By Michelle Gahee
Some local parishioners are feeling the effects of recent cuts to the federally funded Section 8 program that helps house low-income tenants. Effects as in, using food money to pay rent.
“Many people are coming to the church asking for help paying their bills,” said Father Mike Ume, assistant pastor at St. Brigid Church in South Los Angeles. “They are taking the money they use to feed their families to pay rent, and now they come to the church asking for food.”
On Feb. 17, for the first time in history, the Housing Authority of Los Angeles suspended 1,500 housing vouchers, citing lack of funds. The move affects people who had received vouchers through the program but who have not yet signed rental contracts. Although this cut does not affect participants already in Section 8 housing, continuing funding problems could leave another 3,600 of these tenants in jeopardy of losing their homes or coming up with the full rental fee.
As a result, within the last few weeks the number of people coming to St. Brigid’s food program for boxes of groceries has doubled, noted Father Ume.
“This is a poor parish, so whenever the government cuts programs we immediately feel the effects,” he said. “People are shifting their budget up and down just to keep a roof over their heads. I’ve even had people asking for gas money to get to their jobs.”
Housing Authority officials say the cuts are the fault of a new Congressional mandate for Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs that clashes with the long-standing local practice of over-issuing vouchers to ensure no voucher goes unused.
In the past, if the vouchers used could not be covered by allotted HUD funds, the local housing authority could tap into reserves or next year’s allocation of voucher funds to cover additional costs. But this year Congress ended the use of reserves to cover additional costs and has not allocated any additional vouchers.
“The housing authority was forced to do this based on HUD directing them to change their rental procedures,” said local housing activist Larry Gross, who heads the Coalition for Economic Survival. “This is the first time HUD is going after existing vouchers. Clearly low-income people are not a priority or concern for the Bush administration.”
It appears that the housing authority was caught off-guard by the success of its Section 8 program since participants have lately been more successful in using the vouchers because more landlords are accepting them.
"For a lot of tenants waiting to get Section 8 vouchers the rug was literally pulled from under them," said Gross. "For some the only option is to move out of L.A. or move onto our streets. The question is how are people going to economically survive with these cuts."
St. Brigid parishioner Delphine Jones, president of the church’s chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, says they are straining their budget trying to help those who need help.
“Lots of people are coming in for help saying they are behind on their bills because they were cut from Section 8 benefits,” said Jones. “We can only do so much. So many are coming in with large overdue bills that we just can’t keep up. We can’t help like we used to.”
Section 8 participants contribute about one-third of their income to pay the monthly rent and the program covers the rest. In Los Angeles 44,000 families depend on the program. And many have no other options if they lose their subsidies.
“If the program is cut, I have no idea how I would manage. If it wasn’t for Section 8 I wouldn’t be able to stay where I am,” said Lillian Brown, a member of St. Brigid Church since 1968. “I guess there is nothing I could do but struggle along that best I could without being put out on the street.”