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Public Housing Tenants Evicted If Unable to Meet Volunteer Rule

October 5, 2006 at 2:10 PM EDT
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MARLA BIG HORSE, Evictee: See, I need more boxes. Myrna? Or, Nicki, grab me just a couple little-bitty boxes.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: They packed boxes to move, but Marla Big Horse, her 19-year-old son Adam, and 17-year-old daughter Myrna had no idea where they were going. The family has lived in this public housing unit in Denver for almost 20 years. They always paid their rent. But on the day we visited in August, Big Horse and her family had just been evicted.

MARLA BIG HORSE: I don’t got no place to go. I don’t got no family here. All I got’s my kids. My circumstances, when it came down to it, is I’m homeless.

LEE HOCHBERG: They’re one of the first low-income families in the country to lose their subsidized housing for violating a controversial federal law. It requires each family member perform 96 hours of unpaid volunteer service every year. The government said everyone in the Big Horse family fell short, so the family was kicked out.

MARLA BIG HORSE: Let me call my mom. I’m going to call her collect.

LEE HOCHBERG: As she scrambled to find housing, Big Horse told us she tried to do her hours at a food bank in Denver and an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. But with ill health and little income for transportation, she fell behind.

MARLA BIG HORSE: I mean, you could ask my children, my mother. We tried. We tried everything to cure our hours. We were trying. You know, and then plus me being sick, it was just too hard.

Volunteer requirement in law

Gordon Geijsbeek
Tenant Activist
Basically, their legislation position was, "All these lazy people are sitting out there on the dole. They're not doing anything. Let's kick their butt out the door and make them go to work."

LEE HOCHBERG: Congress enacted the volunteer requirement in 1998, but it's taken years for details to be hammered out. It hoped the law would instill discipline in public housing tenants.

In congressional debate on the rule, Florida Republican Dave Weldon testified, "They're getting free electricity, free heat, and they cannot work two hours a week? Give me a break. That's one Oprah Winfrey show."

Michael Liu was assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as the program was implemented.

MICHAEL LIU, Former Assistant Secretary, Department of HUD: Just as we have community service for students now in many, many schools across the country which are mandatory, just as we have community service in many of our faith-based groups, if you want to be a member of that group, you have to be prepared to do some community service.

LEE HOCHBERG: The law has been greeted angrily in many American cities, not only by public housing residents, but managers like these in Seattle being briefed on the law.

HOUSING MANAGER: So if someone refuses to do the community service, they could be evicted for it?

HOUSING MANAGER: That's what the legislation says.

LEE HOCHBERG: The law applies to all residents age 18 to 62 who aren't disabled or who aren't working or studying full-time, about 350,000 people. Seattle tenant activist Gordon Geijsbeek says it stems from the stereotype that public housing residents are lazy.

GORDON GEIJSBEEK, Tenant Activist: Basically, their legislation position was, "All these lazy people are sitting out there on the dole. They're not doing anything. Let's kick their butt out the door and make them go to work."

Childcare and other burdens

Michael Liu
Dept. Housing & Urban Development
A single mom who has some children might be willing to provide some respite help to another mom in another unit for a few hours. Again, we're only talking eight hours a month, eight hours a month, 15 minutes a day. It's not a lot of time.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Housing Authority's Mark Okazaki says low-income tenants already do enough to earn their housing, by paying up to 30 percent of their income for rent.

MARK OKAZAKI, Seattle Housing Authority: That's a fair deal right there. To call it volunteerism, and yet it's a condition of staying to keeping your housing, it's not really volunteerism. It's forced work.

TINA SHOWALTER, Public Housing Tenant: Now we're going to stick oil in the water and watch it separate.

LEE HOCHBERG: The federal government maintains the law has goaded a handful of people out into the community and occasionally into employment.

Tina Showalter of suburban Seattle volunteered at Campfire USA. She says it hasn't led to a job, but she has enjoyed the work. But as a single mother of two young children, she says it has created an illogical childcare burden for her.

TINA SHOWALTER: The fact that I am leaving my child to go teach other people's children, that doesn't make any sense at all. If you don't have family or friends to help you out, that is a big deal with no childcare.

LEE HOCHBERG: Concerned about the childcare problem, the Seattle Housing Authority got an exemption for Seattle tenants who are caring for children under 13. But Michael Liu questioned if such an exemption is needed nationwide.

MICHAEL LIU: I get somewhat exasperated. A single mom who has some children might be willing to provide some respite help to another mom in another unit for a few hours. Again, we're only talking eight hours a month, eight hours a month, 15 minutes a day. It's not a lot of time.

LEE HOCHBERG: Exasperated themselves by having to enforce the law, many cities are trying to take the edge off it. Seattle and several others have given tenants an extra year to satisfy the requirement. In Philadelphia, administrators organized clean-up days at housing projects and credited a month's volunteer time to anyone who signed up, even if they didn't actually show up and work.

On the other hand, Denver has marked 15 families for eviction. Housing Director Sal Carpio.

SAL CARPIO, Denver Housing Authority: Pure and simple: It's the law. I don't know what else to tell you. If I didn't have to do it, we wouldn't do it. But it's the law, and we're trying to enforce the law the best we can, with a mandate or law that doesn't provide us the resources to do it.

Exemptions

LEE HOCHBERG: Carpio acknowledges his agency needs more resources if it's to accurately monitor volunteer time. Denver, in fact, may have erred when it evicted the Big Horse family. Its records showed 19-year-old Adam owed 67 hours, yet since he was born with only one arm, he should have been exempted. Carpio says he might not have evicted the family had he known about the boy's disability.

SAL CARPIO: I'm surprised that, in spending time with her, that we don't detect that there's a person with no arm in that family.

LEE HOCHBERG: But he says the confusion isn't his agency's fault.

SAL CARPIO: You have to understand that we don't go in and physically check everybody. She's responsible for her lease. We're not; she is.

We can't wake them up in the morning and put them to bed at night. We're not responsible for that. We're not social workers. Understand that I don't have one social worker on my staff, and we're responsible for nearly 20,000 people in this city. We weren't put on this planet to be social workers. A whole different division exists for that.

MARLA BIG HORSE: I'm not going to throw this away. This is his first prosthetic.

Budget cuts

Sal Carpio
Denver Housing Authority
What needs to be done, probably the law has to be changed in a way that housing authorities can enforce it, or it should be given to somebody that's equipped to do it, or they should give us the money to do the program right.

LEE HOCHBERG: Big Horse says she told the agency about her son's disability. After our interview, Carpio found she had, indeed, informed an agency counselor but never filed official paperwork, so her son was never exempted.

Carpio acknowledges other inconsistencies. At the same time his agency put the Big Horse family out on the street, it was giving volunteer credit to other tenants for simply visiting the Denver Zoo, since it enhanced their quality of life.

SAL CARPIO: Your case is with Congress. And this is an act of Congress, not an act of the Denver Housing Authority. What needs to be done, probably the law has to be changed in a way that housing authorities can enforce it, or it should be given to somebody that's equipped to do it, or they should give us the money to do the program right.

LEE HOCHBERG: Seattle's Housing Authority agrees lack of funding is a problem. Budget cuts forced it to lay off 41 workers two years ago, but it then had to spend $48,000 training employees to administer the volunteer program. It's money, the agency says, would better be spent finding housing.

MARLA BIG HORSE: I've been trying, and I can't get through.

LEE HOCHBERG: Marla Big Horse is trying to find housing herself. She stayed with her mother in Oklahoma for two weeks. Since then, she and her daughter have bounced around, seeking shelter with various friends in Denver.