IJahQueen Is Peniel calls herself a survivor and a fighter. Like many fighters, she is losing weight, but not because she is preparing for a title bout. She is stressed and cannot sleep. Her housing for the last three years has been the source of extreme anxiety, and as a result of what she believes was a paperwork error, she is losing her access to state-funded housing support.
Being hit by a car in 2015, beating pancreatic cancer, and escaping abusive relationships have taken their toll on Peniel. The ongoing housing struggles have not made recovery easier. In her initial application for housing with Maryland’s Housing Initiative Program, a permanent supportive housing program that provides access to a housing subsidy and other social services, she specified that she needed a ground-floor unit because she could not walk or climb stairs easily as a result of knee and back injuries sustained in the car accident.
The first apartment she was placed in was on the fifth floor of a building where the elevator did not always work. It was also only two blocks away from her abuser. The apartment she has lived in since Jan. 13, 2018, is also on the fifth floor. “Everything I’ve specifically asked for, I haven’t gotten,” Peniel said.
The lease agreement for her current apartment was drafted Nov. 25, 2017. She signed her lease on Dec. 19, 2017, and the landlord was paid the next day. But when Peniel signed the lease, the landlord had not. The permanent supportive housing program paid $1,304 for the first month’s rent, but Peniel soon found out she was in fact still on the hook for the rent. Peniel said she was notified of the issue by the landlord’s property manager. When contacted by Street Sense, the property manager said they could not discuss the situation given the private nature of a person’s housing.
Peniel went to court in August 2018 with support from Maryland Legal Aid, but the judge ruled she owed the landlord $833.20. In October 2018 she received an eviction notice but was able to pay the landlord two days before the eviction date.
The landlord decided they did not want to renew Peniel’s lease. She was going to lose her permanent supportive housing voucher because she would be without a valid lease, a requirement of the program, but requested an administrative review hearing with the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services to demonstrate the merits of her case. The hearing was rescheduled once around a day Peniel was scheduled to have three teeth pulled. But when the hearing finally occurred, she was denied an extension to have more time to collect evidence. She was told the money the landlord had been paid the day after she signed the lease was a “holding fee,” not the first rent payment she had thought it was. Still, her housing support is being terminated.
Ilana Branda, Montgomery County’s deputy chief for Services to End and Prevent Homelessness, said that they could not comment on the specifics of Peniel’s case because of the private nature of the situation. Branda said being terminated from the HIP program is not permanent and only affects a program participant’s access to the housing subsidy. Terminated participants are moved to an “inactive” file and retain access to their other services, like a case manager. If, in the future, the participant and their case manager feel they are ready, that person can reapply for the voucher.
Peniel said that she has no interest in seeking funds from the state again after feeling mistreated and ignored. “I don’t want nothing to do with them.” When asked if she would continue to utilize the case manager services, she said that her case manager has been no help and she feels the state agencies have made this harder for her. “How do you get a master’s to make a mess?” she said.
Housing benefits are renewable as long as individuals continue to meet the program’s criteria, Branda said, including holding a valid lease. Losing a lease through eviction or holding over on a property, staying after the lease has expired, is grounds for termination. “If we become aware of a situation, we bring [clients] in and try talking through an issue,” Branda said.
Following such a conversation, participants may receive a first termination notice. This is accompanied by an informal hearing where a mediator can either issue conditions to continue to receive benefits or uphold the termination. In either case, another notice is sent and the participant can request an Administrative Review Hearing in front of a three person panel. This panel can issue new conditions or uphold the termination. The participant then gets an additional notice confirming the decision.
Peniel was notified on Feb. 21 that she was holding over on the property, or continuing to occupy it after the rental agreement has ended.
Since January 2016 only 6 percent of HIP participants have received a termination notice, and less than 3 percent of participants have been terminated from the housing subsidy portion of the program, Branda wrote in an email to Street Sense Media.
Terminations can be overturned if certain criteria are met. Since the program follows the Housing First model, where clients receive housing assistance before they are required to address other issues such as addiction or physical health concerns, these include paying rent and utilities. “In most cases we’re able to find common ground with the participant, with their case worker,” Branda said. “It is very rare to not reach that common ground.”
On top of the stress of being behind on rent, Peniel’s time in the apartment has not been easy. All her furniture had been delivered two days before she moved in, except for her bed. There was an extra delivery fee to get her bed to the fifth floor that she could not afford. Despite her knee and back pain, she slept on the couch, where she has stayed since because she has been unable to get assistance with the bed. Peniel said she also experienced some plumbing and toilet trouble in the unit and, for a brief time, she “went in a bag.”
In the first fifth-floor unit she was placed in, the one in the same neighborhood as the abuser Peniel was trying to evade, she recalled competing for space with “swarms” of flies. She lived near the trash room, but the owners told her there had never been flies during their 25 years with the building. To Peniel, who describes herself as very clean, a holdover from all her years as a nurse, this was untenable.
She spent 18 months living with the flies, and the second summer there she wound up with a dead bird and a dead rat in her apartment. The coordinator for her permanent supportive housing program wrote a letter dated Nov. 3, 2016, that was shown to Street Sense Media stating the property failed its inspection and was reported to Landlord/Tenant Affairs. They added that Peniel had spent her own money on dealing with the issues and was two months behind on her rent, as a result. This put her in violation of the lease and at risk of eviction, which would have meant the loss of her HIP voucher as well.
Peniel has received various notes from her doctors requesting that she be put in new accommodations. In February 2018, her rehab doctor wrote a note to the property manager saying Peniel was unable to climb stairs due to chronic knee and back pain. In November 2018, her oncologist wrote asking that she not go through more housing-related emotional stress to “maximize this patient’s chances for an optimal physical recovery, but also aid her in maintaining the mental stability that is so very vital for the management of her serious medical condition.”
Peniel is getting care to be able to go back to work and support herself. She has been a board-certified nurse in Maryland since 1983, specializing as a geriatric nursing assistant and a bereavement specialist. She is eager to get back to work helping others. “I’m just praying to get better so I can be independent. I can’t even focus on that,” Peniel said, alluding to the constant emergencies and distractions that come along with poor housing conditions and instability.
Without her HIP support she will need to find a new place to live without state assistance. Without family support, she tried to start a GoFundMe page to be able to afford a place of her own, but she thinks she will have to share a space to be able to afford it. Peniel knows two things for sure: She will not move back near her abuser and she will keep surviving. “Everywhere I’ve been for three years has not been safe or healthy for me,” Peniel said. Speaking metaphorically, she added, “there was a fire and look what happened, I’ve been burned.”
Peniel needs to vacate by May 1, and per her termination notice, her HIP benefits will be officially terminated on May 31.
Read her poem, A Prayer for Safe Housing, here.