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'It’s very dehumanizing': Community members face barriers to public housing access

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Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock and Unsplash.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.

In March, Reginald Thomas joined the waitlist for the Inter-Faith Council Community House, a 24-hour transitional shelter for men experiencing homelessness. Six months later, he is still unhoused and couch-surfing while he waits for one of the 52 beds in the shelter.

Thomas, 55, said he just wants to stay at the shelter long enough to “clean up and get a job,” to then be able to qualify for more permanent public housing. But, he is one of hundreds on the waitlist for the Community House and said he has not received any notice about his position on the waitlist.

“The only road to housing here is through a shelter,” he said. “Everybody that has a house now has been through the shelter.”

The Community House prioritizes individuals on the waitlist based on vulnerability factors, such as length of time unhoused and exposure to domestic violence.

Rachel Waltz, the manager for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, said Orange County's housing helpline can offer direction for any level of housing crisis, from falling behind on rent to experiencing homelessness.

Because there is no same-day shelter in Orange County and the Community House has limited space, Orange County attempts to divert people to alternative housing resources through the housing helpline before they sign up for the Community House waitlist.

Diversion could be connecting someone with an eviction diversion program, or having them ask family and friends for a temporary place to stay.

“Our system is really set up so that nobody should be waiting for shelter with no other plan in place,” Waltz said. “The goal for folks is really to have as many irons in the fire as possible.”

Of 600 families that call the housing helpline each month, Waltz said less than 20 percent of them will go through what is called "coordinated entry" into a shelter.

The Durham Housing Authority also does not provide emergency shelter access, but Durham County has several temporary shelters.

After joining the waitlist at the Community House, Thomas stayed at the Durham Rescue Mission, which is Durham County’s largest long-term shelter. He stayed there for about a week over the summer before choosing to leave.

For Thomas, housing insecurity has led to a strain on his mental health. He said he has admitted himself to the hospital multiple times due to suicidal thoughts, only to be discharged the next day with nowhere to go.

Thomas described his mental health as “uncontrollable,” a contrast from the years during which he lived in an apartment.

“You have thoughts you don’t want to live because you don’t want to go through this,” he said.

Nancy Watkins, 72, said she has moved within Chapel Hill several times in the past 13 years as she struggles to find affordable and safe housing. She said there are long waitlists for Chapel Hill’s public housing.

“It’s very dehumanizing,” Watkins said.

Watkins said her annual income is $16,500, which is below 30 percent of the Orange County area median income. She has a legal disability and is unable to work for a living, so her income is tied to her receipt of federal benefits.

While she does not make enough money to qualify for privately owned affordable housing, she is eligible for public housing. Public housing is for those who make less than 30 percent of the area's median income and is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Watkins applied for public housing in 2022 and is still on the waitlist.

“I am not holding my breath for a public housing apartment,” Watkins said in an email.

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Chapel Hill’s Public Housing Director Faith Brodie said there are long waitlists for Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s 296 public housing apartment units, and people could be on waitlists for two to three years.

Residents are selected from the waitlist based on preference factors, which include those who are working, elderly, disabled, veterans or unhoused.

“Our list is very long because we have such a small portfolio,” Brodie said.

There are 201 people currently on the waitlist for public housing in Chapel Hill, and Brodie said there is an average of five vacancies per year. The highest demand is for one- and two-bedroom units.

When someone is selected from the waitlist, they are shown the vacant apartment and have up to three refusals before they are placed at the end of the waitlist. Applicants do not get to choose what neighborhood they live in.

“Because you’re poor, you have no choice,” Watkins said.

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