By Liz Tung
For most people, Thanksgiving offers a chance to kick back with family. But for Ricci Rawls and her five kids, it meant something different this year: losing their home.
In early November, Rawls received word that her family was being evicted from the North Philadelphia row home where they’ve lived for the last nine months. Rawls said the Office of Homeless Services placed them there but ran out of funding after the first four months.
Now, nearly half-a-year later, they were finally being evicted. Officially they had until the beginning of December to leave. But Rawls said her landlord’s lawyer pressed for an earlier deadline — Thanksgiving Day.
For Rawls, who’s spent the last year struggling to keep her family together, it was a cruel reminder of what she has to lose.
“I could lose my children over being homeless,” Rawls said. “For me, that’s the worst part.”
That fear was born several years ago, during Rawl’s last bout of homelessness.
“The shelters didn’t have space, so I turned to DHS [the Department of Human Services] for help,” she said. “Instead, they removed my children.”
It destroyed her trust in government agencies — but it also helped her get on Philadelphia’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, which uses federal funds to help low-income people pay their rent.
Under HCV, Rawls rented an apartment in West Philadelphia and got her children back.
Her family’s descent back into homelessness started two years later, in September 2017. That’s when the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) booted Rawls from its rental assistance program following a legal spat with her former landlord, Thomas Flack.
The dispute started in the fall of 2016 after Rawls says Flack refused to return her security deposit. Soon after, Flack filed a lawsuit against Rawls and the Philadelphia Housing Authority for $72 in unpaid rent and over $3,000 of property damages.
Rawls missed the first court date, leading to a default decision in Flack’s favor. She appealed and managed to make the second one, in which denied responsibility for the damages. But in the end, the court awarded Flack $1,627.50. When Rawls didn’t pay, Flack complained to the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which responded in September 2017 by terminating Rawls’ rental assistance. (Flack didn’t return requests for comment.)
It was a major blow for Rawls, who relied heavily on the assistance to pay her rent. Without it, they quickly lost their home. They spent the next few months on the street.
“We stayed on family members’ living room floor, church pews, Dunkin’ Donuts, rented rooms, hotels — anywhere that I considered a safe haven,” Rawls said.
In the meantime, Rawls sought out help from as many groups as she could. She enlisted the Philadelphia Tenants Union to help appeal the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s decision, which Rawls said is based on an incomplete and outdated court judgment.
The group launched a campaign to reverse the termination. They talked with city council members, held demonstrations, petitioned supportive housing officials. They also investigated Rawls’ former landlord, Thomas Flack, and found that he had a history of harassing, suing and intimidating tenants.
David Thompson, secretary of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, said they’ve seen an increase in this kind of behavior among landlords, especially among the city’s most vulnerable low-income tenants.
“Housing voucher landlords make a lot of money just going through a revolving door of vulnerable single mothers,” Thompson said. “And as soon as they want that person out, they can get them out very easily, and get a new desperate single mother in.”
Much of their power, he said, derives from landlords’ widespread reluctance to accept tenants who rely on government subsidies to pay their rent.
“The housing choice voucher program is under so much pressure to get landlords who are willing to take those vouchers that they are often willing to look the other way when landlords do the wrong thing,” Thompson said.
Kirk Dorn, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, disputed that.
“We’re not a big, bad bureaucracy that wants to do the wrong thing,” he said. “This is the clientele that we serve, and we want to serve.”
Dorn admitted that the agency appeared to have used outdated court materials as the basis for its decision not to readmit Rawls to the voucher program, but said it didn’t affect the substance of her case. Though Rawls has challenged the strength and validity of Thomas Flack’s evidence for property damage, Dorn says they ultimately found him more convincing.
“Sympathetic as we are to this tenant and would love to reinstate her into the program, she did abuse the opportunity to be in the program,” he said. “We advocate for our clients, but we also have to protect property owners when a client breaks the rules.”
As for Rawls, she’s just about given up on nonprofit and government assistance. She said she’s tried other supportive housing agencies, like the Office of Homeless Services — but she always gets the same answer: “Try back later.”
“My hope in the system is gone completely,” Rawls said. “It left us just like slipping through the cracks.”
Instead, Rawls is exploring other avenues for help. In September, she set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for rent — now that they’ve been evicted, she’s using it for food and clothes.
She’s even thinking about leaving Philadelphia.
“Get on a train, go to a different state, and hope somebody cares enough to help,” she said. “That — or stay, and lose my kids.” — (WHYY)