I first met Carly back in 2008 when, together with my colleague Maureen Norton-Hawk, I launched a long-term project following the life experiences of criminalized women. Younger than most of the women we were meeting at homeless shelters and women’s centers around Boston, Carly recently had been released from prison on a drug dealing charge. This was her first and only arrest and she herself had never used hard drugs. “I just smoke weed,” she told me, “because it helps me deal with my emotions from abuse.”
In the wake of childhood sexual abuse Carly had been removed from her family, spent a few good years in foster care and then three not-so-good years in a juvenile residential treatment center which she left the day she turned eighteen. “I regret it now,” Carly murmured, “but at the time I didn’t know what it is to be homeless.”
Two years at homeless shelters and on the streets, then a year in state prison followed by a return to the shelters left Carly with single-minded determination to get an apartment of her own. Life at Long Island Shelter (which has since been closed; see Outcast Island) helped her keep her eye on the prize and her name on every housing waiting list in the Boston area.
Carly’s First Apartment
In 2014 Carly finally got an apartment subsidized through a Section VIII government voucher provided by the non-profit agency Home Start. From the outside the building looked nice enough, but inside the stairwell was disintegrating. For $1150 / month, Carly moved into an apartment in which daily sweeping was insufficient to keep up with the mice droppings on the floors or the piles of sawdust created by some sort of wood-chomping insect. Each time I visited her, I could see the mold growing on more places in the walls. In some places, the mold actually seemed to be holding the wall up.
Complicating matters, the apartment was officially a one-bedroom but actually had another half bedroom. While for some people this would be a bonus, that was not the case for Carly. She explained, “I am too generous and can’t say no to people. I’ve been there and know what it’s like not to have a home. So I let people stay with me and then I get hurt.” For a while she let a man she knew stay in the half room. He “made trouble – brought drugs into the apartment,” and when she told him to leave, finally locking him out, he kicked the door down. “I’m lucky I wasn’t evicted.” Then she let a young woman she met at her church stay with her. “But she wasn’t a true Christian. She kept saying she’d help pay the bills but never did. Then she stole from me.” It took Carly almost six months to persuade the young woman to move out.
Yet with all of this going on, Carly found that having a home allowed her the stability to finish her GED, complete a training program to be a nurse’s aid, and look into possibilities for further education in nursing.
A Turn for the Worse
In December of 2015, I visited Carly at the maternity triage department of one of the local hospitals. Embarrassed, she told me that she had the misfortune to become pregnant the one time she “slipped” from her Christian vow of pre-marital chastity. When she first learned she was pregnant, Carly recalled, she did not want to go ahead with the pregnancy. Single, unemployed and living in a horrid apartment, she did not feel that she was in a position to raise a child. And, she explained, she was afraid that she would be shunned by her church for the unmarried pregnancy. But after a visit to the Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices where “a woman prayed and talked with me,” she decided to keep the baby.
A quick look at the organization’s website confirmed my suspicion that “Choices” may be a bit misleading. This organization does not perform or give referrals for abortions and strongly encourages women considering abortion to have an ultrasound “to determine viability” before going ahead with the abortion. Co-opting the rhetoric of choice, this organization – like many others of its kind – have been described as “the darlings of the pro-life movement,” dedicated to helping women “choose” to go on with pregnancies.
That day in December, like many other days throughout the late fall and early winter months, Carly was in the hospital while the doctors and nurses tried to get her asthma under control. The problem she explained, is that the asthma is triggered by the living conditions in her apartment. “The landlord is a slumlord,” Carly told me. “He will not fix anything.”
Complicating matters further, Carly’s blood pressure was high and the doctors were concerned that she may have pre-eclampsia, a potentially fatal condition for pregnant women. Carly had struggled with obesity for much of her life. In the year before becoming pregnant, she succeeded at losing a great deal of weight, but pregnant, she had become bigger than ever before.
Now eligible for a $1500 Section VIII voucher for a two bedroom apartment for the baby and herself, she could not find a place for the price allowed by Section VIII. And when she occasionally did spot a listing that fell within the allowed rent, she found that landlords often do not want Section VIII tenants. (See “Poor and Homeless Face Discrimination Under America’s Flawed Housing Voucher System“.)
Carly had made about a hundred calls both in Boston and in the furthest suburbs and hadn’t even made it to the stage of actually looking at an apartment. But she had not lost hope: “God doesn’t turn his back on me.” In the meantime, she continued commuting between the roach-haven and the hospital.
A New Home (For Now)
As it turned out, Carly was right to remain hopeful. In mid February she landed a lovely two bedroom apartment (albeit in the one neighborhood she wished to avoid – Dorchester, where she’d spent her drug dealing younger days).
This is how the apartment came about: Among the dozens of people with whom Carly networked in her apartment search she met a real estate agent who knew another agent, and the two of them made it their mission to find her a place. Since real estate agents often present barriers to apartment-seekers with Section VIII vouchers, this was quite exceptional.
“They really helped. They even are splitting the agent’s fee [one month’s rent].” For many Section VIII apartment-seekers the agent’s fee presents an insurmountable barrier to rental. This time, for reasons that we could not ascertain, Home Start was able to pay the fee for Carly. There was, however, one hitch. The monthly rent for the new apartment is $34 / month above the amount permitted by the voucher. Carly told Home Start that she’d pay the difference, but they told her that is not allowed. (For more on bureaucratic hurdles see Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social “Services”.)
The way it finally worked out is that the Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices offered to pay the difference for the first year (Carly does not know what will happen after that one year). She does not know why, but this plan was acceptable to all parties and she should be moving into her apartment next week.
For Carly, the lesson learned is that everything worked out “because I chose life. God is good.”
For me, the lesson isn’t so straightforward. Carly remains precariously housed in an apartment she may be able to keep for only one year. She still lives in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Boston, a neighborhood with particularly high rates of elevated lead levels and of asthma hospitalization rates for children under five. She will be raising a child by herself with no financial support other than welfare and food stamps. Her career momentum is on permanent hold. And, if past track records with similar “pregnancy choice” organizations hold true, Carly is not going to be able to count on her pregnancy-support network for substantial help with the daily grind of single-parenting.
For more on housing see Health is Where the Home Is