By Jeeni Criscenzo
A week ago, I was sitting in the Denny’s across the street from Howard Johnsons in Chula Vista, waiting for Tracy (name changed), an Army veteran Amikas had been assisting for almost a year. The good news was that Amikas, a non-profit that I started five years ago to help homeless women and children, was going to cover the next five days at the hotel for Tracy and her three children. But I wasn’t looking forward to this conversation – where this family would go after those five days was anybody’s guess.
This situation was all the more frustrating because Amikas had helped Tracy to get into permanent supportive housing six months earlier. The system had worked. Through a collaboration between 25 Cities Campaign to End Homelessness and the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), Amikas had placed this family in a two-bedroom apartment in Paradise Hills.
SDHC would partially subsidize her rent so Tracy only had to pay 1/3 of her income for the next 18 months. Amikas would provide volunteer case management and Tracy was expected to do her part to be ready to take on the full rental payments by the end of 18 months.
And Tracy had been on track to do just that! She was going to be the poster-child of success for the program. She was attending school for medical office administration at Concorde Career College and was looking forward to getting a decent job when she completed the course in August. Talking to Tracy on the day before she was going to move into her apartment, I could see she was feeling something she hadn’t felt since I’d first met her – hopeful.
Amikas had originally placed Tracy and her three children in one of our shared houses in Crowne Point. After a few weeks of trying to get along with a housemate who turned out to be just plain mean, Tracy packed her kids up in her SUV and left. Looking at her case history, this seemed to be the way Tracy dealt with stressful situations – she would just leave. That’s a common behavior for women dealing with PTSD. Just prior to coming to Amikas, Tracy walked away from an apartment with a mold problem after her requests to have it fixed were ignored. Her youngest has asthma and the mold was making her sick.
The key to understanding what happened to Tracy and to so many other homeless women whom we try to house, is that trauma is not recognized and accommodated for by services working with this population. In my book, Hidden Homelessness (hopefully to be published early next year), I explain how the experience of being homeless is far more traumatic for most women than men, due to their extreme vulnerability.
In the 2010 Service and Housing Interventions for Families in Transition (SHIFT) study, it was determined that approximately half of homeless mothers met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For people who had previously experienced victimization, such as Military Sexual Trauma (MST), homelessness can exacerbate symptoms of psychological trauma and result in formidable barriers to recovery. Like many of the homeless female veterans Amikas has worked with, who are being treated for anxiety and depression, Tracy is trying to survive in a world that’s not trauma informed.
When the opportunity came up for Tracy to go in the SDHC apartment, I had a talk with her about the necessity of dealing with problems and not walking away from them. But she seems to be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Shortly after moving into the furnished apartment, she noticed bug bites on herself and her children. She looked it up on the internet and found out what to look for as evidence of bed bugs. Sure enough, her apartment was infested and she has photos of the bug droppings on the bedding as well as the welts on her children’s arms and legs.
Finding bed bugs would make me hysterical and I don’t have trauma and anxiety issues. In fact, studies show that bed bug infestations can cause long term psychological damage. People experiencing a bed bug infestation have been shown to display sleeplessness, increased nervousness and anxiety. Some have even exhibited symptoms of PTSD. In a study of over 400 individuals who lived in bed bug infested homes it was found that: 29% suffered from sleeplessness; 22% suffered with emotional distress; 20% had anxiety; 40% were in a constant state of stress.
But Tracy really wanted this apartment to work. It was close to the schools her kids had been attending and she had made friends with another veteran woman living in the complex. So this time she didn’t pack up and leave. She went to the property manager and notified them there were bed bugs in her unit.
Now I wasn’t there. I don’t know if Tracy was particularly diplomatic in her request. I doubt I would be very calm with a bed bug complaint. But in any case, she wasn’t successful in getting action on her request and apparently didn’t endear herself with management. Unfortunately she didn’t tell me or her volunteer Amikas case manager, Christina Imhoof, about the problem. We had been told by SDHC to stop intervening on behalf of our clients.
The fact that the bed bugs problem wasn’t immediately addressed was a huge mistake on the part of property management. I attended a 4-hour workshop on bed bugs last year. I went in thinking, good grief, what are they going to talk about for four hours? I left thanking my lucky stars Amikas hadn’t had an infestation in any of our homes because it’s hell to get rid of them.
The point they emphasized at that workshop was to encourage tenants to notify you at the first sign of bed bugs. In fact, a good property manager should provide tenants with photos of what to look for. Why? Because they spread like wildfire from one unit to another and if you don’t exterminate them ASAP you are going to have every unit infested. Assigning fault is pointless – they are everywhere and have nothing to do with personal hygiene or housekeeping.
