A recently completed survey finds more than 8,200 families are on the waiting list for Housing Choice Vouchers in Fairfax County. For the 1,500 families waiting who have a member with a physical or sensory disability, reaching the top of the list is only the beginning. Only 4 percent of the 57,236 market rental units in Fairfax have any features for handicap accessibility. Sometimes, as was the case with former Fairfax resident Jane Kachulis, the only way those with disabilities can find affordable and accessible housing is to move.
For those with serious mental illness, the only housing available is institutionalization. “In the 1970s we began to get clear evidence that some people with mental illness are suffering from real causes and are going to need support for a lifetime.,“ said Joel McNair, the president of Pathway Homes - an organization that provides permanent housing services for 267 individuals in the Northern Virginia Area.
Joel McNair said, “The waiting list runs from about 250 to 300, on any given day. ... It doesn’t move quickly. One of the things that distinguishes Pathway Homes is that it provides permanent supportive housing as opposed to transitional housing with its maximum two years ... [which are] revolving doors where people stay for a while and then are put back on their own, and then many end up back in the hospitals.
“If you come in [to Pathway Homes] you can stay a lifetime. The downside is that openings are infrequent and unpredictable. For 24-hours supervised group homes, there’s probably well over 100 people [on the list]. You may get an opening every six years or so ... [there are] people on the list that have been on list since the mid-’80s.”
MARIAN HOMES IS A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION set up by St. Mary of Sorrow’s Knights of Columbus. It runs a group home for five developmentally disabled women in Fairfax Station. “Judy [a Marian Homes resident] went to the Northern Virginia training center for 20 years, and they cared for her 20 years there,” said Judy’s mother, “but her abilities exceeded what the training center could offer, and they felt that she could best served in a group home. ... We were very leery ... but ever since she moved in, we were very happy with what it offered. [When Judy went to the training center] her home was my home. Now she goes back to her home.”
Reston resident Fatima Miller, chairperson of the Coalition for Housing Opportunities In the Community for Everyone (CHOICE), waited on the voucher list for over two years. Though Fairfax’s problems with affordable housing for the physically or sensory disabled are severe, Alexandria’s might be worse.
Alexandria resident Janette Banks lives “post to post,” going from one friend’s house to another, because she cannot find affordable housing for herself and her sons Rahim, 8, and Dazohn, 9 months. Rahim is blind, physically impaired, and often wakes up in the night screaming because of a brain injury. Because of Rahim’s screaming Banks was not taken in by a shelter. When Banks lived in Fairfax, Rahim received in-home therapy. “In therapy they worked [Rahim’s] upper body and legs,“ said Banks. ”He had so many surgeries to make him looser, now he’s almost back to before because he didn’t have the therapy. ... I do everything for him. I carry him around [but] I’m only 5 foot 3, and he is already to my chin. ... The wheelchair he has is too small for him.”
THE WORST CASE Barbara Gilley, chairperson of the Alexandria Commission on Persons with Disabilities, remembers hearing about involved “three people with disabilities living in public-supported housing in Alexandria. Two, who were foster children, were multiply disabled adolescents who had to crawl up and down a set of stairs to get to the bathroom.” After hearing about this, Gilley went to an Alexandria City Council meeting. Eventually two units were taken and renovated for the family.
Jane Kachulis is an Alexandria resident and a member of Alexandria’s Commission on Persons with Disability. Following an injury, she suffered a traumatic brain injury that resulted in partial paralysis. Kachulis’ search for housing began in Fairfax but ended in Alexandria because no affordable and accessible housing was available.
“Man, it was terrible,” said Kachulis. “[Fairfax] had two places that were on the list that would accept Section 8 vouchers. ... I called, and the two places said they had a ground-floor apartment, but they had steps going up and going down. The search in Fairfax lasted five months.” Even when she found a place to live, Kachulis was not trouble-free. “I call it ‘Homicide Central.’ There were three murders within six months [of my moving in]. The last was a 9-year-old, developmentally disabled child who was beaten to death.
“I’m brain-injured, but sometimes looking at the way things are, I wonder if I am the ‘normal’ one, and the rest are the brain-injured.”
Northern Virginia’s difficulties in providing affordable housing intensified during the 1990s as many property owners, because of the booming rents, dropped out of housing-assistance programs. As Gilley said, “Alexandria went through a cycle a few years ago ... [where] apartment complexes in Alexandria opted out of the Section 8 program. ... The increases were substantial, $150 and $200 a month, when you’re living on the edge as it is.”
Perhaps the greatest problem, though, is HUD’s intention to cut down on vouchers in the Northern Virginia area. As Miller said, “A big problem ... is that currently they [people in Fairfax who get vouchers] have eight months to find a place to live ... unfortunately they cant find a person willing to rent ... and after eight months they have to return the voucher. HUD requires that 97 percent of the vouchers should be used; in past years we didn’t use 97 percent, so HUD says we aren’t going to give them to you.”