Nkechi Feaster’s story begins like those of so many other victims of the Great Recession. After she was laid off from her job at a law firm in 2007, work became increasingly difficult to come by. Three times over the next four years, she was hired, and three times she was laid off. Then the hiring stopped altogether. Even the temp jobs dried up.
“Everything just stopped, basically,” she says. “The interviewing was really sporadic. The hiring wasn’t happening.”
Feaster fell behind on her rent, was evicted from her apartment, and landed, with her teenage son, at the family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. They spent 11 months there, during which time her son graduated from high school and was admitted to Michigan State University. Then the city tossed her a lifeline.
The city’s primary tool for placing homeless families into homes is a program called rapid rehousing. Rather than becoming permanent recipients of subsidy vouchers, rapid rehousing participants receive rental assistance for just a short period of time: a guaranteed four months, with possible extensions for up to a year or more. After that, the subsidy stops, and the family continues to pay rent on its own. Instead of a crutch, the family gets a leg up to help it support itself.
But for Feaster and many other rapid rehousing participants, self-sufficiency at a time of increasingly unaffordable housing is a longshot. When Feaster was placed into an apartment through the program in 2012—her son had just left for college—she had been unemployed for three years and was doubtful she’d be able to pay her own way when the city cut off her subsidy.
“I did not want rapid rehousing, because that was my longest layoff,” Feaster says. “And I was thinking, if I’ve been laid off this long, what am I going to find in four months before I have to pay market-rate rent again?”
Feaster did receive an extension of her rapid rehousing subsidy, but since she found a job at a nonprofit, the city determined that she could support herself and set a May 1 end date for her subsidy. The trouble is that her part-time job is on a contract basis. Her initial six-month contract was extended, but her current contract expires on the same day as her subsidy. After that, she has no idea if she’ll have any source of income. If she’s out of work, she’ll file for unemployment, but she doubts it’ll be enough to cover her $950-a-month rent and other expenses.
“That’s the part I don’t get,” Feaster says. “When you get a little bit of money, they say fine, you’re OK, you’re on your own.”