No room at the inn
Kathy Way feels trapped. Not by the wheelchair that she’s used since a car accident in 1975, but by her housing situation.
Even though she is physically able to live on her own, Way has been in a nursing home for the last three months because there are no affordable housing units available that would accommodate a wheelchair user.
“She doesn’t need to be in that place,” said Dale Downey who, as housing specialist for Independent Living Services of Northern California, has the frustrating task of finding Way an apartment.
The problem is, there are no rentals to find.
“There are no wheel-chair accessible units that she can afford,” said Downey, who also serves on the city of Chico’s Homeless Task Force. “She’s stuck.”
Because the Chico area’s Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are currently used up, Way would have to pay market value for a rental. Way’s monthly income is $800, most of it from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and one-bedroom apartments in Chico are going for more than the $450 a month rent Downey figures Way could afford.
And even if she could snag a voucher (the wait could be one to three years), there are only three wheelchair-accessible units available in public housing in all of Chico.
“Once you’re in a wheelchair unit in Chico, you never move out because there’s nothing here,” said Downey, who feels Way’s situation illustrates a larger social and governmental problem. “We have all of this public housing and none of it’s wheelchair-accessible.”
If there were someplace for Way to live, she could tap a grant intended for people transitioning from skilled nursing facilities to independent living, or another grant that would renovate a market-value apartment and make it wheelchair-accessible, Downey said.
Way’s accident severely damaged her cerebellum and left her with limited motor skills, along with slurred speech. The latter, along with the fact that she speaks loudly, has formed an additional barrier.
When she calls landlords, Way said, “They hang up. They think I’m drunk.”
A troublemaking friend got Way kicked out of her last subsidized apartment, Downey said, and landed her in a group residence in Orland called Orangewood two years ago. When the non-medical side of Orangewood closed down in May, Way was moved to Riverside Convalescent Hospital on Cohasset Road in Chico.
The food’s good, Way said, but that’s about it. She can’t do her own laundry there and, “It’s a bunch of elderly people. My roommate is 80 or 90.”
Way’s stay in the convalescent home costs taxpayers much more than an independent living situation would, Downey said. After turning her government check over to Riverside, she gets $40 a month to live on.
While HUD has suggested Way would have better luck finding housing in Oroville, the 1969 Pleasant Valley High School graduate doesn’t want to leave town, even after her mother’s death this year at 79 left her with no family in Chico.
Downey, who has helped Way for three or four years, feels like her hands are tied and she’s not even sure whom to blame—perhaps the state Legislature.
And Way is just one example. There are many other low-income, disabled people in similar situations. “They’re stuck in those facilities,” Downey said.
Gary Sannar, executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Butte, said HUD funds about 1,800 Section 8 clients, and another 1,800 or so are on the waiting list. The waiting list, he said, has unfortunately been closed to new applicants “for a long, long time.”