Skip to main content

Apartment hunters

In a public library, two homeless friends aspire for a better future

Apartment hunters

Mary at the library (Sophia Lee)

A few weeks ago, I sat at the Santa Monica Public Library with two homeless individuals in their 60s as they searched online for housing. There was Mary, 64, whom I wrote about in January in a story about homeless women. Sitting next to her was her new friend Michael, 62, and his 6-year-old German shepherd service dog, Presley.

Until recently, Mary lived at Samoshel, a transitional shelter for the homeless in Santa Monica, for almost eight months. Michael has been there for three years.

There was something sad about watching two graying, wrinkled individuals scroll a website from page to page looking for a home. Michael has white hair on his balding head, a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, and gray eyebrows. Mary’s shaved head has started to grow bristles of hair again after a lice breakout from her time on the streets. Mary and Michael both had jobs until they lost them due to health problems. Mary bounced from one abusive boyfriend to another, while Michael faced eviction twice because his landlords wanted higher rents.

There aren’t many options for people like Mary and Michael to find permanent housing. With her age and health problems, Mary’s been unable to hold a steady job, so her only income is the $600 or so she gets monthly from Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance. She can’t afford rent in Los Angeles with those meager checks. Mary’s 85-year-old mother lives in Pennsylvania and is in poor health herself, while her siblings live in Wisconsin (her home state) and have problems of their own. 

Michael has similar difficulties. When he was 16, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles from Brighton, Mich., and never looked back. He and his family don’t talk—he won’t explain why. Today he’s got lung disease, heart disease, psoriatic arthritis, and all sorts of other health issues. His medication alone costs at least $3,000 a month. Should he move out of state, he’d have to change doctors and health insurance programs, which would mess up his current treatment plan.

It’s not easy being homeless. It’s just as tough trying to get out of homelessness, especially in a high-cost, low-vacancy area like Los Angeles. For people like Michael and Mary, their only option to get out of homelessness is to apply for Section 8, a federally funded program that provides housing assistance vouchers to low-income renters. Once they secure vouchers and find housing, federal subsidies can make up the difference between their rent and what they can afford to pay.

The problem is, there’s a very limited supply of housing vouchers and too many people who need them. It’s incredibly hard to get a foot into the Section 8 program in Los Angeles: For the 20,000 spots on the voucher waiting list in 2018, about 188,000 people applied. Only 1 in 30 applicants actually score a voucher—and out of those, only about half actually sign a lease within the required six months because most landlords refuse to accept vouchers. 

Mary and Michael were two of the lucky ones. It took Mary only six months to land a voucher. For Michael, it took (only) three years. And now, here they were at the public library, borrowing the Wi-Fi to search for available rental units on, the largest affordable housing listing service in the nation. Since Michael has dyslexia, Mary did all the reading and note-taking for him.

“Look, I found a one-bedroom, one-bath unit for $1,525 a month,” Mary told him. 

“Sounds good,” Michael said. “Where’s it at?”

She looked up the address: It was near Dodger Stadium, which wouldn’t be a bad place to live in comparison with the last apartment Michael visited in South-Central. The building was so old and dilapidated that it didn’t pass inspection from the LA Housing Authority.

“I’d take it,” Michael said, without looking over at her laptop.

“Don’t you want to look at pictures?” Mary asked. 

Michael shrugged. “At this point, I’ll take any bedroom that’s available.” If he didn’t find an apartment within six months of getting his voucher, he would have to restart the whole referral process for assistance. 

If $1,525 for a one-bedroom apartment sounds excessive, note that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in LA is $2,400 per month, according to Zillow. When Mary found another studio for only $1,300, they both looked at each other with squinted eyes of suspicion. Sure enough, when they looked up the address, the unit was right at the edge of Skid Row. 

“Ooh no,” Mary exclaimed, quickly shutting down that window: “I might get typhoid there.” 

“Yes, definitely not,” Michael said. 

