The pockmarked road from homeless to Section 8 housing

Homeless people can in theory get into Section 8 housing; explore voucher funding, how programs work and what homeless people encounter to get one


The Section 8 housing voucher program is managed by public housing authorities. How does it help with homelessness, and how do homeless people get into section 8 housing?

The Rise of Section 8 Rapid Rehousing Vouchers for The Homeless

According to the 2015 Family Options Study conducted for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Section 8 housing subsidy program was more effective at reducing homelessness than temporary assistance programs. Permanent vouchers were seen as more likely than crisis intervention programs in providing stable housing, and rapid rehousing grants increased during the Obama Administration.

Earlier this year, we looked at what the competitive 2016 HUD homelessness grants that focused on rapid rehousing and permanent housing solutions meant for cities. Competition is steep, and public housing advocates face routine concern about subsidies running out.

When Budgets Cut Section 8 Housing Vouchers

When the Trump Administration proposed the 2017 “skinny budget,” it included nine key cuts to HUD funding, including lowering direct rental assistance payments — Section 8 Housing and homeless veterans vouchers — by $300 million. According to Affordable Housing Finance’s Trump-Carson 2018 Housing Budget Cut Estimator, which communities can use to estimate the impact on them, the 2018 budget proposes a 4.8 percent cut to federal housing vouchers.

Public housing authorities report falling behind as existing funding has failed to keep up with expenses needed to grow or even maintain rental assistance programs. Further, CityLab reported some public housing agencies turn to preemptive cost-cutting by withholding vouchers, or worse, releasing homeless from the section 8 program. Using the calculator, more than 790 Nevada families would lose their section 8 vouchers under the proposed 2018 budget.

Cutting the funding, they say, will have a ripple effect on several issues communities face:

It’s important to understand how these programs underpin other objectives that the country has around healthcare costs, about quality of life, around children succeeding in school,” said Stephen Norman, director of the King County Housing Authority in Washington and president of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. “None of that works unless there’s affordable housing.”

How the Section 8 Housing Voucher System Works

David Hood, a top Quora writer and a former shelter case manager according to his LinkedIn profile, discussed what it takes to get a housing voucher in his answer to the Quora question, How hard is it for a homeless person to get on Section 8 housing?

“It really depends on a bunch of factors:
  • How many vouchers are in the system in a given area as they are not distributed evenly
  • How taxed the local voucher pool is and how bad the housing market is
  • How many people with a preference are on the list already and if the person applying has a preference
  • How much churn of vouchers there are and are new vouchers injected in the system from the Fed

For example my locale is very taxed. Rents have shot up a good deal in the last few years and new construction has been slow to meet demand. My city has a less than 1 percent vacancy rate. My state is small both physically and in population not making it a high priority to get new vouchers from the Fed so the system is very dependent on ‘churn’ of voucher given up by people who already have them. This has created a perfect storm. In my city people with a preference have a wait of 6–10 years, people without one are better off burning the free application for warmth unless they think they can add a preference in the near future.

What is all this talk about “preferences” anyway?

People who apply to Section 8 come from two pools of applications, those are:

  • Preference: Elderly (65+), Families with Children under age 18, Non-Elderly Disabled, and Veterans
  • Non-Preference: People who do not fall in the above categories or can’t prove it, but do meet the financial requirements aka: The Poor.

People with a ‘preference’ get vouchers first. As long as people in these categories apply people in the second group keep waiting. In many places that means forever.

Did you notice what is not considered a preference? Right, Homelessness in and of itself is not a preference within the Section 8 system. There are very small ‘pilot programs’ that serve a handful of people in each state, but its a drop in the bucket, and totally inaccessible once full. Sometimes communities will have surplus vouchers of one type or another and work with homelessness groups to try to better address the need, but this is also rare.

So the lesson is if you are homeless and qualify based on income and you want to have a shot at getting a voucher you need to prove you have a preference. If you are over 65 or have young children it is as simple as checking a box and providing some common identifying documents.

Generally though if you had those preferences it would be obvious. Being disabled is not as straight forward. This is especially true if you have a clear disability, don’t receive SSDI, and have limited to no treatment history. In this case you file a non-preference application and hope to upgrade it by proving you are disabled through gathering old records and seeking new lines of treatment. Basically you have a long road.

For people who served in the armed services it can be an equally frustrating and long road. There are special vouchers for veterans who’s service history is solid. For example I met an elderly Korean War Veteran with 30+ years of service and his wife who lost their home in a natural disaster. He and his wife got emergency housing that night and were housed in a week. This is the only example I have of this happening and is a great example of the system working correctly. Generally people qualify for lesser and varying degrees of services from situations like the above to nothing at all. Figuring out where one falls can be a good amount of effort. Indeed I met a couple folks that qualified for some housing supports who when I first asked about their service history were convinced that this avenue was a dead end. Some qualify for short term housing supports but not ongoing ones. For example one may not get a Veteran focused Section 8 voucher, but might get SSVF services which will pay rent for a short period of time.

So, in closing the Section 8 system is a very complex one with lots of factors going into a wait time. It is not like a line at a deli where the number on your little slip of paper makes it pretty clear how long your wait will be. This is why advocates and support people can help with navigating the process.”

Navigating Section 8 Housing May be Overly Complex

Andrew Baisley, a New Yorker who develops strategic partnerships for Facebook and Instagram according to his LinkedIn profile, answered that Section 8 housing program in New York City is so complicated, homeless people he spoke with often don’t approach it.

“There are pages and pages of rules and regulations. Some coming from the federal level, some from state and, in the case of my city, from the city itself, which administers the program.

You can begin to imagine how difficult it might be for a person suffering from severe mental illness or a crippling drug addiction to navigate this system. In many, many cases, the homeless know that this resource is available to them, but simply don’t bother.

I’ve heard from several homeless that they think it’s easier to just stay on the street. This probably stems more from apathy than reality - I can’t imagine, all other things being equal, that there’s any time that living on the street is “easier” than in an apartment.

[Department of Human Services] can help applicants navigate the system, but imagine a government program that you’ve dealt with, maybe the [Department of Motor Vehicles], and multiply that frustration ten fold. These aren’t pretty places and even the homeless don’t enjoy spending time there.

This is why it’s so important to provide varying levels of support for the homeless. No one program fits all, which is where mental health services, needle exchanges, soup kitchens, clinics and temporary shelters come in. In many cases, introducing a homeless person to productive society is a long and thankless process, requiring several baby steps along the way. Section 8 housing is somewhere towards the end of that timeline.”

Preference May Not Exist in Some Section 8 Housing Programs

Bridget Winters, who describes herself as homeless and “Lives in Ghettos,” answered:

“I was homeless and here in the county I am, there is a 2 year wait list for everybody -- homeless or not. It’s gotten so bad that having kids or a disability won’t even push the process along any faster. It’s not that hard to submit the application, the wait is what kills everyone. Unfortunately we had a few idiots in the shelter who don’t work for the county at all were telling the women there that if they had a family or disability, they’d bee seen a lot faster-not the case. Of course many bought it and started to wait for their letter, but didn’t realize they had to wait the two years. Most got tired of waiting and left to live with families and friends.”

Learn more about Section 8 from an FAQ on

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.

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