Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
Melinda Rogers is excited about her upcoming graduation from Oklahoma City Community College. She’s jumped a lot of hurdles to get there. Melinda and her sisters spent most of their childhood in foster care. “One of the hardest things about being in foster care is that when you turn 18, you really don’t have anybody. I’m on my own.” For someone who grew up in DHS custody, Melinda is considered a success. Unlike most foster kids, Melinda finished high school and went to college. She’s never been to jail. She isn’t an addict. But the simple task of finding and maintaining a home is one of the toughest challenges Melinda has faced.
Melinda was 20 when she met Rod. She got pregnant. They got married in his mom’s living room a month later. Things looked pretty good for a while, then the company he worked for closed its doors. Rod looked hard for another job but couldn’t find one that would support his family. He and a cousin went to Cleveland to work on a construction job. He was pulled over for speeding. His Oklahoma license was expired and he couldn’t make bail so he spent over a week in the county lockup. He lost his job.
Meanwhile, Melinda struggled to make ends meet. She applied for Section 8 housing assistance, a voucher program that the federal government identifies as its major program for “assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.” Melinda was approved for a housing voucher that paid all but $65/month on a two-bedroom apartment in a run-down complex on OKC’s far northwest side.
Melinda’s older sister asked if she could move in. Melinda said yes. After all, she had spent months on her sister’s sofa when she was homeless and she could also use help with the baby and the bills.
In 2001 the U.S. Housing Act was amended to include a stipulation that drug-related or violent criminal activity is grounds for eviction from Section 8 or public housing. That rule was soon to cause Melinda to lose her home.
Melinda received an eviction notice from the OKC Housing Authority (OCHA). She couldn’t understand why because she’d always paid her rent on time and caused no trouble. Finally she learned the truth: Melinda’s sister had used her name when she was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine.
She contested the eviction. She presented evidence that her sister had illegally used her identification. She showed a copy of her own clean arrest record. OCHA responded that having her sister in the apartment constituted fraud and said the law required that she give up her apartment due to the drug charges. She was given two weeks to vacate the apartment.
Melinda was frantic with worry that DHS would seize her daughter because she had nowhere to live. She swallowed her pride and begged her in-laws for a place to stay. Eventually she rented a room from a family friend. She managed to pull together money for an apartment but one landlord after another turned her down because of her eviction. The baby’s crying and clutter disturbed the lady they were living with and soon Melinda was homeless again. “We couch-surfed with first one friend and then another. We stayed in a motel for a while. I sent the baby to her dad and slept in my car for weeks. It was horrible.”
She landed at OKC’s City Rescue Mission. A social worker explained that she could regain Section 8 eligibility after three years. She spent several months in the homeless shelter until OCHA provided another housing voucher. Melinda and her daughter moved into a neat duplex apartment.
Melinda grosses about $230/week from her minimum-wage retail job. She receives food stamps plus daycare assistance and Medicaid for her daughter. Rod pays child support but all money goes straight to DHS, not to Melinda. Rod takes care of his daughter when Melinda has to work at night and on weekends. “He’s a good dad.”
“What I want more than anything is to be independent, to not have to ask for government help,” Melinda says. She hopes that her Associates degree in Business Management will help her earn a livable wage. So far all she has been offered is a management position at the big-box store where she works now. “It’s not a lot more money and the hours are rotten but it includes benefits and a chance for promotion so I’ll take it unless something better comes along,” she says.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that someone making minimum wage would need to work 73 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at $685/month in Oklahoma City. Without Section 8, Melinda would need to earn at least $2,285 a month to afford rent and utilities, food, transportation and other expenses.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lost the Section 8 voucher again,” she said. “We’d be homeless in a heartbeat.”