Couches, recliners, even living room floors.
They’re not entirely comfortable, but eight years ago, that’s all Nancy had to sleep on — and they weren’t even hers. She was homeless.
Then, at 48, the Bristol-Warren native had envisioned something drastically different for her life. She came from a typical blue-collar family, graduated from high school, and landed a local job collecting tolls from drivers crossing Mt. Hope Bridge.
She fell in love, got married and had three children.
“I’ve always wanted to be a mom,” said Nancy, now 56. “Back in the 60s, women didn’t have that many options.”
But somewhere along her life’s path, the road got a little bumpy. Her marriage ended in a divorce, and she became a single mom, the sole caretaker of her three young children.
“I’d work the overnight shift the guys didn’t want,” said Nancy, who declined to give her last name. “I’d be there in the morning to make them breakfast, sleep while they’re at school, and then be there for them when they got off the bus and make them dinner.
“I tried the best I could.”
She eventually made it through that rough patch, only to have life toss her another curve ball. She fell in love again, moved to Florida, and later returned to Bristol broken-hearted.
In the process, the house she and her husband had in Barrington was lost to foreclosure.
“We had a renter who we thought was paying the mortgage,” she said. “Apparently they weren’t.”
To make matters worse, Nancy also lost her job when the bridge toll went away. She tried working odd-jobs, even secured a waitressing gig. However, her ailing health didn’t allow for her to be on her feet very long. The economy didn’t help either and soon she was laid-off.
Jobless, homeless, and nearly hopeless, Nancy had just about given up when she learned she qualified for a federal housing assistance program.
Through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Nancy was able to rent her own apartment under the Housing Choice Voucher Program, more commonly known as Section 8. Qualifying participants can have their rent offset, and in some cases entirely paid for, by HUD.
Locally, the Bristol Housing Authority (BHA) manages the voucher program. Working off a waiting list, the BHA issues housing vouchers to families whose income is either “very low” or “low” regarding the area’s median income, according to HUD guidelines.
Getting on the waiting list, however, isn’t as easy as making a phone call, said Candace Pansa, BHA Executive Director.
“We can only give out as many vouchers as federal funding will provide,” Ms. Pansa said.
BHA adds new families to the waiting list every few years because the need exceeds demand. The last time BHA opened its waiting list in August 2010, they received more than 1,700 applications.
“The waiting list was only open for a short period of time,” Ms. Pansa said. “Just four hours. We were shocked to see that in that short period of time, we had so many people.”
The line of applicants snaked from BHA’s main office on Hope Street up to Metacom Avenue.
“People did camp out overnight at the door,” she said. “And it just shows you the need and desperation of people looking for subsidized housing.”
That waiting list has dwindled to 229 applicants, enabling the BHA to once again open the list and solicit applications. Ms. Pansa is hopeful to open the waiting list in April, but a specific day and time had not yet been set.
“We go through and purge the list monthly,” said Juliann Giusti, coordinator of BHA’s housing voucher program. “Someone may no longer be interested, for whatever reason, or they’ve moved or no longer qualify.”
In Bristol, the BHA spends $110,000 per month on 156 housing voucher leases, which helps 353 people. Those benefiting from the program range from senior citizens and disabled residents, to families or single parents.
“I believe that most of those people are good and don’t take advantage of the situation,” Nancy said, who recently earned disability status with the Social Security Administration. “It’s there to help you when you need it, and most people would rather be making it on their own.”
BHA housing vouchers can be used for any apartment where a landlord has been approved to accept them. In most cases, it requires that the landlord takes a hit on rental income. The BHA pays out rental assistance well below market value for Bristol, Ms. Pansa said. And renters are not allowed to make up the difference out of their pocket.
“The problem is that our rental guidelines are based on what you’d pay in Providence,” she said. “And we’re more in line with Newport County.”