But months went by and no effort was being made to deal with Tracy’s bed bugs. In fact, they accused her of bringing them into the property and suggested that she might have to pay for the extermination! Mind you, Tracy’s unit came furnished, and everything was used, including the bedding! There were no bed-bug liners on the mattresses and box springs – something I insisted on in Amikas homes after I attended that workshop.
I have a letter from Tracy describing the incident on July 15th that would result in her and her children being expelled from her apartment. She said she was leaving to pick up her daughter from school when she saw the property manager and asked her what was going to be done about the bed bugs? Another person, who would later claim to be a witness, walked up from behind Tracy and started giving her opinion.
Tracy, who suffers from trauma, wasn’t comfortable being sandwiched between the two women and claims that she told the second person to back up while pointed her finger at her. The manger told her to put her finger down if she knew what was good for her. Tracy turned to her and said, “What the hell!” and turned to get back into her truck.
Whatever actually happened that day probably depends on whose eyeballs you were looking through. While Tracy has trauma issues, I’ve never seen her lose her temper. But it wouldn’t surprise me if she was angry and speaking a lot louder than normal. And maybe, in a perfect world where people are not dealing with PTSD and anxiety and feeling powerless, it would be reasonable to expect someone to maintain their composure at all times.
Maybe, in a perfect world where a person could just go find another apartment they could afford; where an eviction wasn’t a condemnation to homelessness for you and your three kids… maybe it wouldn’t be a perversion of justice to kick a family out of their home on the say-so of the property manager and her friend, who had every motive in the world to lie to get rid of a tenant who was asking them to just do their job and get rid of the damn bugs!
Maybe in a perfect world where we didn’t send our service men and women to boot camp to be programmed to respond to threats with violence, but we don’t reprogram them when they return to civilian life to respond civilly… maybe it would be reasonable to have a zero tolerance rule about acting in a threatening manner toward the property manager.
But Tracy doesn’t live in a perfect world. She lives in a trauma world. When she told us she was given 30 days to get out, I suggested that, no matter whether or not the property manager was lying about her making threats and racial slurs, she needed to do whatever she could to stay in the apartment and if she would agree to attend an anger management class I would intercede on her behalf. (Tracy is African-American, the property manager is white).
Tracy agreed and sent a letter pleading for mercy and offering to attend anger management classes. She is currently being treated by the VA for anxiety and depression. Amikas begged our contact at SDHC to at least give Tracy a chance to tell her version of the story. I sent several emails to my contacts at 25 Cities to intercede. Christina suggested a meeting with SDHC.
But after a week, we were informed that the decision was final, there would be no meeting and Tracy had to be out of the apartment by Aug. 19th or she would have an eviction on her record. Tracy was never given the opportunity to talk to anyone at SDHC. SDHC decided to just take what their property manager said as the truth.
This is a story about real people. Tracy was honorably discharged from the Army in 2007. She has a 12-year-old daughter, a 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. I have been working with her for almost a year now. I liked her the first time I met her and I still like her. Despite getting a raw deal in life, this is a woman who has really made an effort to do better and to care for her children. She has no reliable support systems. She entered the military to try to earn a living and do better. She was getting an income from the GI bill but has just completed school, so that income stops. But with that certification, she was anticipating getting a job. She also makes some money doing braiding and you can see the amazing styling she does on herself and her daughters.
Getting into the SDHC unit in February was the break Tracy finally needed to get her life together. She used the opportunity to focus on school and giving her kids some stability. She was lining up job interviews when this whole thing blew up on her.
On the day Tracy had to move out, I stopped by with Christina to help her pack. The little one was holding the dustpan for me while I was sweeping into it and she was just so happy to be part of helping despite the upheaval going on around her. When I was leaving, she didn’t want me to go, and I reassured her I would be visiting her in her new place, to which she replied, “But THIS is our new place!”
These kids finally had a roof over their head, and some continuity in their lives and it all got swept up in that dustbin! Why? Because of office politics at SDHC? Because of an inability to understand that housing homeless people requires some flexibility in rules to accommodate the mental illness they bring to the table? The fact that service providers are so understaffed and burnt out that their clients become statistics?
While I was boxing up the few kitchen items in the cabinets, Tracy turned to me and said, “I’m not OK.” Uncertain what she meant, I repeated what I thought she said, as a question, “You’re not OK?” She put her arms out to me and I held her. She was shaking, but not crying. I kept reassuring her, “You are strong. You will get through this. We will help.” I felt this beautiful, intelligent woman shaking in my arms and thought about how completely unnecessary this whole awful situation was.
