Last August, Prince sat down in my office, defeated and worn-out. After a few moments of silence, he looked up quietly and said, “Miss Heather, what do I have to do to get an apartment of my own?”
Prince had been homeless for more than three years, and, like many of our neighbors, lives on a fixed income. With 2 percent increases in January (SSA, 2018), his income was raised to a whopping $750.00 a month.
The current average market rate rent in Charlotte is $1,027.00.
Still, I smiled at Prince and said, as I always do, “I’m not sure. But we can try and figure it out together!”
Every day, people ask me Prince’s question. They’re looking for some hope that I can help them find a way off the street. I’m a new Social Worker, still learning the ins and outs of a very complicated housing system; I don’t know every single piece to the puzzle. I do, however, know how to listen, how to be in relationship with people as we put our heads together and explore the options.
Over the next few months, Prince and I began to build a relationship as we searched for a place he could afford. He told me about his life, his family, and the events that landed him in my office. Still, finding a rental property he could afford was—as you would expect—impossible. This research seemed futile.
We turned from conventional rental options to the next viable channel, a housing program. The Section 8 housing list was a thousand miles long; they weren’t taking any more applications. Other housing authority programs we looked into also had waiting lists. Prince was facing two years, three years, maybe even FIVE more years of living on the street! And, although Prince was considered to be chronically homeless, his vulnerability score fell just below the range to be considered for Permanent Supportive Housing.
You don’t have to know what all of that means to know that it wasn’t looking very good. Doors continued to close, and I watched depression creep in like a mighty force.
It certainly felt as if we were out of options.
However, in what felt like an ordained moment of possibility, I received an email explaining that the Charlotte Housing Authority was approved to build a new property in the Cherry Neighborhood Uptown. They were taking applications for one of their housing programs, and Prince qualified.
Immediately, I tracked him down, we did the paperwork, and filed his application at 9 a.m. on the day the list opened. The application was initially denied, but I was able to advocate through a letter for Prince’s acceptance into this program.
On March 13, after three additional months of waiting for the property to be built, and updating and re-updating paperwork, Prince signed the lease and moved in to an apartment of his own.
I left his new apartment feeling joyful. As I breathed a sigh of relief, I thought to myself, “We need more of THIS!” But I know that many neighborhoods fight against affordable housing, primarily out of fear that these properties will lower the value of their homes or increase crime. How can I, as a Social Worker, advocate, educate, and speak truth to these fears with grace and understanding?
I ran through a list of agenda items that I could pursue. Some grand act that would somehow convince my neighbors, my friends, and my family that affordable housing needs to be made available.
But the answer came to me, quietly, the following day.
Emily Sagor, one of our many UMC volunteers, found me as I was running through the halls.
“Hey,” she said, “I saw Prince walking down the street in our neighborhood yesterday, and I’m assuming he finally got moved in. What can I do to help him? Is there anything he needs?”
Emily went on to explain that she had been talking to Prince throughout the waiting process when she volunteered at our shower desk. He would often stand at the desk and iron his clothing. He told Emily all about his housing dilemma, but he also shared little details about his life. For instance, he shared that ironing makes him feel close to his mother.
A day later, I went to visit Prince, and Emily was there, too. Prince gave us a tour of his new apartment, and Emily described all of the nearby places to shop and the neighborhood churches. Then, she invited him to their next neighborhood meeting.
“Really?” Prince hesitantly replied.
Emily said, “Well, of course. You’re a part of the neighborhood!”
With a large smile and a chuckle Prince said, “Well, yeah, I … I guess I am.”
This is the power of relationship. I see it every day, and I saw it through Emily. Sure, there are moments that need loud voices and large calls to action. But all of that begins in relationship.
So go find your ironing board! Find the way that you can connect with someone and listen to their story. That is where true advocacy begins.