Sitting in a dim, cinder block room, Cheryl Canson tries to look on the bright side.

“We’re spending more time together as a family,” she said.

Canson and her youngest children, 17-year-old Jafari and 8-year-old Jonah, moved into a room at St. Vincent de Paul Village in March. Each has a twin-sized bed situated like puzzle pieces in the 12-by-12-foot room. Backpacks and suitcases holding their belongings are strewn across scarce floor space.

They’re grateful for the shelter and the fresh start, but Canson can’t help but feel detached.

“The first night, I had uncontrollable crying,” Canson said. “I just couldn’t help myself, just tears rolling down my face. It’s just another change that I really didn’t expect.”

Canson and her children lost their home because of a federal zero-tolerance policy for Section 8 tenants. The rule ousts the entire family when one person — even a guest — commits a crime or uses drugs on a property subsidized by public housing assistance.

Canson’s 21-year-old son, Jordan, was convicted last year for abusing his infant child in the family’s Paradise Hills home, which was covered by Section 8.

The rule, enacted under President Bill Clinton during the so-called “war on drugs,” has persisted despite a steady shift away from zero tolerance in law enforcement and schools. Last year, Californians voted to soften the three-strikes law, which doled out heavy sentences for drug-related convictions. Nationally, educators are experiencing an about-face when it comes to suspensions, working to keep children with behavioral problems in class.

But in an era of austerity and political gridlock, any organized efforts in the housing arena have centered on maintaining funding. Affordable housing in the state lost its main revenue stream with the end of redevelopment. San Diego’s waiting line for rental assistance stands relatively still with 38,500 households, and more applying every month.

‘A Condemnation to Homelessness’

Tenants can try to appeal their termination from Section 8, if they can rise up from what one housing lawyer called “a catastrophic loss.”

“If you’re in Section 8, you’re there because you need help with your rent money,” said Joni Halpern, a retired attorney who’s worked with low-income families for 15 years. “You have absolutely no recourse except to be homeless. There’s no good solution. It’s a condemnation to homelessness. That’s what zero tolerance is.”

The San Diego Housing Commission oversees the Section 8 program in the city of San Diego and initiated Canson’s termination.

Representatives from the commission declined an interview, but said in a statement tenants can go through an appeals process to keep their Section 8 voucher. The federal law gives housing authorities the discretion to consider extenuating circumstances and grant a reprieve.

Indeed, Canson was given the opportunity to have her case reviewed. She said she “didn’t have the mental strength” to see the process through. Catherine Bishop, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project, a nonprofit housing advocacy group based in San Francisco, said that’s a common reaction.

“You take a family that’s under stress and they’re trying to focus on what are the most important things for that family at the time and, presumably, she was thinking the most important thing is trying to keep this individual out of jail,” Bishop said. “On top of that, you have the problem that, even though there are legal services programs, there’s not enough legal services lawyers to handle every case that comes forward.”

In San Diego, many of the Section 8 appeal cases are taken up by the Legal Aid Society of San Diego Inc. Bernadette Probus, a Legal Aid lawyer, said tenants appealing a termination related to violent crime face long odds.

Canson said she remembers hearing at the time of her eviction that “surrendering” her voucher instead of going through the appeals process would give her a better chance of re-entering the program in the future. Families terminated under the zero-tolerance policy can seek public housing assistance again after five years.

But the average wait for Section 8 in San Diego is eight to 10 years, and sequestration trimmed the amount of federal dollars available for vouchers next fiscal year, further heightening demand.

That might explain some of the rationale behind placing strict requirements on Section 8 tenants.

“They’re looking at it and saying, ‘This is an irresponsible person and there are many responsible people on our waiting list,’” Bishop said. “And so they’ll say, ‘Well let’s take the next person and let’s presume that next person is going to be more responsible.’

“It does boil down to: There’s not enough affordable housing to meet the need,” Bishop said. “That’s what creates this problem, or certainly exacerbates this problem.”

Schizophrenia’s Long Shadow

For Canson, losing her Section 8 voucher was the last domino to fall in a wayward track laid by a family history of mental illness. Canson was recently diagnosed with depression. Her mother had schizophrenia and each of her five children has developed the disorder or precursors to it. She said it fueled the violent behavior that landed Jordan in prison.

She’s fighting for a different outcome for Jafari and Jonah, but providing a stable environment has been difficult.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Cheryl Canson tries to persuade her son Jonah to do his homework in the family’s space in the homeless shelter at St. Vincent de Paul Village.

“It’s very damaging when something happens to one person in the family,” Canson said. “It affects the whole family.”

Canson initially tried to stave off homelessness by moving with her kids into a small bedroom in her oldest daughter’s Encanto home. The tiny, two-bedroom duplex was cramped and tense. The plumbing backed up and spilled into their room. There wasn’t enough food to go around.

And, with mental illness stoking the tension, the situation grew contentious. Jafari was hospitalized three times last year for psychotic episodes. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the fall.

Her diagnosis was ultimately what pushed Canson to seek a room at the homeless shelter.

YouTube video

Video by Sam Hodgson.

Their space at St. Vincent’s isn’t much bigger than their Encanto bedroom, and in many ways, it’s more chaotic. But Canson believed it would be a healthier environment for her kids. They have a locking door now and access to on-site mental health professionals.

The Cost to the Community

That kind of support comes with a price tag.

“I think that sometimes what happens is that the entity that’s responsible for providing the housing is not looking at this and saying, ‘What’s the cost to the community that I live in? What’s going to be the cost if, in fact, this individual gets evicted and is homeless?’” Bishop said.

Doug Wagner, a spokesman for Father Joe’s Villages, which manages the shelter where Canson lives, said it’s difficult to calculate the cost of housing the homeless because some families require more services and time than others.

“If the services are minimal, the cost might be comparable to Section 8,” Wagner said. “If it is more involved, then the costs may be higher.”

The commission that administers Section 8 vouchers funds some of those beds at Father Joe’s. In 2011, it spent $13 million to help reduce homelessness.

Back at their temporary home in St. Vincent’s, Jafari and Jonah marvel at a picture of their family standing together — smiling — during a 2008 trip to Big Bear Lake. Jordan’s incarceration hit them hard.

“I pray that God watches over my brother and keeps me strong through this hard time I’m going through right now” Jafari said.

“We’re in a strange place,” Canson said, “but we’re not strangers to God. We pray together, we pray together every night.”

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5665.

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Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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