Tracy and her kids are back to being homeless. The kids started school this week as one of the thousands of San Diego kids who have no housing security. Given the current shortage of affordable housing, Tracy’s search for an apartment she can afford is turning up more scams than possibilities. She can’t focus on getting a job when she doesn’t have a place for her kids to live because she is in fear of having them taken away. It’s a Catch-22. Every day that goes by, there is a little less hope that things will ever get better.
An email from SDHC stated that their Real Estate Department is “purely a landlord” and they are “increasing the screening level to ensure folks who get placed into one of these units are a good fit for their properties.” Sounds like they will only be housing homeless people without issues. They are oblivious to the damage they have done to this family and the injustice of not giving this mother and veteran the opportunity to dispute the accusations made against her.
25 Cities will continue to have meetings where they will review the numbers of chronically homeless and veterans they have placed in housing, and reset goals to meet their mission of ending homelessness. For all of their good intentions, no one had the courage to express their outrage for the way Tracy and her children were tossed out of their home. Or, maybe I’m the only one who finds this outrageous.
No, you are not alone in feeling the disparity. …my hub and I have been illegally evicted from a ruin that was so toxic, all of our dogs died horrible cancer deaths shortly thereafter….the HUD/VASH rep at Mission Valley VA told me without blinking that I needed to get rid of ALL LIFELINES AND HUSBAND before they could/would help, “…there are no family programs…”
I have employed every 211 referral only to be told, “We don’t do that Kind of help.” And, “We don’t have the funding right now.”
I am Not drug-addicted, Alcoholic or PTSD victim, tho I cannot count how many times I’ve considered filing for that, too, for trying to wrap my mind around all the help i/we Don’t get. That includes you, Amikas.
Despite mayor Failure’s inclusion in that list of homelessness resolvers, that yearly ‘Road Home’ meeting is a fraud and merely a means of figuring out amongst the business owners of this city, about how to get the homeless OUT of this town on the fastest road possible … Definitely NO prevention strategies or actual HELP going on.
To add insult to injury, we are ‘elder’ than the average homeless Veteran and No One wants that responsibility Nor are they willing to employ without that physical address.
Good luck wrestling with all you experience in your own mind, it’s a dog-eat-dog situation out here and without TRULY AFFORDABLE HOUSING, I see no hope in sight.
Jeeni Criscenzo says
Brenda, I’m sorry that Amikas couldn’t help you. We did what we could for as long as we could without ever getting any funding. Last January we had to close all of our shared and group homes because we didn’t have any money to continue. Thank you for sharing your story here. I promise that I continue to work for you and the countless other women who just need a safe place to live.
Susan Duerksen says
Wow, Jeeni, what a sad and powerful story. Is there anything the rest of us can do to help change the system so it works for this woman and others like her?
Jay Znamirowski says
Susan Duerksen – The only way to change the system is to demand transparency and a full audit of SDHC and how they’re conducting their business. As a former employee, I can say without hesitation that it is the most poorly run bureaucracy I’ve ever experienced in my professional career. I’ve been a professional multimedia designer for over a decade, and while employed by The Housing Commission, I was getting paid over 75k a year to do the work of a first year production intern. When I tried to be proactive in suggesting ways to improve processes and make better use of time, I was received as a threat to the status quo. I was then bullied into resigning, and worst of all, my story is not unique. The fish rots from the head, and until someone is ready to address that, SDHC will continue to consume more and more resources while the homeless population in SD continues to rise.
Abelardo Bernal says
Absolutely spot on. As a former employee bullied into resigning for exercising my statutory rights, I couldn’t agree more. SDHC has turned into an abusive, callous organization.
Jeeni Criscenzo says
Susan, one thing you can do is spread this story far and wide. This is why I am writing “Hidden Homelessness” – the story needs to be told that families are getting no help, from the top up – not just the top of SDHC, but from Washington – from HUD and the VA – Close your eyes and thing of a veteran – what do you see? I’ll bet it’s not a woman. But women veterans are the fastest growing homeless population. And homeless women are not even being counted, because HUD doesn’t count couch surfing, but our schools do.
