Back to Homeless and Hopeless in San Diego

by on September 11, 2015 · 1 comment

in Culture, Economy, Homelessness, Life Events, Military, San Diego, Veterans, Women's Rights

homelesswomenvets-300x137By Jeeni Criscenzo / San Diego Free Press

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.

trauma informed careThe 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.

homeless-women-vets-increase-hp_0This 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.

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Avatar Anonymous September 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm

SDHC staff, notably the Executive Team, doesn’t care about the clients they serve. They stopped caring a long time ago. Office politics trump integrity, ethics and service to the community. The abuse and indifference directed to clients is the same abuse and indifference directed to staff. Top executives earn big bonuses as services decrease. And those bonuses are based on a predetermined head count. It is a disgrace.

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