Profile: Falling through the cracks

Published April 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 4

by Tom deMers

In an unpredictable world, Carl and Alex find consistency and a decent life in public housing.

For most people public housing is an unexpected bend in the road that leads to a place they never anticipated, perhaps never knew existed. The gratitude they feel for such a place can be huge.

It might be the gradual onset of diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), or severe depression that brings them to Pineview, a public housing facility in Boulder.*  All these are severely debilitating and require continuous medical supervision and drug therapy over an extended period. Or it might be an economic downturn with high unemployment, failing banks and foreclosures.

Or the problem might literally occur overnight.

Carl is tall and broad-shouldered. Seeing him at an earlier time, you might suppose him to be a carpenter. You’d be right. Carl worked in Alaska framing HUD homes for Native Americans. The Indians fished for a living. Carl said their interest in White carpenters consisted solely of knowing when the houses would be ready to inhabit.

After the isolation, there was the rain. The crew worked in a constant downpour. Many men caught colds. When a patch of blue appeared in the sky, Carl said, all work stopped. Everyone stared skyward in awe, as if angels might dance through that hole in the cloud cover. Sleep was impossible, with many sick men coughing and snoring in a confined space. The only relief from the damp and isolation was an infrequent trip to town where you could spend your paycheck on expensive diversions.

Back home in the lower 48, Carl got out of bed one morning and fell on the floor. His legs didn’t work and his vision was like a cracked mirror. After three days, when nothing improved, he went to a doctor who told him he’d had a stroke. He was sent to a rehab hospital. There his right eye improved. However, the optical nerve of his left eye was permanently damaged. In that eye he sees multiple images. Lights glare and refract over-brightly. So Carl wears a patch over his left eye to prevent the visual confusion. When initially discharged from the hospital, Carl received $135 per month as he waited for Social Security to qualify him. He was forced to sell his house into a bad market and in short order found himself almost completely broke.

Today, Carl is a big man in a small apartment with neighbors on either side whom he considers crazy. One of them screams at him for pumping methane into her apartment. The other is a day sleeper who rages angrily when Carl plays his music. The rough look of Carl with his eye patch might lead you to expect Carl himself to be angry, but apart from a workingman’s gruffness, Carl is gentle rather than angry. He is puzzled about the turn his life has taken, how from a life earning more than $20 an hour he now lives on a monthly Social Security check of $567, how from a powerful and physically active man he’s become someone who walks with a cane and can’t see well. Carl is totally grateful to be where he is.

Most fully able White Americans live with a certain sense of immortality, with the assurance that “this can’t happen to me.” That is a comfortable illusion.

Alex is another man who worked with his hands. One winter night his truck was sideswiped on an icy mountain road close to home. It rolled down a steep embankment and slammed to a stop against a big tree. The cab was crushed against the left side of Alex’s skull. He spent a freezing night pinned against the tree. The next morning his dog, also bloodied in the accident, led neighbors to his rescue. Alex told me a world-class surgeon joined the two halves of his cranium and repositioned his eye and socket to a place nearly opposite his other eye. In the process, parts of his brain were removed. This left Alex with total amnesia, unable to remember his name, his hometown or who his parents were. He traveled to his hometown to meet his mom. On her mantle he saw trophies that bore his name. He learned he’d been a wrestler in high school. He began to fill in the blanks about himself.

Alex’s story came to light in a conversation we had in my office. Coworkers at the main office had asked me to speak to Alex about his behavior. According to them, Alex had gotten loud and abusive over the matter of a late rent fee charged to him. Some of the women in the office felt threatened.

At the end of our talk, as Alex finished the story of his hometown visit, his voice grew soft. In stressful situations, he explained, especially when people spoke faster than his mind could process, Alex had a tendency to panic. He would raise his voice in order to be understood and said he’d upset people before as he was trying to be heard. He was genuinely sorry to have been abusive. Instead of rude, he was a man grieving the loss of his life.

Confusion, bitterness, physical pain, loss of self-respect and the acceptance of oneself as a disabled person are new elements in the lives of each of these men. It is a combination that easily leads to victimization and a sense of powerlessness, especially if you have a working class ethic of self-sufficiency. It’s in this context that I understand the inscribed key chain I found in the parking lot: “I need more money and power and less shit from you people.”

Layered above the residents of public housing are “you people,” the mass of public officials from the president and Congress through HUD officialdom, on down to local housing administrators, maintenance men and managers like me who pass out the rules and govern the details of existence. And parallel to HUD is the bureaucracy of Social Security that people must deal with for financial assistance.

The tendency to feel victimized increases proportionately with the thickness of that cloud cover, and the response to feeling like a victim can vary widely. Occasionally, notices around the building are torn down or defaced. Sometimes my name is circled with an arrow pointing to the word “asshole.” One lady in particular, the victim of a nasty car wreck, usually mutters, “Here comes our fearless leader” when I approach. It’s important for me not to take these things personally and remember that I am the most visible target for their frustrations.

Carl and Alex both came into Pineview at our minimum rent of $50. Both later qualified for SSDI, Social Security Disability Insurance. Established in 1956, this program paid an average monthly benefit of $1064 in January 2010, and covered about 8.5 million Americans under age 65 in 2008, the last year for which comprehensive statistical data was available. Social Security benefits plus HUD subsidized housing make a decent life possible for Alex and Carl and most everyone at Pineview. It’s not Easy Street, but Francis voiced the gratitude of many when he quipped, “I don’t know where heaven is, but we got the same zip code.”


This article is taken from the unpublished book, “Living in the HUD, the Amazing and Perilous Lives of People in Public Housing” (2007). Tom deMers lives in Longmont, Colo.

*Because of privacy and HIPPA requirements, names and places have been changed in this story to protect residents and confidentiality.