Waitlisted: A Brevard County mom’s struggle to secure Section 8 emergency housing vouchers
Carolyn Karsk says this is the first time she's ever been homeless.
She prepared dinner in the tight squeeze of a two-bed, extended stay hotel room in Melbourne that she shared with her five children. Her oldest sons, 17 and 16, were helping serve their two younger brothers, 9 and 6, and their only sister, 4.
It was organized chaos for the family of six. Luckily, her 9-year-old son, who is autistic, and her little girl are more interested in their tablets than in eating. Otherwise, it might have been too much for her to handle with a reporter in the room.
Still, Karsk said, this living situation is a step up from sleeping in their 2004 Chevy Tahoe, which the family had to do after irreconcilable differences with her landlord resulted in an eviction last June.
The family spent the better part of 2023 as transient residents and have grown weary of it. While she is trying her best to stay positive, Karsk said, she needs a home for her kids.
"I worry about my kids all the time, they come first.” Karsk. “I could do this by myself — I would sleep in a truck; I wouldn’t care — but with my kids? I don't want my kids to wake up in a truck, I don’t want my kids to go to sleep in a truck, or I don't want them bullied about looking homeless, being homeless.”
Before this, Karsk said she had always been able to keep a roof over their heads. With five children, working part-time at a local Tijuana Flats worked well for her, supplemented by some government assistance. However, after the pandemic hit, and Florida reaching record-high inflation, median and low wage jobs could not keep up with the area’s unsustainable housing market.
Exacerbating matters, the recent record-high number of eviction cases in Central Florida threatens to increase the number of hardships like Karsk’s. An eviction makes it nearly impossible for someone to rent again, increasing the need for housing assistance. An eviction also disqualifies an individual from participating in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher program, better known as Section 8.
Karsk is not alone
This leaves Karsk, as well as tens of thousands of others, seeking Emergency Housing Vouchers as a last resort — also part of Section 8, but these run in even shorter supply and are available only through a strict referral program. Even if Karsk could qualify for traditional Section 8, all housing agencies across Central Florida stopped taking applications in 2023 and closed their waitlists for most of the year. Housing agencies are at capacity, and those lucky enough to make the waitlist could be waiting years.
“We have people who have been on there for 15 years, but the exact number for the Section 8 (waiting list) is 14,643,” said Vivian Bryant, who is the director at Orlando Housing Authority, an agency that oversees several cities across Orange County.
Karsk represents a vulnerable demographic of people with extremely low income who need housing assistance. Bryant said that the concept of “lazy people looking for a handout is a myth.” She said 51% of Section 8 and EHV cases are aging adults on fixed incomes, such as retirement or disability paychecks.
The rest are what she called “the working poor.”
“The households who are not elderly and disabled are required to work,” Bryant said. “It’s a need. There's a gap between incomes and housing costs because the incomes are not keeping up with the cost of housing.”
Vouchers can either partially or fully pay for someone's rent and utilities, but it is up to the individual applying for assistance to find a landlord willing to take payments in the form of government vouchers. In Orange County, a landlord must accept any form of payment for rent, as long as the money was legally acquired, but many still refuse to accept Section 8 vouchers.
In the meantime, the number of units requiring government subsidies is on the rise, according to Bryant, because rents are high and wages low. According to the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, this is what drives homelessness. Bryant said “it’s a real problem.”
“We serve the working poor. Even though households are working, the rents have increased to the point where it is still not affordable,” Bryant said. “It's going to get worse because the number of units that need to be subsidized increases because of aging households and incomes not keeping up with inflation. And so, there is that need for more government assistance.”
Bryant said that, outside of systemic issues, there are also policy limitations that can shorten the reach of agencies like OHA. She said that once a housing voucher is given out to someone, that voucher is that voucher is allocated for the year and can't be redistributed, even if the recipient works themselves out of the system.
HUD disperses federal funds to local housing agencies across the U.S. once a year, and right now, Bryant said, Congress cannot agree on how many federal dollars should be spent on government housing assistance. She said the proposal is currently for a 1% increase in discretionary spending, but she wishes it could be more.
“Folks look at us, and they think the housing authority’s not doing a good job. We're doing the best we can with the resources that we have,” Bryant said.
