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Section 8, Zero Tolerance And One Family Pushed To The Brink

Section 8, Zero Tolerance And A Family On The Brink

As zero tolerance falls out of fashion in other sectors, a Clinton-era housing rule remains and puts families at risk of homelessness. Cheryl Canson and her two children know the impact it can have first-hand. Because a family member committed a crime in their home, the entire family lost its Section 8 voucher and now lives in a homeless shelter. Video by Sam Hodgson, Voice of San Diego

Aired 4/18/13 on KPBS News.

As zero tolerance falls out of fashion in other sectors, a Clinton-era housing rule remains and puts families at risk of homelessness.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Cheryl Canson sought a room at the St. Vincent De Paul Village homeless shelter after losing her Section 8 housing voucher. She believed the shelter would be a healthier environment for her children, who have mental illnesses, than staying temporarily with family and friends.

Sitting in a dim, cinder block room, Cheryl Canson tries to look on the bright side.

"We're spending more time together as a family," she said.

Canson and her youngest children, 17-year-old Jafari and 8-year-old Jonah, moved into a room at St. Vincent de Paul Village in March. Each has a twin-sized bed situated like puzzle pieces in the 12-by-12-foot room. Backpacks and suitcases holding their belongings are strewn across scarce floor space.

They're grateful for the shelter and the fresh start, but Canson can't help but feel detached.

"The first night, I had uncontrollable crying," Canson said. "I just couldn't help myself, just tears rolling down my face. It's just another change that I really didn't expect."

Canson and her children lost their home because of a federal zero-tolerance policy for Section 8 tenants. The rule ousts the entire family when one person — even a guest — commits a crime or uses drugs on a property subsidized by public housing assistance.

Canson's 21-year-old son, Jordan, was convicted last year for abusing his infant child in the family's Paradise Hills home, which was covered by Section 8.

The rule, enacted under President Bill Clinton during the so-called "war on drugs," has persisted despite a steady shift away from zero tolerance in law enforcement and schools. Last year, Californians voted to soften the three-strikes law, which doled out heavy sentences for drug-related convictions. Nationally, educators are experiencing an about-face when it comes to suspensions, working to keep children with behavioral problems in class.

But in an era of austerity and political gridlock, any organized efforts in the housing arena have centered on maintaining funding. Affordable housing in the state lost its main revenue stream with the end of redevelopment. San Diego's waiting line for rental assistance stands relatively still with 38,500 households, and more applying every month.

'A Condemnation to Homelessness'

Tenants can try to appeal their termination from Section 8, if they can rise up from what one housing lawyer called "a catastrophic loss."

"If you're in Section 8, you're there because you need help with your rent money," said Joni Halpern, an attorney who's worked with low-income families for 15 years. "You have absolutely no recourse except to be homeless. There's no good solution. It's a condemnation to homelessness. That's what zero tolerance is."

The San Diego Housing Commission oversees the Section 8 program in the city of San Diego and initiated Canson's termination.

Representatives from the commission declined an interview, but said in a statement tenants can go through an appeals process to keep their Section 8 voucher. The federal law gives housing authorities the discretion to consider extenuating circumstances and grant a reprieve.

Indeed, Canson was given the opportunity to have her case reviewed. She said she "didn't have the mental strength" to see the process through. Catherine Bishop, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project, a nonprofit housing advocacy group based in San Francisco, said that's a common reaction.

Cheryl Canson stands outside St. Vincent de Paul Village. She moved to a space in the homeless shelter there with her daughter and son after tensions escalated in her older daughter’s home. The family had moved there after being evicted from Section 8 housing following another son’s arrest.

"You take a family that's under stress and they're trying to focus on what are the most important things for that family at the time and, presumably, she was thinking the most important thing is trying to keep this individual out of jail," Bishop said. "On top of that, you have the problem that, even though there are legal services programs, there's not enough legal services lawyers to handle every case that comes forward."

In San Diego, many of the Section 8 appeal cases are taken up by the Legal Aid Society of San Diego Inc. Bernadette Probus, a Legal Aid lawyer, said tenants appealing a termination related to violent crime face long odds.

Canson said she remembers hearing at the time of her eviction that "surrendering" her voucher instead of going through the appeals process would give her a better chance of re-entering the program in the future. Families terminated under the zero-tolerance policy can seek public housing assistance again after five years.

But the average wait for Section 8 in San Diego is eight to 10 years, and sequestration trimmed the amount of federal dollars available for vouchers next fiscal year, further heightening demand.

That might explain some of the rationale behind placing strict requirements on Section 8 tenants.

"They're looking at it and saying, 'This is an irresponsible person and there are many responsible people on our waiting list,'" Bishop said. "And so they'll say, 'Well let's take the next person and let's presume that next person is going to be more responsible.'

"It does boil down to: There's not enough affordable housing to meet the need," Bishop said. "That's what creates this problem, or certainly exacerbates this problem."

Schizophrenia's Long Shadow

For Canson, losing her Section 8 voucher was the last domino to fall in a wayward track laid by a family history of mental illness. Canson was recently diagnosed with depression. Her mother had schizophrenia and each of her five children has developed the disorder or precursors to it. She said it fueled the violent behavior that landed Jordan in prison.

She's fighting for a different outcome for Jafari and Jonah, but providing a stable environment has been difficult.

"It's very damaging when something happens to one person in the family," Canson said. "It affects the whole family."

Cheryl Canson only recently sought help from a mental health professional for herself. She was diagnosed with depression. Until then, her only solace was attending church each Sunday.