Brenda is right in that families are torn apart because there is no emergency housing for couples – just when you need the support of a partner you are told you need to separate. And we should be catching these women and families BEFORE they become homeless – there would be fewer “issues” to resolve. So what you are doing at CPI for income justice is a very critical part of fixing this broken system. The next step is recognizing that raising children is valuable to our society and if a mom can’t earn more than it costs her to work (including the cost of decent child care), we should pay her to raise her own kids, and train her to do it well.
And we should be demanding funding for trauma-informed housing for women and families. Building group housing – 6 – 8 bedroom homes with a full-time, qualified, and fairly paid house mother. I have a shopping list of suggestions in my book and will be offering them here in my column prior to publication.
syliva Telafaro says
What a powerful story! It appears to me, this is more than just a disparity, that housing discrimination is going on here. I would encourage her to file a report with the NAACP, so we can do a Legal Address. Also I am in need of a braid er:)
John Lawrence says
Powerful writing and story, Jeeni. Please keep up the good work. It must be very frustrating to go through stuff like this.
Steve Powell says
Wow. Great job presenting a fair accounting and acknowledging places where what you know is incomplete. Very very sad that we couldn’t salvage the situation for this family that is so close to succeeding. It is truly infuriating that these large organizations getting all the grant money do so little time actually help.
So far the Poor and Homeless in San Diego have lost $25.2 million in former Redevelopment Agency (RDA) Low Moderate Income Housing Asset Fund (LMIHAF) Cash, due to a Failure by Civic San Diego staff to Encumber or Transfer Assets and Unencumbered Bond Proceeds in a timely manner.
Including $13.3 million for the LMIHAF Housing Due Diligence Report (DDR) Payment, and $11.9 million to Defease Outstanding Bonds using 1999-2010 Unencumber Bonds Proceeds.
FY-2014 CAFR documents that as of June 30, 2014, the LMIHAF has $277,139,000 in Assets. Including $29 million Cash, $215 million Notes Receivable that can be leveraged, $32 million in Land. Also $21 million in New Revenue from the Use of existing LMIHAF Money and Property.
At least 50% of the LMIHAF is to be spent on the Very Low Income and Homeless.
The current Civic San Diego Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP) states that a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for the LMIHAF will be available for FY-2018 Funding. Waiting until FY-2018 to use Cash in the LMIHAF is too late.
In the next few weeks, for the Ballpark Village (BPV) Housing Assets, Civic San Diego will Transfer the Assets from the LMIHAF controlled by Civic San Diego to the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC).
Solution: Instead of only Transferring the BPV Housing Assets from Civic San Diego to the SDHC, Transfer all $277 million in LMIHAF assets to the SDHC’s Housing Trust Fund (HTF).
California H&S Code Section 34176.1(d) states
“… if a Housing Successor has an Excess Surplus, the Housing Successor shall Encumber the Excess Surplus… or Transfer the Fund within three Fiscal Years. If the Housing Successor fails to comply… within 90 days of the end of the Third Fiscal Year, shall Transfer any Excess Surplus to the Department of Housing and Community Development for expenditures pursuant to the Multifamily Housing Program…” for Housing Projects Statewide.
The third Fiscal Year ended on June 30, 2015. Therefore the 90 day deadline is September 28, 2015. Waiting for Civic San Diego’s NOFA for FY-2018 funding is too late.
Jeeni Criscenzo says
Can you just imagine the housing that could be built with $277 million dollars!? Imagine if it was planned and designed for families and single women dealing with trauma. But where do we put our energy and dollars? In stadiums, bigger convention centers, and super-duper parks when we already hand a stadium, convention center and super.duper park. $277 million!!!
Great article highlighting the ridiculous hoops people are forced to jump through for assistance in finding something as basic as a home. I also appreciate that you brought up the issues with having PTSD, how we screw over military veterans and quite possible racist neglect from the property management. Thank you for bringing attention to this womans plight. I hope she is able to find a home for her and her daughters pronto!
John Lawrence says
Most of the money being allocated to house the homeless is eaten up and consumed by the bureaucracies that are supposed to be housing the homeless. So actually very little money is spent to actually help the homeless. They’ll spend $100,000. to have somebody write a report on the homeless, but they won’t spend any actual money on homes for the homeless. Sick!
I heard from a military analyst that the old housing at the NTC (now LIberty Station) is still there, and empty. It can house 3000 people…why aren’t we using these old great buildings for shelter?
Time to occupy again, downtown SD? set up tents to demand affordable housing? Jeeni, any more info on the $11million San Diego had to give back to the feds because they didn’t spend it on housing?
John Kitchin says
I will be posting a link to this article in the San Diego Homeless News for October, which should be out soon. John Kitchin, Publisher.