How Housing Choice Vouchers Saved My Family

In 2011, I was homeless and addicted to methamphetamines. That year, I found out that my girlfriend of 10 years, Amy, was pregnant with our son, Marley. We went to Jelani House, a rehabilitation program, to try to prepare for our son’s arrival. But when we showed up, the shelter wouldn’t let me bring my service dog inside. Instead, I had to stay on the street and try to get clean alone while taking care of our dogs, and Amy and I split up.

I was on the street when Marley was born. With help from the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), I was housed in a hotel in the Tenderloin. The deal was that I would stay clean and they would help me obtain housing. About the same week that Amy was getting out of transitional housing and I was timing out of my HOT team room, I was given a room at a place called the Vincent Hotel. I was furious because the Vincent Hotel meant staying next door to people using drugs; I had about a year clean at the time.

Marley, Amy and I moved into the Knox Hotel, which was a much better place than the Vincent, but alas, there was drug use all around us. We maintained a clean and sober lifestyle, but we were completely distraught about what we were going to do about permanent housing. I couldn’t work because of my disability, and Amy had a job cleaning SRO hotels, so we could not afford any kind of reasonable living situation. Cohabitating with no space with my ex-girlfriend Amy and our son had us so stressed out and at each other’s throats a lot of the time, even though we really wanted to co-parent successfully.

By that time, Marley was in kindergarten and was starting to meet other kids, realizing that his situation was different from the other kids at school. One day he said to me, “Daddy, I’m not like normal children, am I?”

He said all the other kids don’t live in little rooms with their parents with bed bugs and roaches. Honestly, my heart broke right then and there! We were dealing with a horrible manager who couldn’t stand us and didn’t treat us with any respect. That, plus having to deal with our neighbors, made our home feel like a horrible place. We had to worry about sex offenders living in the same building as our child, whom we wanted so much to protect. 

Exasperated, I went to the HOT team for help and advice. It must have been fate, because my old case manager told me I should go talk to Miguel at the Coalition of Homelessness. Coincidentally, Miguel had just found out about something for families living in SRO hotels called housing choice vouchers. There were only three vouchers, I think—one for a place in Chinatown and two in South of Market. That fateful day, our lives changed. I can’t explain to you how much confidence getting this two bedroom townhouse in Parkmerced has given us. It was the first place we called once our Section 8 was approved.

Amy and I have managed to be the best co-parents I or anyone I know has ever known. She has her bedroom now, and Marley and I share a room. Having our own space has been monumental for our ability to raise our child and become best friends in the best interest of Marley. Our relationship was rocky, we argued often before we moved into Parkmerced. The stability we have now has meant we never fight, never argue. We always do everything in Marley’s best interest. I honestly don’t think we would have ever figured it out at the Knox, and I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened if we couldn’t both be with our child 24/7.

Not only did this enable me to stay in San Francisco—living only on the money from disability and Amy’s minimum-wage job—which means I can keep my doctors whom I trust and have a very wonderful relationship with, but it also allows us to have a real place to prepare healthy meals. Since I have health issues such as diabetes and hypertension, I really need a kitchen. It’s very important for me to have space to store items that I bought in bulk, so we can afford the expensive cost of living in San Francisco. 

Having a table to eat at instead of sitting on the bottom bunk, like we had to in the SRO, the space to play board games, a place just for my medications, and a place to have houseplants, which calm my PTSD and anxiety, have all contributed to my healing and helped my beautiful son grow into a kind, compassionate, empathetic guy.

In our current situation, we have been able to climb out of debt. We both have credit scores that are better than we could ever have thought possible. None of this could have been accomplished living in an 8-foot by 10-foot room, akin to a jail cell—that’s about the same size as our kitchen is now! I can sleep soundly now that I don’t have to worry about roaches crawling into the CPAP machine that helps manage my sleep apnea. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is everyone deserves a home—especially children. Broken families can come together and heal the traumas of our childhoods and not inflict them on our children. All of this has been possible thanks to the housing choice program.