"Do you need a microwave?"
I looked at Granny as she sipped coffee from a Styrofoam cup. She was lounging as someone of her age might, except that in place of a couch, a blue tarp was bunched behind her. She nestled up against it on the sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row.
Granny — whose real name is Barbie, but who has preferred for years to go by the appellation "Gangster Granny," for the anonymity it granted — had been houseless for well over a decade, waylaid by the familiar public policy barricades and societal shortcomings that annually bring thousands to this point nationwide.
Now, though, we were discussing her new Section 8 apartment, secured by a case worker more than two years after the application process began.
Granny, born in 1951, was ostensibly on the precipice of a new life; the proud resident of an affordable housing unit in South Central, where she could use her Social Security payment to cover rent subsidized by a federal voucher.
The mainstream perception of homelessness and housing might assume this to be the story's close; the happy ending in Granny's long journey through a life of hardship, abuse and systemic failures.
In fact, it was only the beginning.
"What do you need for your new apartment?" I again asked. "A microwave? Some clothes hangers?"
She looked up at me from her coffee. "I need," she began. "Everything."
• • •
I met Granny nearly a year earlier in Skid Row, and after spending thousands of hours reporting there, I had gotten to know her a little and watched as the impending hope of a new apartment led her to begin collecting towels, dishes and clothes while still sleeping on the concrete.
Once a bull rider, Vogue model and pioneering Black motorcyclist, Granny had landed in Skid Row after her house was foreclosed on, and options for staying afloat dried up.
In January 2021, she was days away from what seemed to be the end of the road back.
My interest piqued by our conversation, I accompanied her on the day she received her keys and saw the apartment for the first time.
As we drove away from Skid Row, the lines of tents whirling into a water color of unnamed struggle, Granny sighed.
"The nightmare," she said, "is over."
But arriving at her new home, we instead found a vacant space. There were no furniture essentials, fridge or stove, and woefully few resources to achieve the items and services she needed to survive even a month in her new accommodations. A roof and four walls, the apartment had. A home, it was not.
The nightmare, I realized, wasn't over for Granny. It had simply taken a new form.
Through organizing mutual aid and spending nearly every day with Granny for a month, I learned there was a lot to do. The utilities needed to be turned on — requiring in-person appointments and hundreds of dollars in deposits, given that she had no credit history. Four-plus hours on hold with Social Security were necessary to receive an award letter preventing her housing from being on the cutting block only 11 days later.
We signed her up for food stamps. Found, funded, hauled and assembled furniture. Organized a network of young women who could regularly assist with daily needs and spend time.
The list of tasks would be overwhelming for anyone. For someone who didn't even have a cellphone or a semblance of community, it was completely unreasonable; a sentence of failure, disguised as state success.
• • •
Drafted half a century ago to combat the scourge of public housing projects, Section 8 never really adapted to the needs of a changing homelessness crisis. The voucher system actually caused rents to rise while the federal government never mandated their acceptance on the open market.
As a result, an inefficient system became irrelevant while still functioning as the main pathway out of homelessness.
Of course, even arriving at this flawed threshold today is tricky. Getting connected with a case worker often depends on being "found" through an outreach program. From there, work moves slowly. Social workers — stuck in one of the most undercompensated and overworked career paths in the United States — are tasked with executing the logistics of housing on a mass scale, yet receive just a fraction of the resources necessary for the job.
Moreover, government dollars targeted for the housing process stop at move-in, without any consideration for basic needs. And to this day, around the country, very few organizations are actually aimed toward filling the post-housing void. Social workers are left to navigate disjointed systems, scrape together funds internally and independently negotiate deals with private furniture and appliance companies — or in some cases, simply "graduate" the housed individuals and leave them to fend for themselves.
This is a formula designed to fail on its best days.
Predictably, the rates for newly housed residents falling back into homelessness appear to be high. The statistics themselves barely exist — in many cases, because no organization is even tracking these individuals after they cross the housing threshold.
But many case workers have told me it's commonplace to see individuals they housed return to the streets. One housing veteran — whose Minneapolis organization Simpson Housing Services is among the few that are deeply ingrained in post-housing success — told me she estimates that 90% of the individuals they house remain there beyond six months. But without those supports, the equation flips.
Given little to no assistance after move in, "probably around 10%," would last six months in housing, she guessed.
• • •
The nightmare of Skid Row stayed with Granny.
Overexposed for most of her life, she kept the shades in her apartment always drawn, the room dark. Often, she slept not on her new, soft bed, but the blankets she arranged on the floor in her living room. She still tied her lighter to her braids, picked up cigarette butts of the sidewalk to get the last hit. The "emergency" spare tent stayed between the rungs of her wheelchair.
"This place is home," Granny told me of her apartment, early and often, as if to make herself believe it was true.
In an alternate reality bolstered by spontaneous mutual aid, Granny had hit the lottery and achieved a basic foundation for future success. I wanted to tell her that she could let her guard down, finally. That she was safe.
But knowing the reality of housing in America, the organizational indifference to her tenuous present and all that lies ahead for Granny still, I could not.
Amelia Rayno is an independent journalist covering marginalized communities and social issues. You can follow her work and her van journey across the U.S. at instagram.com/ameliarayno. She is a former Star Tribune reporter.