Press Release: Housing vouchers identifying mental health agency may lead to further discrimination, among other concerns
Quotes from residents:
“Why put a Mental Health program and a Mental Health Housing Voucher in play among the unhoused citizens who are’t mentally ill. Surely Colorado has mentally ill unhoused people among the unhoused. The housing voucher is valued at $1585 dollars and me and my peers should not be part of any such program. It’s obvious that the motive taken was to cover some money taken or to be taken. Someone please explain to me why St Francis Center, Well Power, the State Department of housing, and a City Official they say is the Mayor allow this. If he wanted to get some unhoused off the streets, the Mayor wouldn’t need a scheme or program. Just Do it!” – Jacque Findley
“St Francis a case manager says he assesses me and my peers for Mental Health Program and this Mental Health Housing Voucher says: Faud, Felony, Imprisonment. How could me and my peers here at St Francis Residence sign off on this lie that entraps us and cause us great duress telling us if we don’t sign off on this voucher our credit will be bad and we won’t be able to obtain housing in Colorado and they will evict us. So many Threats.” – Resident
At the March 2023 quarterly Homeless Advisory Meeting hosted by the City of Denver, Jacque Findley addressed the Office of Housing and Stability (HOST) with concerns that her and her peers at the Warren Residences program had regarding their long-awaited housing vouchers. Upon receiving these vouchers, she realized that they named “Mental Health Center of Denver” as the agency through which these vouchers were received.
Upon speaking further with Jacque, she expressed concerns that these vouchers were specifically meant for those with mental health issues, and that she and her peers, who had never been treated nor diagnosed for such, were receiving these vouchers under the threat of being evicted from their current program if they did not use them.
Several concerns surfaced.
- What happens after program participants are expected to accept the label of mental health status in order to continue receiving shelter and resources?
- Is money specifically allocated for those with mental health issues being misappropriated to a different population?
- Is the houseless community automatically being assigned this label due to their socioeconomic hardship?
- Are these voucher recipients about to face a whole new level of discrimination, simply because the agency awarding the vouchers was printed on the front page?
- Will those who do have mental health issues, both apparent and not, face a disproportionate amount of discrimination from private landlords when they try to use these vouchers?
Jacque’s concerns are not unfounded. There are larger implications to this practice.
- Houseless individuals are often forced into different qualifying boxes in order to be able to access resources, including applying for housing opportunities. This further complicates and lengthens the process, ultimately excluding many as a means of managing very limited quantities of housing. In the words of Paul Boden from Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) in HAND’s recently released Housing Report Pipe Dreams & Picket Fences: Directions from Denver’s Houseless People on Housing Needs and Priorities in the Context of Today’s Public Housing,
Instead of denying people for housing, they set up systems of intake and screening designed to maximize the number of people deemed ineligible for service so as to not admit to the fact that there isn’t anywhere near the adequate slots for housing, or treatment, or even emergency shelter at this point. When you don’t have the capacity to meet the demand, you make it harder to become eligible. In that way you’re not just telling people to ‘fuck off’, they ‘didn’t qualify’ for the ‘benevolent’ services you’re offering. ‘We don’t have to increase demand, they’re just not eligible’. The harder and more expensive it is to serve the population, the more stringent the intake requirements. (Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences, page 42)
Furthermore, individuals are unsure of the long-term effects of accepting an identity that they do not prescribe to, or even formally accepting one that they do belong to, wondering how this could limit them down the line. To demand that people accept such under threat of dismissal from the program is strong-arming them into a box they do not feel comfortable in.
- This speaks to a larger issue of program staff not properly/thoroughly explaining the process to voucher recipients. Concerns of misappropriation of federal funds meant for mental health arise when the voucher funding process isn’t clear. According to Pipe Dreams & Picket Fences, out of 786 houseless respondents, less than 50% knew what a housing voucher was and how it worked (Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences, page 76). With such a gap in education of housing vouchers despite being lauded as the primary pathway to housing today, more needs to be done to increase transparency around this process.
- While the duress and oppression faced by houseless people can over time affect one’s mental health, automatically classifying this demographic as a whole as inherently mentally ill is problematic in its own right. If this were the case, wouldn’t poor or low-income people also be categorized as such? What does it mean when we interchange houseless, and all members of its population, with mentally ill?
- When one of Jacque’s peers attempted to use the housing voucher at a Cornerstone property, as program staff had recommended, the property manager gave excuses as to why they would not accept it without outright stating so. Pipe Dreams & Picket Fences revealed “landlord discrimination” as the top reason for why respondents would not prefer a housing voucher over an actually affordable housing unit (Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences, page 82). In another excerpt from the Housing Report,
One study found that voucher holders needed to screen 39 apartment advertisements to find one potentially eligible unit. From there, many landlords of these potentially eligible units denied accepting vouchers outright or applied conditions to their acceptance (Cunningham, et al., 2018).(Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences, page 87)
This can have significant effects on the success rate of vouchers. By being dependent on acceptance by a landlord in the private market, receiving a voucher will not equate to receiving housing for most recipients as is. The following figure depicts their low success rate based on data from 2021:
(Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences, page 89)
In order to belong to the 8% of voucher recipients who were able to attain housing after their
names were pulled in the voucher lottery (an even more abysmal 0.4% chance out of the 19,918 households who had applied for a housing voucher that year), one must beat the odds and surpass insurmountable barriers in their path. The effects of then having the agency “Mental Health Center of Denver” printed on the very first page of a voucher will surely not do these individuals any favors given the additional prejudice and discrimination faced by those who are mentally ill.
- This leads to the final concern herein named – if neurotypical individuals without severe mental illness will be facing additional barriers when attempting to use these vouchers, one can only imagine the effects this would have on those who are already battling mental illness. It seems irresponsible and inappropriate for any mention of mental health needs to be listed on a housing voucher and becoming information shared with landlords. This is not only unnecessary, but also a violation of privacy and health information for those who do receive services through a mental health program. It should not be another factor weighed in landlords’ decisions, and could be easily removed from the documentation so they are indistinguishable from any other housing vouchers issued by the state.
When processes relating to housing access for those without housing are not done under the direct leadership and involvement of those who are experiencing houselessness, then it opens the door for unexpected obstacles and barriers that render these processes ineffective. The State who issued these vouchers, and all elected officials and programs involved in perpetuating this discriminatory system should be held accountable for the effects felt by these vulnerable populations. Houseless people should not be forced to be categorized as “mentally ill” in order to receive housing.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org 701-484-2634
Housekeys Action Network Denver
Towards rights, dignity, housing…