“I’m just happy and grateful to have a place to call home,” said Christina Whitehurst, a single mother, and resident of the Johnson Homes projects located in North Philadelphia. Seeing her children run around their new home, braid each other’s hair, and share laughs immediately make you understand why this woman, who once lived in a shelter, is so proud to at least have a stable roof over her head.
Unfortunately, due to lack of city resources, unintended neglect, and an unspoken but common feeling of “people should just be happy to have a home,” many residents, like Christina, are left yearning for more.
Last summer, I visited Chandra Deal, founder of Warm Hearts & Homes (WHH), a nonprofit organization designed to help transitioning homeless families assimilate smoothly into independent living. Much of the housing is provided through the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) and the HUD section 8 programs.
Currently, WHH is a one-woman show. Essentially, Chandra spends her time and money helping these families navigate through paperwork, physically move into their new homes, and furnish the space with items that make any house feel homelier. Her goal is to give something to families in which they can be proud of and, most importantly, to create an environment where children are in the best position to succeed.
Through the WHH program, I wanted to visit Christina’s family to learn more about their ups and downs and to see how, long term, through my work, I could assist them and people in similar situations. During our chat, I heard some good things, issues that were expressed, and general items of note I think would leave anyone’s head spinning.
My biggest takeaways are listed below…
Public housing has ways to go
From the moment I entered the Johnson Homes projects, I felt more could be done. While 100,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing in Philadelphia, there were surprisingly tons of available units sitting empty, all around me. The homes that were occupied felt like mini dungeons. Christina’s entrance was dark, cement-laden, and dreary. Most homes had bedsheets where you’d normally see drapes hanging in front the window. I had always wondered why there was a fascination with draping bedsheets across the windows of apartments in the hood. What I came to find was that even the interior walls are composed of hardened cement.
What this means is that you have a tough time hanging up drapes, your TV, pictures, etc. unless you’re extremely handy with tools. That said, while the walls are super hard they’re also super hollow, letting exterior sounds just pour in. Christina mentioned that she could hear EVERYTHING her neighbors were doing. As you can imagine, that’s not always the most conducive environment for small children to grow up in.
At one point in the interview, I asked if residents are questioned about health issues when filling out the application forms. Christina replied “yes.” But, she quickly followed by saying: they don’t seem to take what folks express into consideration. She mentioned that she’s had 11 surgeries on her ankle and has extreme trouble walking, especially upstairs. At the time, she was even scheduled for another surgery two months away. After telling the PHA officers about this in her application, they still placed her in a 3 story walkup. In the case of public housing, it’s important to understand that it all comes down to what’s available; but, by at least clearly communicating that point, residents won’t feel like they’re getting shafted or ignored.
Every public housing management crew is different
Depending on where you live makes all the difference in the quality of service you may get while living in public housing. I’ve personally met with many government officials and they constantly speak to the inconsistencies in how the public housing space is being run. Those same sentiments were shared by the residents.
Chandra and Christina both mentioned that the management gives off vibes of “the tenants should just be happy they have a home and settle for whatever…” While there is truth to being grateful for your home, there also is a need to treat humans like humans and not think of them as less than.
There’s virtually no use of modern technology in assessing maintenance requests or filing complaints. You simply make a call and talk to the person in the office that day. You’re not even given a confirmation number or a finite date in which a maintenance issue will be handled. Additionally, this is a government agency, yet they don’t always hire certified people to do maintenance work. Christina had holes all throughout the bottom of her walls from shotty carpentry work. When they finally had a professional come out, they said the entire project was done incorrectly.
Chandra and WHH are doing amazing things
Although much of our chat looked at the ways in which public housing needs to improve, it’s important to highlight and raise up the great work people are doing in the community to make things better.
During my interview with Christina, she couldn’t stop expressing how much of a Godsend Chandra and her organization were. WHH purchased the furniture and even designed and outfitted the entire interior of the home. Between the family and WHH, they meet once a month, now that Christina and her children are no longer in the shelter, just to check in, catch up, and have a good time.
It was truly a blessing for me to watch how they interacted. Chandra is a young, driven woman and a single mother of her own two little ones, who attended the visit, as well, and were super courteous and respectful of Christina’s family. While her sons caught up on Game of Thrones, we held the interview in the living room.
My favorite moment of the interview
I asked Christina what’s next for her and her family. To which, she replied: “I’m appreciative of all Chandra has done for us; but, she and I both know this isn’t the last stop for us. I’m going to live and progress here and then we’re on to our real home.” One in which the government need not assist them in any way.
If you’d like to learn more and assist, the nonprofit, Warm Hearts & Homes in their work, you can make a donation right from their website (link above). Or, if you’re in the Philly area, you can make your way over to their charity event on May 27th by RSVPing here.