Canson initially tried to stave off homelessness by moving with her kids into a small bedroom in her oldest daughter's Encanto home. The tiny, two-bedroom duplex was cramped and tense. The plumbing backed up and spilled into their room. There wasn't enough food to go around.

And, with mental illness stoking the tension, the situation grew contentious. Jafari was hospitalized three times last year for psychotic episodes. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the fall.

Her diagnosis was ultimately what pushed Canson to seek a room at the homeless shelter.

Their space at St. Vincent's isn't much bigger than their Encanto bedroom, and in many ways, it's more chaotic. But Canson believed it would be a healthier environment for her kids. They have a locking door now and access to on-site mental health professionals.

The Cost to the Community

That kind of support comes with a price tag.

"I think that sometimes what happens is that the entity that's responsible for providing the housing is not looking at this and saying, 'What's the cost to the community that I live in? What’s going to be the cost if, in fact, this individual gets evicted and is homeless?'" Bishop said.

Doug Wagner, a spokesman for Father Joe's Villages, which manages the shelter where Canson lives, said it's difficult to calculate the cost of housing the homeless because some families require more services and time than others.

"If the services are minimal, the cost might be comparable to Section 8," Wagner said. "If it is more involved, then the costs may be higher."

A 2008 family vacation to Big Bear Lake still provides Cheryl Canson some respite, if only in photo form. She carries this picture of her family in happier times between dog-eared pages in her planner. Jafari stands second from the left. Jordan is on the right.

The commission that administers Section 8 vouchers funds some of those beds at Father Joe's. In 2011, it spent $13 million to help reduce homelessness.

Back at their temporary home in St. Vincent's, Jafari and Jonah marvel at a picture of their family standing together — smiling — during a 2008 trip to Big Bear Lake. Jordan's incarceration hit them hard.

"I pray that God watches over my brother and keeps me strong through this hard time I'm going through right now" Jafari said.

"We're in a strange place," Canson said, "but we're not strangers to God. We pray together, we pray together every night."

An earlier version of this story misstated that Joni Halpern is a retired attorney. Halpern is still a practicing attorney. She recently retired from the Supportive Parents Information Network. We regret the error.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | April 10, 2013 at 10:12 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Perhaps if they didn't commit crimes in their taxpayer funded housing, or allow people to commit crimes in their taxpayer funded housing, they would not have this problem.

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Avatar for user 'Really123'

Really123 | April 10, 2013 at 10:42 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Menatl illnes is not an excuse for criminal behavior. What was the extent of abuse on the child? The article explains that the family had an appeal process, and given thier circumstances I imagine had a shot at staying in thier home. So what do you do about the choice they made to not follow the appeal? Where is the personal responsability?

One could say that these disadvantaged people can't cope with the situation, or don't have the resources, or something like that. You know what, neither do I, I miss work-I don't get paid. I make it work and I take care of myslef. They are waiting for someone to take care of them.

I'm sorry this happend, but I can see one point where bad decisions were made. This is the result. Personal accountability has to step in at some point.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | April 10, 2013 at 10:55 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Personal accountability? That is something that most recipients of government assistance know nothing about.

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Avatar for user 'tdsandiego'

tdsandiego | April 10, 2013 at 10:55 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

I had a lady renting my home who had foster children. Not section 8 but close enough in that she receives money from the state to help care for children. Well she got busted for abusing the kids and the foster children were removed and hence a large portion of her income. So then she starts saying she can pay her rent and to give her a break. We told her too bad, maybe you should have actually taken care of the children and not abused them and you would still have the kids plus the money. Eventually she moved out only after she started receiving "renters assistance." Just another person who thinks someone else should pay for her, her lifestyle, and her mistakes.

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Avatar for user 'Anon11'

Anon11 | April 10, 2013 at 11:53 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

This is an obviously contentious issue, but one question burns the front of my brain every time I read stories like this:

Why do people who don't have their own lives together keep having kids?

It's not just selfish, but places a burden on the rest of us who waited (or are waiting) to have a stable, financially secure life before making a conscientious choice to procreate.

I wish children weren't an incentive. I wish the more you had, the more you paid.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | April 10, 2013 at 4:55 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

JeanMarc: "Personal accountability? That is something that most recipients of government assistance know nothing about."

There is no reason to over-generalize and demoize everyone who has ever needed a helping hand, that is an extreme over-reach.

As far as this "zero tolerance" goes - why can't it only apply to the person who committed the crime? I don't feel the whole family should suffer and be kicked out of their home because one member did something stupid. Ban the guy who abused an infant from the housing grounds, but don't penalize the entire family.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | April 11, 2013 at 7:29 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

PDSD, what would you do if the banned person's family allowed him to stay? Should we pay to post guards? Are the other families waiting in line for that limited resource somehow less worthy?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | April 11, 2013 at 10:18 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

@AL ANON, disingenous much?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | April 11, 2013 at 10:21 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

"Cheryl Canson only recently sought help from a mental health professional for herself. She was diagnosed with depression. Until then, her only solace was attending church each Sunday."

Too bad BENZ, CAL OFF and ILK didn't step forward to offer emotional comfort instead of that . . . church.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | April 11, 2013 at 12:47 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

I believe it is within many church's missions to provide emotional comfort. It is not an interest of mine and certainly not my mission. Please feel free to provide it yourself though.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | April 11, 2013 at 12:54 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

I've heard Section 8 provides up to $2,200 a month for rental or mortgage assistance, but I've been unable to locate any actual figures online. The government seems to keep average and maximum figures well hidden.

Anyone have info on this?

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