Daisha Frischman and her one-year-old son, Omary, walk to their apartment in Allentown. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)
In Allentown, Pennsylvania, there’s a red brick building with a green door. Twelve families live there. They’re almost all single moms with kids, and they are all, by federal definition, homeless.
The families are part of a transitional housing program called Turner Street. It’s two years long, and its purpose is to give them what they need to pull themselves out of poverty.
The program is one of thousands across the country that operate under a certain assumption: that people who end up homeless don’t know how to take care of themselves — and they need to be taught. This idea has fallen out of favor with the federal government.
We’ve followed three women since January as they have made their way through Turner Street. Their experiences raise a question: when people are homeless, how much help do they need?
On a January afternoon, Michelle Andrews put her infant son in a carrier car seat, gathered her two daughters, and hurried out the door of their apartment.
“They were like, ‘Why are we running through the snow, like hiding’?” she said.
She told them they were playing hide and seek.
They wandered around Allentown for a couple hours.
“I was scared to call my family, because the one thing he would always say is, whoever you call for help, that he would hurt them,” she said.
“He” was her partner at the time, and she says he was abusive.
Michelle spent the next year renting out run-down rooms in Allentown. She shared a bed with the kids, but they didn’t all fit, so they slept sideways, with her son, Gabe, on her chest.
“From having my knees bent for so long, every single night, my knees got messed up,” she said. “Because I guess you’re not supposed to really sleep like that.”
And then, against the odds, Michelle started college classes at Lehigh Carbon Community College. She had wanted to go back to school when she was with her ex, but he wouldn’t let her, she says.
Michelle went to school at night, and to pay the rent, she worked as a nurse’s aide during the day.
She opened up about her living situation to a counselor at school, who suggested she apply for a program called Turner Street.
Most government-funded housing programs provide housing, but nothing more. Turner Street is different. It’s called transitional housing, and it offers affordable apartments to parents who are in school full-time.
Residents also get a caseworker, free food, household items, and after two years, a voucher for a private apartment. In exchange, they have to follow strict rules and keep up their grades in school.
The goal of the Turner Street program is to help residents become self-sufficient, says Alan Jennings, director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, the nonprofit that runs Turner Street. Jennings says self-sufficiency often comes down to getting vocational training or a college degree.
“We want to give [the residents] the time and the space to be able to do that, so at the end, they can get a job that’s meaningful, that pays the bills, and hopefully they’ll never be in crisis again,” Jennings said.
Michelle told her counselor she didn’t qualify for Turner Street. “For the longest time, I swear, I was like, ‘I’m not homeless,’” she said.
This is a common refrain. There’s an idea that to be homeless, a person has to be sleeping on the streets. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a much broader definition. You’re homeless if you can’t afford permanent housing and have to live in your car, or if you’re staying in a shelter or transitional housing, or if you’re renting single rooms, like Michelle was.
Eventually, Michelle applied to Turner Street, and she got in. On her move-in day, she fell to her knees crying in front of the building manager. “I was just so excited,” she said.
“‘The lady was like, ‘alright we’ve got to like, sign the lease,’” she said.
Daisha Frischman’s moment of crisis came early. She got pregnant in March of her junior year of high school. She had been dating her boyfriend for about a month. They fell in love fast.
“We didn’t talk about having a baby, but I don’t know if I would call it a mistake either,” Daisha said. “We just kind of let it happen.”
Soon after, Daisha dropped out of school. She gave birth to a son and called him Omary. Things went sour with Omary’s father, so she and her son moved around — crashing with her mom, her grandmother, and a friend.
“It was just too much,” Daisha said. “That’s too many different faces, too many different homes, too many different beds. I couldn’t have my son living like that.”
Daisha moved into the Sixth Street Shelter, a temporary housing program run by the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley.
Then she applied for a spot at Turner Street. She saw it as an escape from a future she didn’t want.
“I didn’t want to have to be that mom that has to work two jobs and can’t spend time with her child,” Daisha said. “My son — I love him. He’s a blessing. I want to be able to watch him grow.”
There was no guarantee Daisha would get into Turner Street.
Government housing assistance is typically awarded based on a person’s income. If you’re under the threshold, you get on a waitlist and hope a spot opens up.
But transitional housing programs are more exclusive, with a lot of requirements and often an interview process to see if you’re worthy.
“I’ve said many times: you can’t help somebody that doesn’t want to help themselves,” said Jennings. “And so the idea here is to put the resources that we can into people who we think can benefit, and, you know, hope and pray that it indeed does make that difference.”
This approach is the opposite of the federal government’s current policy on homelessness, “Housing First,” which says everyone is ready for a home, regardless of his or her situation.
