When Lawrence Bergeron and his four teenage grandchildren were evicted from their Bangor apartment in March, they had nowhere to go but their Toyota minivan. For about the next six months, the family slept sitting up in their car seats, as the 52-year-old grandfather searched in desperation for a place that would accept his federally subsidized housing voucher.
“It was hell,” Bergeron said.
In Maine and across the United States, people with low incomes who are struggling to afford their rent can apply for something called a housing voucher — public assistance to cover almost the full cost of their residence. They don’t have to be homeless like Bergeron to apply for the help, and with so many American communities struggling to provide enough affordable housing, people can spend years on waitlists to receive a coveted voucher.
But the waiting doesn’t stop there, as Bergeron experienced this summer. Even after someone receives the help they need to pay for a roof over their heads, they can still go weeks or months before signing a lease, according to data and interviews.
There is no centralized data collection in Maine on how long it takes for someone using a voucher to find a home, but people in Maine frequently wait up to four months, or sometimes longer.
As Bergeron witnessed firsthand, using a voucher introduces its own hurdles. The subsidy can slow the rental process because it requires some coordination with the government, primarily in the form of an inspection, which ensures the home is up to code and safe to live in. But that oversight can deter landlords and gives people who can pay cash a competitive edge. What’s more, the inspection disqualifies substandard housing that some landlords are unwilling or unable to repair.
There’s also the stigma of receiving public assistance — a difficult-to-prove but frequent factor in people’s inability to find a place to live.
“I mean, some days, I was at my wit’s end,” Bergeron said, recalling the nearly 100 Bangor-area landlords with places that wouldn’t pass inspection, had no available units or didn’t return his phone calls. “No matter where I was, I was hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall.”
Making matters worse, his search played out in the midst of an affordable housing crunch in greater Bangor, a problem that has city officials meeting to study the problem. Homeless families could be especially disadvantaged, as they are often seeking inexpensive, multi-bedroom homes, which are in even shorter supply.
These forces converged to keep Bergeron’s family from signing a lease for nearly half a year, in what was a particularly dire-case scenario of what homeless families in Maine endure to find housing.
‘Boom. We’re out’
Before his eviction March 29, Bergeron was living on Bald Mountain Road in Capehart, a public housing complex made up of old Air Force base units that is run by the Bangor Housing Authority.
Bergeron, a former TV cameraman, has been raising his grandchildren since they were little. He became their legal guardian a few years ago when their parents — Bergeron’s son and daughter, each single parents — died. In 2015, his 17-year-old grandson and 12-year-old granddaughter lost their mother to cancer. Two years earlier his 15-year-old and 13-year-old grandsons lost their father to a drug overdose.
Grief has compounded the challenges of raising four teenagers on limited means, Bergeron said. Those challenges have made it virtually impossible for him to hold down a fulltime job and be a single parent, he said. During a recent interview at his dining room table, his cell phone rang nearly every 20 minutes with an appointment — a doctor, a counselor, a Maine Department of Health and Human Services worker. Or it was one of the kids themselves.
Bergeron said the March eviction was the result of some bad luck and an honest mistake. During Thanksgiving 2017, the police were called to his apartment after a drunk guest got angry and called 911, and then officers found a needle on another guest, he said.
The needle put Bergeron on probation with the housing authority, meaning a single violation of his lease would cost him the apartment. That happened on March 1, when Bergeron missed an appointment with the housing authority related to his lease recertification, according to a paper notice he received.
One of Bergeron’s grandsons had run off that morning, Bergeron said. “I had to go chase him down, and I forgot about [the appointment].”
He pleaded with the housing authority to let him stay, but the eviction proceeded.
“So boom. We’re out,” he said. “Then the homelessness started.”
That first night, the family piled into their silver Toyota Sienna minivan, the first of two vehicles where they would sleep for nearly six months. Bergeron slept in the front seat, while the kids leaned against one another in the back. He looked for discreet places to park the car overnight — the driveways of abandoned buildings, parking lots and quiet side streets.
When summer arrived Bergeron borrowed money to pay for a motel room on the hottest nights. Otherwise, he placed t-shirts over the car windows to block out the sun and kept the engine on overnight to run air conditioning. Still, they woke in the mornings covered in sweat.
“I did not like that, especially when I had strep throat,” Bergeron’s 17-year-old grandson, Trevor LaRochelle, said.
Only once did the idling car prompt a police officer to knock on the car window.
“I said, ‘Shh! The kids are sleeping!’” Bergeron said.
In late June, he could no longer keep up with the payments for the van, and the family moved into a smaller, black Toyota Avalon. He glued a plastic silver cross to the hood and two more to the back bumper. The sedan was cramped, but by that time it only needed to sleep four of them. In May, Bergeron found one of his grandsons intoxicated in a snowbank and sent him away to a four-month residential treatment program in southern Maine.
It was his same grandson who had run away the morning of March 1 and whose father had died just three years before of a drug overdose. “He’s kind of a rebel at the moment. He’s trying to figure himself out,” Bergeron said.
