Bellingham Housing Authority: Stop denying housing for a disabled woman soon to be homeless
No one should have to suffer loss of home due to illness, much less “live” in a car. No one should be denied housing assistance because they have a disability. And yet that is what has happened to me (and many others).
I have multiple chronic illnesses, including PTSD and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), the latter of which affects multiple organ systems, including respiratory, digestive, circulatory, and nervous. I suffer chronic joint and muscle pain, severe food sensitivities that have damaged my digestive tract, moderate to disabling fatigue, migraines and vertigo, cognitive decline that affects my memory, perception, speech, concentration, and ability to learn new things, as well as other symptoms too many to list.
HUD states that they recognize and support accommodations for MCS -
- yet the Bellingham Housing Authority who is supposed to abide by HUD standards, has denied me a housing voucher that accommodates my medical needs.
I have been denied rental assistance because I could not find a residence that both met their rental price requirements and my medical needs. I currently reside in a mobile home that meets most of my health needs, however the local housing agency, the Bellingham Housing Authority (BHA), said I could not remain here because HUD’s requirements do not make allowances for my particular illness – a direct contradiction to HUD's statements that support this illness. The only types of residences that fall within their (BHA's) price range are apartments or similar complexes. Due to my high sensitivity to chemicals (which includes smoke, fragrances in body products, air fresheners, bug sprays, paints and solvents, laundry fumes, etc.), it is impossible for me to even go into an apartment building, much less live in one. To do so would mean my speedy demise.
Despite this information and letters from my doctors, the Bellingham Housing Authority refused to accommodate me, even when I offered to accept just the minimum amount they were allowing. They said that I would be unable to afford to stay where I was on that amount; despite my explanation that I did not need much assistance to maintain housing. It’s odd they thought that this allowance was worse than denying me any assistance at all.
From other stories I’ve heard, this type of denial by the BHA is not an uncommon occurrence. People with disabilities are not given the consideration they need when applying for housing assistance.
Disabled people often have an even greater disadvantage when it comes to maintaining housing and in many cases, to finding appropriate housing to accommodate their medical needs. One way to help resolve the homeless problem is to fix the biases and flaws in the agencies that have been created to help people maintain housing.
Please sign my petition to make the Bellingham Housing Authority do what they were created to do: to help people maintain housing. Specifically, to help me with rental costs so I don’t have to lose a roof over my head, my belongings, and my sense of self-worth; so I don’t have to try to survive in my car with all my health problems; and to make them change their policies regarding the disabled. Make them honor HUD's promise to accommodate people with disabilities.
I am writing to report the failure of the Bellingham Housing Authority to provide accommodations for people with disabilities, despite their requirement to follow HUD regulations that include accommodating the disabled.
[ http://www.hud.gov/offices/adm/hudclips/lops/GME-0009LOPS.pdf ]
I have two disabling illnesses, PTSD and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) (also known as Environmental Illness), the latter of which is likely due to exposures to pesticides during a previous career and a genetic mutation. It affects multiple organs and systems, including cognitive function (memory, perception, focus, learning, etc.), nervous system, cardiac, digestive system (I have severe and multiple food sensitivities and have ended up in the hospital as a result), joints and muscles, speech, vision, hearing, and many more. I personally have symptoms within all of these systems to one degree or another, some chronic and others acute, relative to the chemical exposure type and amount.
I have to wear a mask and personal ionizer when I am in public or risk even worse symptoms. I often carry a cane due to loss of balance and dizziness. I cannot use most public restrooms due to air fresheners, nor visit friends who live in complexes or who use fragranced products in their home. I even have had to stop hugging my friends.
This is only a fraction of the disruption to my life this disease has caused. Many, if not most, people with this illness wind up homeless, gradually deteriorate due to unsuitable toxic living conditions, or commit suicide.
According to HUD, they not only recognize MCS as a disability under the federal definition, but are supportive of accommodating people with this illness.
However, the Bellingham Housing Authority, who is supposed to abide by HUD rules, has not supported this claim.
In 2007, shortly after my boyfriend suddenly died, I applied, with the help of a caseworker, for Section 8 with the Bellingham Housing Authority (BHA). Due to their lack of funding and a system that kept bumping back my position on the waiting list (despite being on the disabled list that reportedly gives me preference) it took 4 years before my name came up and they notified me to come in to fill out the paperwork.
(I never did get the same answer when I asked about how my position on their list could actually get pushed backwards).
During the entire 4 years, and ever since they denied me accommodations for my disability, I have struggled with paying my rent (as well as other bills), having to rely on local assistance agencies, churches, friends, and selling my belongings; as well as having to remain at a part-time job that exposes me to fragrance chemicals, etc. and continues to worsen my condition. As a result of this decline in my health, I have been working fewer and fewer hours and can no longer pay my bills. I am currently under an eviction notice and expect I will be “living” in my car in time for the holidays. This probably spells the end for me, with so many chronic physical problems as a result of the MCS, and with mood disregulation from the PTSD.
But back to the details. After being notified by BHA that my name was up next on the list, I met with someone who helped me with the paperwork and explained the program. She told me the size of my house didn’t matter.