One of the central aspects of Housing First is that people shouldn’t have to meet a long list of requirements to qualify for housing assistance. Another is that they shouldn’t have to follow strict rules to keep the housing, once they get it. The people who run Turner Street see things differently.
Daisha and Omary moved into Turner Street in fall 2015. She planned to get her GED and then start college classes in Allentown.
Within a few days, she’d gotten two violations. At Turner Street, after four violations, the program can, and often will, ask you to leave. You can get violations for a lot of things: drinking alcohol, doing drugs, missing a meeting, and even having a messy apartment.
There’s a paternalism to transitional housing programs like Turner Street — an idea that if you ended up homeless, you don’t know how to take care of yourself, and it’s the program’s job to teach you.
This is a point of contention about transitional housing. Critics say the rules are too strict and set people up to fail.
Alan Jennings says the residents are held to high standards because when people who’ve been homeless are given housing and nothing else, it doesn’t always work out so well.
“We end up with people trashing apartments, they might not pay their rent, they might be noisy, they might not be keeping their place clean, they get cockroaches,” Jennings said.
Turner Street’s strict rules make more sense to him than programs modeled on the Housing First approach, which essentially says, “if you’re homeless, let’s get you into a home, and then we’ll worry about the issues that made you homeless,” he said.
“You’ve got to have people playing by the rules in order for civil society to work,” Jennings said. “And if that’s not part of the equation, then I don’t know how the Housing First model can succeed.”
Daisha’s two violations — for leaving food in her old fridge and for missing a meeting — wouldn’t be her last.
Kiera Cornwell and her four-year-old son, Martin, moved into Turner Street around the same time as Daisha.
Kiera’s life had unraveled when she lost her job at the Lehigh Valley Business Journal and her car broke down. She enrolled in classes at Penn State’s Lehigh Valley campus. But when her unemployment benefits ran out and she couldn’t pay her rent, she and Martin got evicted.
Then a school counselor told her about Turner Street, and she got in.
“It was one of the best feelings of my life to know that my son was not going to be homeless,” Kiera says.
Kiera moved into the Sixth Street Shelter to wait for her apartment to open up. Like Michelle, she cried a lot that day. But they weren’t happy tears.
“I had fallen so far, from living independently to having to rely on the state and move into a shelter,” Kiera said.
“I felt so ashamed of myself, cause I felt I could do better,” she said. “And I felt like I failed Marty in so many ways.”
Then she brought Martin into the room. And he was…excited. He called it their summer vacation house.
“He made it okay, because he knew that this was just temporary, and he knew that we were going on to bigger and better things,” Kiera says.
Crisis after crisis
For a while, things went well for Kiera. She was saving up money to buy a new car.
But a few months later, she was in crisis.
In March 2016, she sat on the couch in her living room, trying to get Martin go play in his room. Every few minutes, he popped his head in.
“Hello!” he said.
“Go on,” she said. “Go back in your room, babe.”
“Hey, I wanna stay with you!” he said.
She pleaded for a few more minutes. Finally, he retreated.
Kiera and her ex-husband shared custody of Martin. She got him four nights a week. But as she was trying to tell me in the living room, that was about to change. A judge had just granted primary custody to her ex. That meant, come August, that Kiera would be seeing less of Martin.
She wasn’t sure how to tell him. “How do I explain it to Marty?” she said. “How do I explain, ‘no, you can’t sleep at Mommy’s house during the week anymore?’”
One of the reasons given for the custody decision: Kiera’s instability. When she couldn’t afford housing, she moved a few times, got evicted, and ended up at the shelter. But then she moved into Turner Street, where she was getting a lot of support.
Kristine Blasco, the director of the Sixth Street Shelter and Kiera’s caseworker at the time, testified at the custody hearing.
“I was there to prove that Turner Street was somewhere that this mother finally could be safe and had a place,” Blasco said.
That wasn’t enough. That might be because in transitional housing, residents face a ticking clock, with only a certain amount of time to get on their feet. At Turner Street, it’s two years. To a judge, that can look unstable.
The judge on Kiera’s case didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Kiera’s ex-husband declined to be interviewed. He wrote in an email that he has “consistently provided a stable, safe, and nurturing environment whereas Kiera has repeatedly made poor decisions which reflected her best interest rather than Martin’s.” He didn’t respond to a request for more details.
Kiera’s troubles weren't over. Like other transitional housing programs, Turner Street has strict eligibility rules. It requires residents to have 51 percent custody of at least one child.
So ironically, the new custody order meant Kiera had to leave. “And all of the wonderful benefits I get from being here, I will have to forfeit,” she said.
One of the reasons transitional housing has fallen out favor with the federal government is that it’s seen as a temporary fix.