He feared the ways that loss and grief had affected his grandson’s teenage rebelliousness. This worry spread to all his grandchildren, who bore the deaths of their parents and the stress of living in a car with “incredible resilience,” he said.
For nearly six months, they ate cold cuts, showered at the YMCA and, for entertainment, watched movies on the small screen of Bergeron’s Android phone in the backseat of the car before falling asleep.
But “it’s weird how things will trigger [tears],” Bergeron said. “The smell of a flower, a car, something on television.”
When school let out, it was harder to keep as watchful an eye on the kids, but he did his best.
And during the rest of his waking hours, Bergeron spent his time at the Bangor Public Library, scouring listings and filling out rental applications. He plunged into the bureaucratic world of applying for a housing voucher and then looking for a place to live.
12,000 on one waitlist
Housing vouchers are the alternative to a place like Capehart. In the mid-1970s, the federal government moved away from funding public housing projects and shifted toward a voucher system, which better integrated people with low incomes into existing neighborhoods.
The change was intended to break up concentrations of poverty, according to Allison Gallagher, director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program for the Maine State Housing Authority, a quasi-state agency.
But it also meant voucher holders, who often face stigma and discrimination, relied more on the approval of private landlords to house them. That would hamper Bergeron all summer long.
Applying for a voucher can be confusing and stressful, especially while trying to provide for one’s basic needs. In Bangor, a handful of organizations exist to help the homeless navigate all the requirements and paperwork.
Here, Bergeron was in luck. Just months before his family became homeless, one such program specifically to help families started in Bangor. The new service from Families And Children Together pairs homeless families with a social worker to assist with the housing process. Bergeron called after seeing an advertisement for the service on a bulletin board. (The organization has since launched Bangor’s first family emergency shelter in a decade, on Oct. 2.)
Around the same time, in mid-April, Bergeron was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. That made him eligible for a specialized housing voucher through the Shelter Plus Care Program, which provides housing and case management services to people, like Bergeron, who are homeless and have a mental health diagnosis. People are also eligible if they are homeless and have a substance use disorder or HIV/AIDS.
(The most common form of housing assistance comes from the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8. It helps more than 3,800 Maine households each month by subsidizing part of their rent; 12,000 applicants are currently on the waitlist.)
To get a Shelter Plus Care voucher, there were two places Bergeron could turn to that distribute the assistance: the organization Community Health and Counseling Services and the city’s own public health department.
Bergeron applied to both. He was initially waitlisted by Community Health and Counseling Services, but Bangor granted him a two-bedroom voucher on April 24.
That would be a squeeze, he thought. His granddaughter would need her own bedroom, leaving a single bedroom for the three boys and himself.
He had 30 days, plus a 15-day extension, to find a place before he would lose the voucher. It expired before he got close to signing a lease. But his luck changed on June 7 when the other organization, Community Health and Counseling Services, offered him a voucher. He was eligible for $1,589 per month, which is fair market rent for a four-bedroom apartment.
Unlike the previous voucher, this one allowed him multiple extensions after 30 days of looking for an apartment, according to a written notice. He needed them. It took him another 114 days to sign a lease.
‘They know it’s not going to pass’
At first it was just difficult for the family to find any available apartments at all. Bangor’s short supply of housing, combined with residents’ low median incomes, has made the Queen City less affordable than Portland, Maine’s largest city, according to Maine State Housing Authority data.
What’s more, three-quarters of Maine rental units have two bedrooms or fewer, according to a 2015 study of the state’s housing stock, with just 5.9 percent of apartments having what Bergeron needed, four bedrooms.
Bergeron’s recent eviction deterred some landlords from renting to him, he said. But when that wasn’t an issue, and he did spot a listing that was the right size and in his price range, he encountered a frustrating pattern. He would express interest in the apartment, only to lose it to another renter who could pay in cash, or he would be told the unit would not pass an inspection, he said.
On a rainy afternoon earlier this month, Bergeron dug through a filing cabinet and placed a printed list on his dining room table. It had the names of 70 landlords and property management companies in the Bangor area that he’d called over the summer — only a portion of the people he’d reached out to, he said. He’d written “inspection” next to 15 of them, meaning the landlord had explicitly told him the unit would not pass. The rest didn’t have a unit available or didn’t call him back.
Bergeron said the situation got so bad that he eventually stopped letting prospective landlords know that he would be paying with a voucher, in hopes it would increase his chances of getting a showing. But in the five or six times Bergeron got that far, he said, the apartment was suddenly rented to someone else when he brought up the voucher.
Bergeron’s struggle sounded familiar to other housing navigators working in Bangor. Maine has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, and units fail inspections for a number of reasons — from electrical issues, to plumbing problems, to the size of their windows.
“For whatever reason, [some landlords] don’t want to go through the length of time [to schedule an inspection], or they know it’s not going to pass,” said Nick St. Louis, a housing navigator at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.
“Or they’ve got another person with ‘cash in hand.’ That’s something I hear a lot,” he said, adding, after a pause, “whether or not it’s true.”
St. Louis was alluding to a suspicion that Bergeron often felt but couldn’t prove: that some landlords didn’t want to rent to him because of their fears associated with people who are homeless.