The second person I met with (I don’t now recall her position) said that the size of my house did matter, but that I could file for a disability accommodation to be allowed to remain in my current residence.
The third person I met with (regarding the disability accommodation request) said that I would have to move, despite the fact that the request I filed came with a completed BHA form and a letter from my MCS doctor stating, “Due to her chemical sensitivities, Ms. Fargo should not have a living space that is close to other apartments, duplexes, or even housing that would expose her to laundry fumes, lawn care products, toxic cleaning agents, etc. From what I understand, Ms. Fargo has a safe place to live at this present time, where she has been living for several years. The living space has been made environmentally safe over the years and she has little to no risk of chemical exposures. This is the ideal space for her and I recommend that she remain there because of her medical condition.”
I had also told BHA that the extra space in the house was being used to do picture framing from home (I used to own a small framing business) for extra income and that one of the extra bedrooms was used to off-gas (air out) my clothing I had worn in public places and other items, such as mail or purchased items that had absorbed airborne fragrances or other chemicals. This room can be kept closed so that the chemicals don’t contaminate the other rooms I eat, sleep, and work in.
But this was not an adequate reason for them either and I was told that they could not accommodate me unless I had a live-in aide that needed the extra bedroom or large medical equipment, like a hospital bed. This latter reason, I later discovered, was not necessarily enough for BHA to make accommodations either, as a caseworker told me that an elderly man with medical issues was made to move out of his home into a smaller place, despite the fact he was using a special medical bed.
The first denial notice they sent to me stated that they did not consider the ability to work (or not) a reason to accommodate my remaining in my current residence (even though I explained that eventually I would be too ill to work anywhere but in my home). And then the letter stated that the pole barn on the property was enough space for me to work out of. I was perplexed at this one, to say the least. First the letter tells me I will have to move into another smaller residence to get assistance and then they say I can use the pole barn at my current residence to work out of. So, were they saying that after I move into a place that is too small to do my picture framing out of, that I should sneak back over here and break into the pole barn to do my framing? I have to add that I have seen this kind of circular argument used by other government agencies to “justify” denials of assistance. It is insulting and invalidating to say the least.
After I made several attempts to find housing and reported back that I could not find housing that both met their rental price range and my health needs, they sent a document stating that they always have someone come out to the prospective rentals to check that the ventilation system works properly. If they had truly paid attention to my disability claim, they would have realized that a good ventilation system would be even more likely to expose me to chemicals from other residences or nearby buildings. Still, they suggested that the inspector come out to my current residence to “see” what my needs are and provide suggestions for other housing. I tried to tell them that there was nothing he could visually see that would look any different than other homes where residents did not have health problems; that fragrances and air-borne chemicals are invisible, as is my pain, dizziness, cognitive dysfunction, and numerous other symptoms I suffer from.
He was sent anyway and, as I had stated, he had nothing to examine except to listen to the same explanation of my illness. After his suggestions of apartments and all the other options I had already explained to BHA that I could not use, he finally admitted that there was probably not anything in BHA’s price range that would fit my needs. He added that the BHA program is probably not a good fit for me, and that it wouldn’t be fair to the other applicants if BHA gave me an accommodation for my disability; that it would mean that someone else wouldn’t get into the program. I couldn’t believe this comment, seeing as I, along with every other applicant, is on a long list waiting their turn to get into the program, and that he was in essence saying that I should sacrifice my chance for rental assistance because I am disabled, so the next person in line could get it instead. He didn’t seem to get the whole point of what a disability accommodation is, or that the disabled are already at a disadvantage by the fact that they are disabled. In fact, BHA as a whole does not seem to get this either.
During this entire process, I left phone messages at BHA on several occasions, as well as written messages at their office. In addition, my landlord sent them a letter and my doctor called and sent a fax regarding my case. None of us received phone calls back from anyone at BHA, and when, after repeatedly calling, I was finally able to get through to them, I was told they never received the phone messages or fax.
After BHA refused to accommodate me based on my physical illness, my caseworker suggested I submit a second Request for Reasonable Accommodation more focused on mental health reasons, which I did. I included the names of my caseworker and my doctor/therapist on the form, and since BHA had neglected to return calls on so many occasions, I also added a note requesting they call every contact on the list before making their decision. This should have gone without saying, but I didn’t want to take any chances. And even so, BHA never called my therapist to find out about my mental health problems and denied my request without that information.
I had even suggested that BHA give my current landlord just the amount they were allowing for a smaller place so that they wouldn’t have to pay out more than they do for everyone else; that I had learned to live very inexpensively and could afford to remain in the same residence with the smaller amount of rental assistance. This is in fact something that BHA (and HUD?) used to allow, but they changed the rules (don’t know if before or after I first applied), and so, they refused that as well, despite the fact it would have solved both of our dilemmas.
I do hope that you will look into this matter. From what I have heard from doctors, caseworkers, etc., this is hardly an unusual occurrence.
BHA (and HUD?) needs to adopt some new rules that support the claim that they accommodate people with disabilities.
I have the documentation to support my experience and can provide copies.
Thank you for your time.
Roberta “Seren” Fargo