Because of these programs’ strict rules and requirements, a lot of people don’t make it through.
Out of 40 families who enrolled in Turner Street over the last five years, 13 have dropped out or been kicked out. 18 have graduated.
Kiera planned to appeal the judge’s decision.
In the meantime, she had classes to go to. In April, she walked through campus on her way to her microeconomics class. Martin was running around and giggling.
“I swear he siphons sugar off while I’m sleeping,” she said, sighing loudly. “Martin!”
With the promise that he could watch cartoons on his mom’s phone, he sat through class.
After class, we ducked into the office of her professor, Robert Wolfe. Kiera relied on him for emotional support throughout the custody battle.
“It helped just being able to get out of bed in the morning, knowing I wasn’t alone and that somebody actually cared,” she said.
She was setting an example for Martin by going to school, Wolfe told her, “even though it is not easy, it can be painful, it can be a lot of work, and there are times when you just want to throw up your arms and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
Turner Street aims to give residents all the things they need to get through school. But resources are stretched thin. The caseworkers aren’t licensed therapists, and since they also dole out violations, it can be hard for residents to get close to them.
Turner Street can’t afford to pay for residents’ legal help either. Kiera used her savings to hire a lawyer for the custody case. When she couldn’t pay him any more, she had to represent herself.
Meanwhile, at Turner Street, Daisha was having a moment.
In spring 2016, she lay on her side on her living room couch. A tattoo artist she met on Facebook was tattooing her son’s name — Omary — on her ribs.
“Oh hell no!” she yelled.
Omary, who was just over a year old, watched from his playpen and giggled.
“Don’t laugh, Omary!” she said, in between yelps.
Daisha had just gotten her GED and started college classes. But she was also one step away from getting kicked out of the program. She had three program violations: for leaving food in her old fridge and for missing two meetings.
Walking to class through downtown Allentown, she said she was starting to lose hope.
“If you’re just going to keep giving me a violation for every time I make a mistake, and I can only get four violations in two years, then I feel like you’re not really here to help me,” Daisha said.
“That’s what I’m thinking — that you’re here to help me, [and] there’s a reason why I got into this program,” she said.
Daisha’s caseworker, Robbie Matthews, says the violations prepare residents — many of whom aren’t used to following rules — for their lives after Turner Street, she said.
“If they learn to abide by the rules here, when it’s time for them to move on, then that shouldn’t be a problem,” Matthews said.
It’s kind of like how we teach children their actions have real-world consequences. The thing is, the residents of Turner Street are adults. That’s beside the point, Matthews says.
“There are components to why you became homeless,” she said. “And I think one of our jobs is to at least help facilitate that not happening again.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds housing assistance programs, often contrasts transitional housing with the federal housing choice voucher program, also known as Section 8, which gives people vouchers to rent apartments from private landlords.
HUD says programs like Section 8, which provide housing without supportive services, are generally cheaper and more effective than transitional housing. In 2013, the agency released interim results from a study that compared various housing programs, including transitional housing and the housing choice voucher program. The researchers found that families who received vouchers had better outcomes than those assigned to transitional housing.
“I think the thing that is the most striking to us is that transitional housing is a very service-intensive, and therefore costly, intervention,” said Jennifer Ho, senior advisor for housing and services at HUD. “So if we’re gonna make that investment, one would expect to see significantly better outcomes, and we just didn’t see it in the study.”
But vouchers have their own shortcomings, and they’re on display at Turner Street, which gives vouchers to its residents after they finish the two-year program.
This is one thing that makes Turner Street different from a lot of transitional housing programs: if residents do make it through, they get access to a permanent housing subsidy.
Michelle got her voucher in spring 2016, when she was a semester away from an associate’s degree in psychology.
On an afternoon at the playground with the kids, she daydreamed about a house they had just visited.
“During the summer we’re gonna have barbecues in the back, and I already saw where we’re gonna hang little lights,” she said. “I could just see us being there and being comfortable.”
But she was trying not to get her hopes up. “When you’re looking for houses, it’s hit or miss,” Michelle said. “Most people don’t like dealing with Section 8.”
Housing vouchers come with added costs and inspections. Also, some landlords don’t want to rent to people who get public assistance.
The dream house fell through, and Michelle’s search continued for months.
In May, she toured an apartment in Slatington, Pennsylvania.
She seemed to be hitting it off with the landlord, who even recommended a local pizzeria. Then they started talking about the housing voucher.
“Do you have a voucher from Emmaus or from Allentown?” the landlord asked.
“Allentown,” Michelle said.
There was a misunderstanding, and things got testy.
“It’s Allentown housing that’s where I live now it’s a—”
The landlord cut her off.