Under Maine law, it is illegal for landlords to decline to rent to people because they receive public assistance, but loopholes have made it possible for them to get around taking in people with vouchers. Maine’s highest court has ruled that landlords can refuse a Housing Choice voucher if it would force them, against their will, to comply with additional legal requirements, such as an inspection, or pay for the repairs to pass an inspection.
What’s more, a discrimination suit often requires a landlord to state their reasoning directly, which doesn’t happen often. Those types of cases constituted only 0.5 percent of the 709 complaints filed last year with the Maine Human Rights Commission.
National studies have confirmed that landlords frequently don’t rent to voucher holders because of social bias and “administrative and procedural factors,” such as inspections, according to both The Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University and the Urban Institute.
The Johns Hopkins report also found that two-thirds of landlords surveyed in three major cities said they vowed to stop accepting vouchers after one negative experience with a tenant. The result was long, “daunting” searches, according to the Urban Institute.
‘120 days to lease an apartment’
Over time Bergeron grew impatient with landlords.
But the same housing navigators who validated his frustration also cautioned against making broad generalizations. There are hundreds of landlords in Bangor, making up a diverse group of people whose concerns shouldn’t be overlooked, they said.
Abby Smith, a housing navigator at the Hope House Shelter in Bangor, said it’s possible that the landlords who refused Bergeron over the summer “were just being honest” about their inability to afford repairs to their units.
Jesse McCue, a partner at Maine Real Estate Management in downtown Bangor, was quick to push back on the idea that a company like his would be unreceptive to voucher holders. His large company is used to working with different kinds of rental assistance, he said.
“For us, it’s not an issue. We’re doing it all the time, so I’m not seeing the side of it where it’s slowing us down,” he said.
But when landlords appear unwilling, housing navigators can make a difference. Part of their job is building relationships with landlords, which can start with explaining to them how a voucher works.
“I have a few [landlords] I love to death,” St. Louis said. “If they have an opening, they’ll call me.”
Gallagher estimated “about 90 percent” of people in the Housing Choice Voucher Program administered by the Maine State Housing Authority find a lease within 30 days when they’re paired with a housing navigator.
That’s far better than when people are on their own. The authority administers about 4,000 of the 12,000 Housing Choice vouchers that the federal government issues to Maine each year. (The rest go to local housing authorities.) And it tracks, in 30-day increments, how long it takes for a new voucher holder to sign a lease. Just fewer than half find housing in fewer than 30 days, based on extension data since 2015. The remaining people take longer, although most find a place within 120 days, or four months.
“MaineHousing’s policy is 120 days to lease an apartment,” Denise Lord, senior director of planning and communications, said. “We did this in part because voucher holders were having a difficult time finding an affordable unit in 60 days, and, rather than process extensions, we opted for a longer time period.”
Community Health and Counseling Services — which currently houses 173 Shelter Plus Care voucher holders in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hanock and Washington counties — doesn’t formally track the number of extensions it issues. In general, Maine doesn’t have very precise or comprehensive data on the average length of time a person with a voucher waits for housing.
However, Josh D’Alessio, manager of homeless initiatives at Penobscot Community Health Care, cautioned against reading too much into extension data. Those numbers are difficult to compile and probably don’t get at the full problem, he said.
“Is it poverty, lack of health care access, lack of services, lack of education, lack of jobs, lack of affordable housing, lack of subsidies, ability, addiction, mental illness, crime [that’s slowing down the process]?” he said.
In other words, it can be very case by case, he said. “Somewhere in there is an average that typically falls between 90 and 120 days.”
‘Somebody to give him a shot’
Twice during his search, Bergeron had the option to view or rent an apartment but chose not to.
Both units, he said, were in neighborhoods that would have been unfit to raise his grandchildren: lower Ohio Street and near Second Street Park, where there were reports this summer of underage drinking and a “fight club.”
“I have three teenage boys,” he said, shaking his head at the memory. “No way.”
Those were decisions no guardian wants to face, and Bergeron made them, he said, knowing the effect that homelessness had on his grandchildren.
On Sept. 26, Bergeron finally found a four-bedroom, single-family home in Hermon, on outer Hammond Street just across the Bangor city line.
“I told [the owner], straight up, here’s the deal: I’ve got four kids, schools coming up. I need to rent it. And it needs to pass inspection,” Bergeron said.
The owner, Jacob Newcomb, could tell Bergeron “was just struggling to find somebody to give him a shot — a house,” he said in an interview. Two other people were interested in his property, which Newcomb had just sunk $15,000 into to renovate, but the landlord chose Bergeron because of the urgency of his situation, he said.
It was Newcomb’s first time working with a housing voucher, something he’d considered before but, after researching, became wary of due to all the legal requirements, he said.
But working with Community Health and Counseling Services was easy, he said, and he scheduled an inspection and prepared a lease for Bergeron less than a week after the two first spoke.
Bergeron and his family moved in on a Friday night. They didn’t have furniture yet, so that first night they slept on the floor, Bergeron said, but “the kids didn’t mind it at all and neither did I.”
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.