James Belanger made camp, as he had most nights, under a slight overhang, his belongings pressed neatly between himself and a wall.
Belanger refers to himself as one of the “forced homeless,” people who want to come inside, who work to find a place, who try to jump through all of the hoops only to have someone yank one upward, tripping him at the last minute.
“In late January, I got a Section 8 voucher,” he began, and then saw the look on this reporter’s face.
“Everyone’s eyes light up like that,” Belanger said. “Like it’s gold.”
For Belanger, at least, the voucher — like the promise of so many services in Seattle — has been fool’s gold. And he’s not alone. People living on the streets, in shelter or crashing temporarily with friends do so for months or years before they find a stable housing situation, be it in Seattle or elsewhere.
For Belanger, at least, the voucher — like the promise of so many services in Seattle — has been fool’s gold.
In the meantime, they suffer from illnesses that go untreated. They try to stretch a dollar further than it can go and find the rest through whatever means necessary. Some offers of help that sound promising evaporate. Others are simultaneously material and empty, like providing a watch chain to someone with no timepiece.
Despite myths of “Freeattle” and the boundless generosity that some believe the city bestows on the homeless, the beneficiaries of such imaginary largess find themselves holding a golden ticket that gets them precisely nowhere.
The trials of James Belanger
Belanger had a Section 8 voucher, a benefit described as winning the lottery to get out of homelessness. When Seattle Housing Authority opened its wait list in spring 2017, it received more than 22,000 applications for 3,500 waiting-list spots just to get a chance at a voucher. King County Housing Authority had similar numbers of applications. Voucher in hand, Belanger began shopping.
He went to three different buildings and saw five different units trying to find a landlord who would accept him. Although he says he passed the background check, his credit score held him back in some cases, just points below the official cutoff.
“They said they were in the business of renting, not turning people away,” Belanger said. “It was lies, and catch-22s that kept me from housing, too.”
In 2016, the city of Seattle passed an ordinance banning landlords from denying people housing because of their “source of income,” meaning that landlords can no longer refuse a renter because they pay for their apartment with Section 8 resources. But it doesn’t help those who have a low credit score, or other factors that landlords deem disqualifying.
The experience was frustrating, but not enough to deter him — Belanger wants housing.
But that chance expired before its time.
On May 23 he received a voicemail from the Harborview employee who had helped connect him to services delivering disturbing news. The agency through which Belanger had received the voucher had made an accounting error. Some vouchers, including his, had been revoked.
“Someone housed and paid screwed up,” Belanger said.
Belanger moved on and got on the Housing and Essential Needs program, better known as HEN. With this new but reduced credit, he continued looking for apartments. He quickly realized that he would have to settle for something that worked rather than the nice places he was able to consider before.
And he found them, but things continued to fall apart.
At one building, there were issues with paperwork he was given for the application and he lost the apartment. He spent hours traveling from office to office and more waiting for help with paperwork, treks that cost him time and money that he did not have. At the next, the paperwork for the HEN program information he provided was not on official letterhead, Belanger said, and the program name was misspelled — “HERN.”
Belanger still has a shot at the last place. He fell from first to 12th in line because he had to address the “HERN” situation. He’s been waiting for a call for several weeks, although he’s assured that he’s still in the running.
As he spoke, jumping a bit through his timeline, apologizing, reorienting and starting anew, he shifted in his sleeping bag, scratching at his right arm. A few black ants crawled across the outside.
“Bugs,” he said. “I never had bugs before.”
He had to throw all of his clothes away one night because they had become infested. His new clothes, a Lady Aztecs wrestling shirt and black pants with no fly, were meant for a woman of medium build, not a man. But they were all that he could get for free, and clothes aren’t in the budget when two Gatorades, ice cream and a bag of chips cost $8. He can barely stretch his food budget for two weeks of every month.
Programs that you’d think would provide clothing have turned him away. Provisions at food banks vary in the summer when stores stock less because “rich people are outside,” he said.
Programs that you’d think would provide clothing have turned him away.
Each failure of the system, the time spent scrambling, his efforts to stretch his $192 per month in food benefits that can’t cover his basic needs eat away at him. Belanger says he has three diagnosed anxiety disorders and other medical conditions. Living outside, with the constant fear of being victimized and the dehumanizing treatment he received from fellow human beings make everything worse.
“People are running with stereotypes,” he said.
There was graffiti Belanger saw once in the city that read, “In your eyes, how much suffering is enough? House every human.”
But wait, there’s more
Belanger is not a solitary case.
The system to address homelessness in Seattle and King County is fragmented. Even programs that ostensibly work — such as Section 8 — do not always take into account the variety of needs that make a person homeless and keep them there.
The system to address homelessness in Seattle and King County is fragmented.
There are 2,032 shelter beds in Seattle, according to the Mayor’s Office. Those spaces are 93 percent full every night, on average, leaving thousands still outside either on the streets, in tents or in vehicles.
Not all shelter beds are created equal. There are a growing number of “enhanced” shelter spots that are open 24 hours a day, provide storage and allow things like partners and pets. They are in high demand, often with only a handful of spots open at the start of a given day. Another option is the mat-on-the-floor model, a bare bones design that leaves people sleeping head-to-toe. Many refuse to enter, fearing an invasion of bedbugs, theft or other victimization.
They can also prevent people from entering work. Shelter-stayers are expelled early in the morning and have to line up early in the evening, restricting the shifts that they can take at many jobs while still sleeping inside.
The Millionair Club Charity trains people, gets them permits to serve food and alcohol and sends them to work sporting events at the major stadiums. It also provides a program that includes budgeting lessons, practicing customer service and résumé help, all to get people that the world has counted out into the workforce. From there, housing is easier — as an employer, the charity provides proof of income, which is often necessary to secure an apartment.
But many games happen at night. Without an intervention on their behalf, folks can find themselves in a position to choose between their present safety and their future security.
If you live in your car, there are even fewer formal options. Car maintenance is expensive, and often deferred. But if the house-on-wheels breaks down, it is subject to ticketing, tow, impoundment and sometimes auction. Such circumstances have resulted in the loss of prized possessions, but also crucial medications.
These kinds of painful choices keep people trapped in homelessness, “rotting outside,” as Belanger puts it. But at some point, you run out of options.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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