'It’s really rough' | How shelter rules, IDs, lack of voucher acceptance contribute to homelessness
The Way Home: The Cause is part two of an 11Alive Investigates series that explores why people are living on the streets and not in permanent housing.
“There’s a lot of homeless people in Atlanta, sleeping on the streets. And it’s hard,” said David Lee.
Lee didn’t choose homelessness. It’s his choices that led him to it.
“I was sleeping on the street and I was using drugs,” he said.
His addiction cost him everything: his home, his livelihood, and his belongings. Any pictures, videos or mementos from happier times are gone.
Lee said he’s sober now and has been for months. He also said he’s ready to get off the streets for good -- but something is holding him back; something most of us have that we take for granted.
Without it, experts say a person can’t get out of homelessness.
“You need it for any housing,” said Leni Garner, who works for the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative or PAD as a care navigator.
It’s not just housing -- IDs are needed to get a job, a bank account, a car, and the like. PAD said about 700 of the homeless people it serves don’t have an ID. That’s 700 people who can’t work and can’t get back on their feet.
“It’s so hard to navigate that system if you lost everything and you’re starting from scratch,” said Garner.
RELATED: 'It’s sticky at the bottom' | Man living on the street explains why it’s so hard to end homelessness
Here’s what people have to go through to get an ID.
First, they need to get their birth certificate. In order to get that document, there are security questions. Get the security questions wrong, and the person has to provide more proof with other forms of identification.
“Car registration, government issue trade license -- these things are ridiculous to expect anyone to have really but especially if you’re experiencing homelessness,” said Garner.
All the steps and barriers mean the process can drag on, as it has for Rickie Jackson.
“Might go get me a better job, you know get out of that hot sun, go get a job in a warehouse somewhere,” Jackson said of his plans when he finally gets his ID.
He’s been trying to get identification since March 2021. He's not the only one - some people wait weeks, months, or even years.
“I’ve had situations in the past where individuals are born in Jamaica. He’s 67 now, true story. He came here during the Olympics in ’96, was on a work visa, got sick, lost everything. So now fast forward to present time, he has no documentation,” said PAD Care Navigator Andre McDaniel.
That client, McDaniel said, still doesn’t have an ID.
“It’s just really frustrating when you hit that first barrier at that birth certificate. You’ve gotta wait until you get that until you can do anything else,” said Garner.
“I can’t get a birth certificate in Georgia, it has to come from New York,” said Lee, who has been trying to get that document for six months.
He has no idea when he could get his ID. All he knows is he doesn’t want to go back to life on the streets.
“It’s scary out there. Cold," he said tearfully. "Sleeping on the concrete in the cold, you know it’s rough. It’s really rough."
LANDLORDS DON'T WANT VOUCHERS:
11Alive met several people living on the streets and in encampments that could have been sleeping in a bed, had a property been willing to accept Section 8, also known as a housing voucher.
The waitlists are long for the federal government program, which pays the primary share of the rent for those who are approved, helping those that are very low-income, elderly or disabled find stable housing.
Ruth Hancock is living proof.
After five years of living under a bridge in the West End area, she now beams with pride as she tours 11Alive’s Rebecca Lindstrom around her apartment at Capitol View.
“I am truly grateful,” she said with a laugh as her dog Tia peers out from the bedroom, unsure what to think of the camera and lights.
But even when you come off the waitlist and are approved, obstacles remain.
“It’s just a waste of time,” said Yvonne Sims, sitting at Athens’ city-sanctioned encampment. She received voucher assistance more than a year ago but has yet to find a landlord or apartment complex that will accept it as a form of payment.
RELATED: Housing developments receiving city funding could accept Section 8 housing vouchers -- if this Atlanta resolution passes
Vincent Dillard shared the same story.
“I had my voucher since December,” he said, frustrated to be in a tent instead of an apartment.
Both said they were given outdated lists of potential properties to try. It’s up to them to make call after call and pay application fees that get them nowhere.
“What’s the use of a voucher if I can’t do anything with it?” asked Sims.
Nakia DeBlanc said she’s working to answer that question. The Georgia State University student is working on her master's degree in sociology. As part of her studies, she spent a year working at the Marietta Housing Authority.
“I’ve seen the desperation in a lot of people’s faces when they can’t find a place,” said DeBlanc wiping tears from her eyes.
Moved by her experience, her graduation project is focused on figuring out why landlords are locking out tenants on Section 8.
“We just want to know. Did you not get paid on time? Was the relationship with the tenant bad?” DeBlanc asks, listing off some of the questions they will pose to current and former landlords.
The federal government limits how much it will pay in rent. Landlords are subject to housing authority inspections and must be willing to take rent payments from two sources, the tenant and the government. In a hot rental market, they could all be reasons landlords have decided not to bother.
“Sometimes, it’s like an unspoken thing. We’re not going to tell you we don’t accept it, but we want you to make three times the rent and your credit score needs to be x, y, z,” said DeBlanc, noting these factors are all barriers landlords know someone using a voucher can’t achieve.
In Cobb County, the housing authority says in the past two years the number of landlords actively participating in their program has dropped 20%.
