours, it’s hard to count the people doubling-up with friends or family, living in motels, cars, tents or trailers until they can find housing through HUD programs like Section 8 Vouchers or subsidized rental units. Homelessness hides, but it shows up in Facebook threads, calls to local churches, and other social service organizations. Observant locals may catch a glimpse of people sleeping in cars, notice squatters or see tents in wooded areas.

Doty is passionate about getting a roof over the heads of those who are eligible for Section 8 housing. To apply, clients must come to the office, apply for a voucher, pass a background check, are placed on a waiting list, then once their voucher is available, clients have 60 days to find a residence that matches the needs of their household size. They can apply for two 30-day extensions when the housing market makes it hard to find an approved unit. A single person must use their voucher on a single-bedroom unit, a mother of two would get a voucher for a three-bedroom unit. There isn’t flexibility to take the first available unit, regardless of size, and there is a persistent mismatch of need and available units. That contributes to the waitlist that CHA clients experience.

Too few private landlords know of the advantages of working with the housing authority. When Doty took over as CHA’s director in December 2019, she planned to do events for area landlords to clear up misconceptions that the general public and landlords have about the program. In March, COVID shutdowns began.

Doty wants to get out the word that working with CHA has many advantages. Landlords don’t realize that they are signing up for a reliable pool of potential tenants who have already been vetted, as well as regular, guaranteed rental payments. CHA pays the voucher directly to the landlord and the client pays the remainder. Failure to pay would mean tenants would lose their voucher. While the landlords have annual inspections of their property, they can call for an inspection if they are concerned that the tenants are not taking good care of the place. That right extends to the tenant as well. If the landlord isn’t keeping the place in good order, a tenant can request an inspection. Mutual protection is a beneficial guarantee for most parties and helps maintain rental properties in good order. When CHA receives calls complaining about unkept properties that locals assume are part of the program, those properties rarely are part of the program.

Most Section 8 residents who can work do work. Some are parents earning degrees. Doty said they are “using the program as it’s intended” for them. Every person who receives aid has the chance to live a better life: getting an education, building healthy community bonds, stabilizing their families, maintaining health and reducing chances of recidivism and addiction relapse.

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.

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