OK, on to the next option. This time, Mary found another one-bedroom unit within their budget ... but it was all the way down in South-Central. 

“Ooh no,” Mary groaned again, and Michael dryly remarked, “Yeah, you want to be alive in your new apartment.” Beggars can’t be choosers, but they still have certain standards.

Michael and Mary both have strict budgets for their rent: His is $1,535, hers is $1,522. That won’t get them much. Most of the places available for that price are crap—tiny, threadbare units with nasty toilets, no AC, no garbage disposal, and little sunlight, holed into old buildings with iron-barred windows, shedding roofs, and peeling paint. Most are located in gang-ridden and food desert neighborhoods. It would be challenging for someone like Mary to wheel her walker a mile or more to the nearest grocery chain store.

Mary found another one-bedroom unit for Michael. This one asked for $1,522 and was located in Elysian Park. She wrote down the landlord’s number for Michael, who immediately made the call. The call sent him to a voice message explaining the landlord’s voicemail was full. Michael hung up and sighed: “Typical.” He said he’d call back, but he didn’t expect much: Any available decent housing in Los Angeles doesn’t remain vacant for long. 

At the end of the day, Mary and Michael each found two potential units. All they needed to do now was set up an interview with the landlords and ask them to accept their vouchers. Mary was particularly excited about a one-bedroom unit in East Hollywood—it was located on the first floor, which meant she wouldn’t have to worry about climbing stairs with her walker. It was close to public transportation. And it was near another one-bedroom vacancy she found for Michael. “We could be neighbors!” she yelped, pumping her fist into the air. 

Michael looked a bit more subdued—resigned, almost. I could see the worry dimming his hazel eyes. He’s been through this house-hunting process many times. As a gay man, he said he’s experienced harassment from management when they found out his sexual orientation. He has a dog, and many landlords don’t accept pets. He doesn’t have a car, so it’ll be hard for him to travel around town visiting potential houses. How was he going to sign a lease in time before he loses his voucher?

Sensing his thoughts, I told him, “I really hope you get that apartment in Hollywood.”

He nodded, looking down. “Me, too.” 

Then I asked, “Do you have hope?”

He lifted his eyes and looked straight into mine: “Yes, I always have hope. Sometimes, that’s all I have.”

To be continued …


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Tue, 08/27/2019 01:39 pm

    I could hardly stand reading this article; I kept screaming, "THEN GET OUT OF LA!"  Why stay somewhere that is so expensive to live?  I am sure there are nonprofits and other agencies that would give them money to get to a different place with lower rents. 

    Also, I recently watched a documentary on a PBS station about a placed called The Caring Inn, (I think it was "caring", not sure, but the Inn part is right)  It is a place for the chronically and currently homeless with debilitating and terminal diseases to live out their days.  I don't remember what state it is in.  Could there be others like this? 

    This article is infuriating, yet also a lesson of one reaps what one sows.  I'm not blaming the vicitm, but clearly their choices led them to this place.

    I met a girl who  had many tatoos, smoking, smelled like pot, etc., and complained because our agency didn't have any formula for her child.  Since we are based on donations, we were out.  Yet every one of her choices led her to the situation she was in at that moment...and now she was screaming at us as if it was our fault.  Thos tats weren't free, neither were the cigarettes and pot she had been smoking.  

  • CJ
    Posted: Tue, 08/27/2019 01:49 pm

    Thank you for keeping us mindful of those among us who, for circumstances beyond their control, are in great need. 

  • DV
    Posted: Fri, 08/30/2019 11:34 am

    The wonderful attribute about Jesus when he spoke to the woman at the well is that he didn't get exasperated with her for marrying five times - all choices she made. He lovingly told her what to do, "Go and sin no more," and told her the way to salvation. He didn't drag up her past and demand an accounting for all of her wrongs. To do so would've suggested it's OK to be critical of others, in judging their past. There should be an attitude of "from this day forth let's see how we can help you." Perhaps those who work at agencies that are helping others, aren't meant to work with the public and should work behind the scene instead.