For nine months, Shatara Jackson had been enrolled in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program administered through the Housing Authority of Racine County (HARC). Everything had been going well for Jackson and her four-year-old daughter, so she was shocked when she received a letter from HARC stating her housing assistance had been terminated.
Section 8 of the United States Housing Act is a federally funded program that makes housing affordable for low-income families. It typically provides around 2/3 of eligible families' rent. The family pays the other 1/3.
The letter informed Jackson that she owed $218 to HARC for past rent, because she had failed to inform authorities at the housing authority within an arbitrarily imposed 14-day period that she had been receiving unemployment benefits.
However, Jackson had informed her HARC case worker in December that she was receiving unemployment, and the case worker told her to come in to the office and fill out some paperwork "whenever you have the chance."
Jackson wasn't aware of the 14-day period and was not told about it by the case worker but it should not have mattered: Under federal regulations, HARC did not have the authority to terminate her benefits. Sadly though, Jackson didn't know that. She was faced with a scenario that many low-income people face: a bureaucracy imposing arbitrary policy decisions on those who are supposed to be served.
"I really didn't know what to do, so I picked up the phone, talking to anyone who would care to listen. From Madison to Chicago, I called around and people sent me somewhere else. It was devastating to go through this, not knowing if I was going to find somebody to help me," says Jackson.
"Finally, someone directed me to Lee Todd at Legal Action," says Jackson.
Attorney Todd interviewed Jackson, met with Jackson's caseworker at HARC, and began what became a very long process to reinstate her housing assistance and clear her name. "He actually cared enough to listen to what I had to say. He told me what he thought about my situation and was a lot of help from the start," says Jackson.
In the meantime, however, authorities at HARC maintained their decision to terminate Jackson's benefits. While Legal Action appealed the HARC's decision, Jackson paid as much as she could on her rent without the housing assistance for as long as she could on her own. In June, knowing she couldn't pay the month's rent, Jackson took what she had saved and went to a hotel, doing whatever extra work she could find to get the money for a hotel: styling hair and working the front door at a local bar.
Once she could no longer afford rent, Jackson and her daughter spent most of a four-month period in a hotel, depleting her savings. And other days she needed to rely upon others, which was challenging, and sometimes Jackson didn't feel safe.
"I had no where to go. Everyday I'm literally standing there, with my things saying, 'Where do I go? What do I do?'"
For the first two months Jackson and her daughter were able to stay in the relative comfort of a local hotel, but then had to leave the hotel for a local shelter. Jackson and her daughter were offered a mattress on the floor in the hall. "How am I going to feel about laying on the floor with her asking me questions like, ‘Mom, why are we here?'"
They couldn't even stay the first night.
"As a mother, the main thing that you focus on in your life is your child. Whatever you're going through, you know your child sees that. Sometimes, I didn't know how or when we were going to eat - sometimes I just fed her," says Jackson, who was born and raised in Racine.
"I was dying inside."
Jackson's daughter was diagnosed with hyperglycemia, a condition in which an excessive amount of glucose circulates in the body and the way to regulate it is to consistently eat three healthy meals a day, while monitoring sugar intake.
For the next two months, Jackson worked day-to-day for the money to feed her daughter and for a night's stay in a hotel. Some days, she didn't make enough, but she cherished the other days when she did have enough for a hotel.
"If this $55 is gone tomorrow, at least we had one more day where we were safe."
Finally, Legal Action attorney Todd prevailed with Jackson's appealed and was able to get Jackson's housing benefits back. The appeals court found HARC's decisions to be arbitrary, illegal according to federal regulations, inhumane and shocking.
"I didn't see this coming. I was unprepared for it. I felt it was me against the whole housing authority, but I didn't give up," says Jackson.
"And I want people to know, that no matter what happens in life, if there's ever something that you feel like you need to fight, but you're afraid no one will listen to you, don't ever, ever be afraid to speak your mind and try to get help."