Story of Hope – Sick and Tired No More!

Posted on February 23, 2010

At the age of 23, Lisa Spencer* found herself with no place to go, walking the streets of Richmond in search of shelter.

Spencer was experiencing homelessness as a mother of four, with her fifth child on the way. Along with her children, Spencer was caring for her teenage brother and sister as their mother’s passing had left them all on the streets.

“You could say that all the homelessness really came from my mom passing away,” said Spencer, “It was like, see my brother and sister homeless or take them in.”

As many local shelters are unable to keep families with male teenagers intact, Spencer was on a never-ending mission to find a place for her children and her brother to sleep.

“It’s hard trying to knock on somebody’s door and say ‘Can we stay with you tonight’ with 4 kids, let alone a 16 year old,” said Spencer, “That was like the biggest struggle … I would rather sleep outside with my children then to see my brother outside alone.”

After two years of moving from shelter to shelter, Spencer finally got a break. Her older sister allowed her and her five children to come and stay at her home in Florida. Spencer’s two teenage siblings were able to find homes in Richmond and care for themselves.

Spencer seized the opportunity to move to Florida with her sister and rebuild her life. That opportunity turned out to be short-lived. At 26, Lisa Spencer was diagnosed with Stage 2 cervical cancer.

“That just brought me back down to zero. Anything I ever had hoped for … just flashed before me and I thought ‘oh, I’m about to die’,” said Spencer, “My mom and my father both died from cancer, so I was really scared.”

In hopes of receiving treatment at VCU Medical Center, Spencer returned to Richmond with her children. She found temporary housing with a friend and was able to get her children back into the public school system. Spencer heard about Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) from a guidance counselor at her children’s’ school and contacted VSH immediately.

VSH was able to assist Spencer using the new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing (HPRP) funds awarded through the stimulus package. HRPR funds paid the family’s security deposit, utility deposits, and helped with a rental subsidy for the first three months. Housing staff evaluated her situation and helped her figure out the best location for her family to live and a landlord who would rent to her despite her recent rental history.  Additionally, housing staff worked with the school systems to allow her children to remain in their home school (Henrico County) through the end of the school year.

Spencer completed her final cancer treatment two weeks before Christmas 2009.

Although Spencer and her children have a rough road ahead of them, it has been made easier by the presence of safe, affordable housing. The family will be reevaluated for HPRP eligibility and need every three months, and may receive a subsidy for an additional 15 months. This will give her enough time to heal and secure employment to sustain her housing once the subsidy ends.

“I can’t thank the staff at Virginia Supportive Housing enough,” said Spencer, “… the kids come home from school and they come in the door and say ‘Mom we’re home’.”


*Name was changed to protect program participant’s privacy.

Rethinking the American Dream

Posted on December 1, 2009

For years I have been complaining about the emphasis in this country on homeownership to the detriment of rental housing.  Every neighborhood and community plan I have ever looked at has an increase in homeownership as the top goal and priority.  It’s hard to even find anything in these plans about rental housing, except to make sure it is maintained and doesn’t come tumbling down.

Last month, there was an article in the Washington Post by Charles Lane entitled “Doubling Down on the Wrong Housing Policy” that explores the dangers and consequences of our national obsession with homeownership—namely the current housing crisis. The article argues for a “fundamental change in strategy… a more level playing field between owning and renting.”

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with homeownership.  I’m a homeowner and I like it.  But not everyone can afford to own a home and some people shouldn’t.  When we as a nation put homeownership on a pedestal, renting becomes second class.  When was the last time you heard someone say they don’t want to be a homeowner?  As Mr. Lane says in his article, there is no shame in being a tenant.  People who rent should not be made to feel like second class citizens.  Renting is okay.  More than that, we should stop setting goals for homeownership.  Let’s come up with a housing policy that puts homeownership and renting on an equal footing.

Our goals could be very simple: everyone should have a place to live; everyone should pay what they can afford for where they live; everyone or no one should get a tax break for where they live; and everyone should take care of the place they live to the best of their ability.  I know.  I live in a dream world.  That’s never going to happen.  Well, for the meantime, let’s at least stop calling homeownership the American dream.  Look where that’s gotten us!

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