According to 11Alive’s open records requests with state and other local housing authorities, less than half of the families who get vouchers use them.
DeBlanc said if she doesn’t figure out why everyone will be impacted.
“You’re going to see a huge increase in homelessness. Women, children, elderly. Our most vulnerable,” she said getting emotional again. “Our most vulnerable citizens will be suffering.”
Hancock said she still goes out to the bridge where she once lived. Now it’s to pass out food and offer hope through the non-profit she started.
“When you are on the street, I think you get comfortable. You forget about the relaxation maybe you could have sleeping in a regular bed,” she recalled.
That’s why Hancock says if the community wants to help the homeless, it must find ways to get more places like Capitol View. Places willing to take those on rental assistance. She said stable housing is the door to a stable job and mental health.
Every year the state counts the number of people experiencing homelessness and the programs designed to help. In January, only 57% of the shelter beds in Atlanta were being used. But shelters say in the past two months, that’s changed and most are now full night after night.
Even when there is space, 11Alive learned some people will never walk through those doors. If shelters are the key to programs that could provide stable housing, we wanted to know: Why isn’t everybody using them?
Three leaders at metro Atlanta shelters were asked this question:
- Jennifer Hutchinson, Campus Director for Restoration House, an extension of the Atlanta Mission
- Major Thomas McWilliams, area commander of Metro Atlanta for the Salvation Army
- Falecia Stewart, the vice president of housing for MUST ministries
“Shelters have had a lot of very strict and stringent guidelines. A lot, a lot, a lot,” said Hutchinson.
While that’s changing, there will always be high-barrier shelters that need a structure for success. Think of job training, substance abuse counseling, or security for victims of domestic violence.
“And that idea with a low barrier is you can come in drunk in hopes that you'll get sober that night and then maybe we can have a conversation the next morning,” Hutchinson explained.
Low-barrier shelters try to meet people where they’re at but there are still restrictions.
“They need to be able to take care of themselves,” said McWilliams. “If they can't basically change their own clothes, we don't have the staffing for that.”
Some require an ID, something that often gets lost or stolen when living on the streets.
“The only thing that we check to make sure that an individual is not on the sex registry,” said Stewart, adding that if someone is, “They can't come into the shelter because we have a mixed demographic because of the children.”
But Stewart said they do have a relationship with a shelter that does work with people on the sex offender registry. So there are still options for help.
This is where the segregation of shelters comes in: Men, women and children. Some won’t allow boys older than 13 but data shows families who want to stay together are the fastest-growing need.
“It’s quite alarming, just the number of families that we’re getting, some of them (a) result of they’re being priced out of their homes,” said Stewart.
Even if someone living on the streets can get in, there are reasons why they won’t. A few don’t want to leave their pets. Others have turned to shelters for help, only to find disappointment.
“Getting them an appointment with a psychiatrist and for an evaluation and getting them medication can sometimes take months,” said Hutchinson. “You need to be ready and have the resource ready for the client when they're ready. Otherwise, it's ‘you know what? I decided to have help. I decided to dream again like I trusted you, and now you can't help me.’”
Sometimes it is that mental health crisis that keeps the person out.
“Because you're concerned about both the safety and well-being of that individual, but also the safety and well-being of everybody else in the shelter,” said Hutchinson.
Social anxiety also plays a role.
“If you were to stick either one of us in a place that you've never been to before with 100, 120 people that you didn't know, that's really scary,” said Hutchinson.
While the community may see a shelter as a climate-controlled, comfy bed that comes with food for the night, others see control.
“We want to choose what we're going to eat for the day; what time we're going to go to bed; when we're going to turn the lights on,” explained Hutchinson.
There are also rules in most shelters on when one must be inside the facility, and when they must be outside, presumably looking for work or housing.
“We need to get in there and we need to get things fixed, done and cleaned because we're going to have other people in there that night,” said McWilliams.
Stewart explained the schedule at MUST.
“You have to be going by 9 in the morning. So you should either be at work or actively looking for employment because even with some of our housing programs, we can pay 100% of your rent. But most apartment complexes, they're not going to approve you unless you have a job," Stewart said.
Stewart did note, out of the room doesn’t necessarily mean out of the building. Many head to the computer lab for help with resume writing and job searching.
In some shelters, moving in and out also means taking one's stuff. Even for shelters with storage, space is limited to things that can fit inside a locker.
They are all reasons why for some, staying on the street feels easier. There’s a sense of community and an illusion of choice.
“They don't want the responsibility of a mortgage and a car and whatever,” added McWilliams.
“Some just want that freedom of living outside,” said Stewart, noting that some people living in nearby encampments will still come during the day for food or to use MUST ministries programs.
On paper, Atlanta has enough beds to meet the needs of those who want them. The challenge is structure, like housing a family when only single beds exist and overcoming the barriers that keep some outside.
“It’s a very big problem to solve,” admitted Hutchinson.
11Alive Investigators are examining why tents line Atlanta's freeways and why families struggle to find stable housing in their three-part series The Way Home. Read Part 1: The Problem and Part 3: Solutions.