Story of the Week 8/3/2015

An Inspiring Story of Community Collaboration

By Brittany Nevins, Housing Resource Specialist at COTSbrittany

A client of mine came in to do an intake with the Housing Resource Center. I had heard rumblings all week of an unfortunate situation that a family of ten from Africa would be coming in practically needing a miracle from us. What I hadn’t known is that all the financial work had practically been done. Owing nearly $10,000 wasn’t the hard part, but ensuring future sustainability was the golden ticket to staying in their home, a place that is more important to them than I could have ever imagined. This case is a profound example of the importance of prevention in this work to avoid homelessness.

This client came to the U.S. many years ago. Their family reunited with them four years ago in an amazing effort on behalf of their community and public officials in Vermont. I met with my client, a radiant individual, and a family friend at the COTS Housing Resource Center. Full of positivity, energy, and appreciation, I could hardly tell they were sick. Their diagnosis of terminal cancer gave them 6 months to live, 3 years ago. This client defied all odds and stayed strong, remaining the family’s primary financial supporter, until it wasn’t possible anymore. That is when they fell behind on their rent, their bills, and were quickly on track to losing their housing at such a vulnerable time.

The family’s community rose to the occasion. During a time this past winter when their heat stopped working and their pipes froze, a flood resulted. A local firefighter saw the state they were living in and organized the community, advocating for thousands of dollars from community members to help with rent.

This was a wonderful plan on behalf of the community, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough money to pay their back rent from any other source for the most part other than these community funds. This meant that there would be no money for their rent moving forward and the family would be right back in the same place needing help in a matter of months. This was where I came in as the COTS Housing Resource Specialist.

I worked along with a family case manager at COTS, Christina Thompson, to figure out a plan. The case was so significant that there was no alternative other than to defy the odds and try to do the impossible, which was to get this family a voucher and then use the funds to pay off their astronomical arrears. We also needed to bring significantly more income into the household as all eight children were still in the K-12 school system. How did we do it? We worked extra hours, communicated often and transparently to their landlord, and collaborated with all necessary organizations and agencies to build a powerful team of support that couldn’t be ignored.

To our amazement, upon a home visit with Housing Retention Specialist Mike Ohler and me, Burlington Housing Authority offered this family a section 8 subsidy in one month’s time, something that usually takes 7-8 years. Feeding off of the inspiration he received during his visit to their home, Mike remained a powerful advocate for them. We came to realize that even this Burlington Housing voucher wasn’t enough to prevent homelessness for this family. In order to use the voucher, they would need to move to the Burlington area. One, finding 4-5 bedroom apartments in the Burlington area on the first floor is close to impossible. And two, given our client’s condition, even if an apartment could be found in time, moving was not a possibility. We needed a Vermont State Housing Authority Section 8 voucher (also takes many years) or a Vermont Rental Subsidy. The more we advocated the more we realized that the Vermont Rental Subsidy was our only option to keep them in their home.

In the meantime the family was approved for nearly $1000 in Reach Up benefits and $1300 in food stamps each month, making the world of difference for them. They could now put food on the table and live as normally as one could in the circumstances. I received word yesterday that the client and his family were approved for the Vermont Rental Subsidy, with the help of many people advocating in the state of Vermont for this family, and his back rent can now be paid out of the fund. They can now afford their apartment moving forward and will be on a special preference list for a permanent voucher that they can use in their current home.

They are using this opportunity to renovate an uninhabitable bedroom that the landlord has agreed to do with the help of a longtime friend of the Client’s. Two of the children just graduated high school and were the firsts to do so in the family. All 8 children were on honor roll this past semester. Multiple household members are getting their licenses and one has started to apply for jobs (two already work part time when they are not in school). The crazy part is that I know that they will not need this subsidy and the benefits for long. This is a family that has tremendous dreams and aspirations and will go incredibly far. I am happy to have been a part of their lives for this brief moment and to have worked along with many dedicated individuals to make this happen.

VHCB AmeriCorps is a program of the
Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.

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