Across Central Florida, some of the longest wait times for housing vouchers are in Lake Wales, where people wait an average of 69 months to receive assistance — that’s almost six years. In Seminole County that number is 53 months, and in Osceola it’s 43, with Orange County trailing just behind at 38, according to HUD.
It takes a village
Back in the Space Coast, Community Organizer Anna Dahl decided to step in when she learned about Karsk and her family. Dahl said Karsk is an upstanding community member in Melbourne and the surrounding areas, who consistently volunteers, even when suffering great need herself.
According to Dahl, Karsk is known for showing up and offering her time, food, or vehicle to help the community organize to help others who are experiencing poverty or homelessness. Dahl said this how she came to find out about their living situation.
“I found out they are currently homeless because she saw I made a post about Mutual Aid Brevard having a luncheon and us needing help with food, and she reached out asking, ‘Is there anything I could do to help?’ While they're living in their truck,” Dahl said, her voice breaking, as she held back tears. “When I found out, I said, ‘Alright, let's see what we can figure out.’”
Ever since, Dahl has worked tirelessly to provide Karsk and her family with some form of housing. With help from donors, Dahl has been able to keep the family from sleeping in their truck, affording several weeks of hotel stays — but the funds eventually ran out.
“We've contacted different organizations for help. Carolyn (Karsk) has applied for housing, and we're just hoping and waiting for something to open. In the meantime, there's only so many people to reach out to for help,” Dahl said.
Karsk said she reached out to just about every resource available to her. This is how she was able to be diligent in following up with her cases, keeping appointments, doing laundry, picking up meals, finding shelter, and helping out.
Shelters are tough, Karsk said, because many will not allow her teenage boys to stay. Others only provide dinner, overnight service, and breakfast, but ask that residents spend the day elsewhere — a tall order for the mother of a child who is not yet of school age. Shelters also do not allow mothers to leave their children behind while they go to work, and most of them impose strict curfews, so getting daytime or nighttime work was not an alternative.
“It's hard. It is so hard,” Karsk said. “When I had my caseworker through Brevard CARES, they only offered me a tent. Like, who the heck wants to live in a tent in the woods with their kids?”
The hustle paid off
In the end, Karsk’s perseverance, the community collective, and a strike of luck all came together in her favor. Dahl found out about an emergency housing voucher opening up and went through the motions with Karsk to ensure they could nab it. Karsk then hustled to find a landlord, but not just any landlord.
It would have to be the landlord of a house with the right number of rooms for her big family, who has a property near her kids’ schools, accepts Section 8 as payment, and happens to have an empty home ready for new tenants right away. A daunting task.
After several rejections, someone connected her to a landlord who checked all the boxes. But then, there’s the inspection. Over the holidays, Karsk didn’t get her hopes up.
But on Dec. 21, the house passed inspection, and Karsk was handed the keys to her new home — a three-bedroom house with an office, a backyard, and a garage, located in a friendly neighborhood. The family got to have Christmas morning under the tree in their own living room.
Earlier this month, the smell of barbeque and upbeat music filled the air outside of Karsk’s home, as new neighbors and friends showed up to their housewarming party. Karsk hummed with a smile, as she stirred and seasoned food in her full-size kitchen. Off the grill, the family served up ribs, burgers, hot dogs, and chicken; from the kitchen, she served collard greens, baked beans, seafood pasta, baked mac n cheese, and rice. A lot of food, but the family is big, the love was pouring in, and any transient individuals who walked or cycled by were invited to come back to pick up a plate of food to go.
As she detailed her plans for a home theater in the family room, the kids could be heard playing with friends in the backyard. Her eyes were bright, and her smile was shining. Karsk said she couldn't be happier.
“Definitely beats being in a hotel. Just being in our own house and not having to worry about where we're going to sleep, how am I going to do this, how am I going to do that, what are we going to eat tonight,” she said. “This is our home, and we get to wake up every day in our own beds.”
Being comfortable and safe again is great, but Karsk said this is only the beginning. With the help of vouchers, she said she plans to save money and apply for a first-time homebuyer program later this year.
“I definitely have goals. I definitely want to have a house of my own. I want the kids to have a pool in the backyard. I want to make my mortgage payments,” she said. “I want to be able to do that for my kids.”
After packing up a generous plate of food, Karsk waved good-bye, and headed back into her kitchen. Still wearing that huge smile, she walked back into her home, into her peace of mind.
Sitting the kids down for dinner will be easier this time.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.