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About Us & Our Mission

Putting a Face on Homelessness: Cathy Burgess

By Zachary Potter

Every day, homeless clients come to VLSP’s Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) with problems ranging from minor frustrations to life-threatening problems. Some are straight-forward legal problems; others require VLSP’s award-winning holistic approach (a combination of legal and social work assistance) to help the clients avoid the downward slide their lives have taken. Some come early on, and we are able to step in and help them avoid disaster; others come later, and we can only help them pick up some of the pieces— although even that offers them a minor miracle.

Cathy Burgess is one of the latter group. Cathy Burgess has physical and cognitive disabilities that severely impact her ability to overcome the everyday hurdles she faces, but as a mother of two, she works hard to do so. Cathy’s disabilities make her vulnerable in a variety of ways and some individuals have preyed upon those vulnerabilities. Simultaneously, those charged with helping and protecting her have failed at critical moments.

As a result of a stalking incident, Cathy started to suffer from crippling anxiety, depression, and a generalized fear and suspicion of others. Fortunately, Cathy obtained an important supplement to her income, Section 8 housing assistance, which means she received a voucher from the government that she could use to pay about half of her rent. This afforded Cathy and her children a measure of comfort in their lives—they lived in a decent two-bedroom apartment in Alameda County.

For safety concerns, Cathy decided that she needed to move. Accordingly, Cathy contacted the Housing Authority for the County of Alameda (HACA), which administered her Section 8 rental voucher, and informed them that she had identified an apartment complex in Contra Costa to which she wanted to move. In order to allow her to take her Section 8 voucher across county lines, HACA needed to send Cathy’s Section 8 paperwork—a “portability packet”— to the Housing Authority for the County of Contra Costa. Before HACA would do so, it required Cathy to give her present landlord 30-days notice of her intent to vacate.

Cathy followed their instructions, but the portability packet that HACA was supposed to send to Contra Costa was not received by them within 30 days of Cathy’s notice. In fact, there is no record that Contra Costa ever received the packet, although HACA alleges it sent the information 30 days later. Upon the expiration of her lease, Contra Costa refused to process her application without the portability packet. Cathy had no options, so she and her children began sleeping in shelters, parks, and rest stops, hoping that the problem would be temporary.

Sadly, the bureaucratic Catch-22 was never resolved and, after a number of months, HACA simply terminated her Section 8 housing voucher for lack of use. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to the story. Cathy brought a lawsuit against HACA, but she could not afford a lawyer. HACA has not accepted any responsibility for what happened to Cathy and her family and now, due to a referral from VLSP’s Federal Pro Bono Project, Holland & Knight LLP has taken over the lawsuit. No matter what result is obtained, Cathy’s family will never fully recover from the hardships they suffered while homeless. But perhaps it can bring some measure of justice to the situation and help to ensure that this surreal bureaucratic downslide into homelessness does not continue to affect future generations of children.

Learn about the Homeless Advocacy Project.