“I understand that, but there’s two different offices and they have different rules. So do you go to the one in Emmaus?” she asked.
“Yes,” Michelle said.
“Ok, when I asked you which one you go to if you went to the one in Allentown you said yes so—” the landlord said.
The silence hung in the air.
“Ok, that’s fine,” the landlord said.
The landlord gave her an application, and Michelle gathered her papers and left.
Back in the car, she drove away from the house.
“As soon as people see that you have a voucher, they act like you have a third grade knowledge,” Michelle said. “You get questioned so much and then, like, second guessed.”
But she said she had been looking so long that if this apartment did work out, she might have to take it.
Things weren’t going well for Kiera, either. Her former lawyer declined to file an appeal on her case, and she couldn’t afford to pay someone else, she said.
In May, she left Turner Street and moved into an apartment in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, several hours away from Allentown, with her boyfriend, Adam. He got a job nearby.
After the move, Kiera and Adam got engaged. She seemed happy, in a way. It was easier to get by in Beech Creek, with cheaper rent than she might find in Allentown.
But the new custody order meant she was seeing Martin less than before.
“Once I have a job and a car and a little bit more, quote-unquote, stability, I’m going to get back into the fight for Marty,” she said.
Kiera said Turner Street helped her get back on her feet. But she thought it should focus more on support and less on rules, she said.
“Coming in and touring my house every week to figure out if I’m cleaning enough — that doesn’t help me as much as saying, ‘Hey, once a week why don’t you instead go see a counselor and we can see what else we can do for you.’” she said.
“Getting someone into a home doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to thrive,” she added.
The great irony is that’s exactly what these programs are trying to do — to provide more than a bed.
In September, Kiera’s ex-husband took her back to court. He petitioned for more custody of Martin, because she moved so far away. He had a lawyer. She could no longer afford one. And he won.
Meanwhile, Daisha had managed to stay afloat at Turner Street — partly thanks to the support of her caseworker, Robbie Matthews.
Walking to her apartment at Turner Street on a sunny June day, she told Matthews some good news:
“I’m not buying packs of cigarettes no more!” Daisha said.
“Oh, gimme a hug!” Matthews said. “I’m so proud of you.”
“I love Robbie,” Daisha said, sitting in her room later that afternoon. “She’s like my motivator, but she’s like a mentor at the same time. She’s like a mom. She’s a lot of things.”
Something had changed in Daisha over the last few months.
“I’m just trying to focus more on me and my son right now,” she said. “I’m trying to stay focused and figure myself out, and you know...make more mature decisions.”
Matthews had faith in her, and that kept her going, she said.
“It makes you feel good and rewarded just by her words — I’m proud of you,” Daisha said. “That feels good, to have someone say that.”
There are still moments where Daisha doesn’t do what she is supposed to — she shows up late to class or leaves her apartment messy. But Matthews gives her another chance.
This is what it’s like when the relationship between caseworker and resident works.
Daisha hopes to finish the program and get an apartment outside the city, until she graduates from school.
As Michelle could tell you, finding an apartment with a housing voucher is easier said than done. Her search went on for months. Eventually she found an apartment in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, with two floors and a backyard.
“Out of the apartments that I have went to look at this one was my absolute favorite,” she said. “I knew that the kids would love it and they would feel comfortable. And it would give them a really good school district.”
But even though the landlord wanted to rent to her, there were inspections and bureaucracy.
“Weeks and weeks would go by,” she said. “My house was all packed up, and I was ready to go.”
She was also getting pressure from the housing authority to leave Turner Street, she said.
In July, it finally happened. They got the apartment. Soon after, Michelle and her four-year-old son Gabe showed me around.
“This our little porch,” she said, running her fingers through a wind chime hanging outside.
“Hey!” Gabe said, to get my attention. He couldn’t wait to show me his new room.
Michelle says there are ways Turner Street could improve. But she is also about to finish an associate’s degree in psychology, and she says she couldn’t have done it without the program.
Turner Street has helped a lot of women like Michelle.
But for HUD, which funds transitional housing programs, anecdotes aren’t enough. “I hope that every homeless program in the country has worked well for somebody,” said HUD’s Jennifer Ho. That doesn’t mean, she says, they work better than other programs.
Ho says there are some transitional housing programs that may work well, particularly those that serve young people or victims of domestic violence.
But overall, the federal government says the way to end homelessness is to give people somewhere to live — without all the rules and requirements that make people drop out of programs like Turner Street.
The agency is cutting funding for a lot of transitional housing programs. For now, Turner Street’s funding is safe.
Meanwhile, Kiera still wants to get back custody of her son, Daisha is trying to move forward, and Michelle and her kids finally have a permanent place they can call home.
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