When a Housing Advocate’s Work Hits Home

It’s been a very long time since I saw the movie “Dr. Zhivago,” but I can remember clearly the noisy crowd the doctor finds in his family mansion when he comes home from war. The family is being forced to share their home with a dozen other families, each occupying one room.

I would hate to live that way. But on a policy level it makes some sense, well, without the overcrowding. If we divided the available space in U.S. homes by the number of people, wouldn’t there be an appropriate number of square feet per person?

Sure, forcing people to share their space would make everyone a little uncomfortable, but wouldn’t that be better than having some people live without electricity or pay more than half their income for housing every month? Just temporarily, until we find a way to provide decent, affordable, separate living spaces for everyone.

Alas, we can’t force people to share their homes, but we can ask for volunteers. Assume there’s a screening process so that dishonest or ill-intentioned people don’t get to participate. Then, say, a two-person family living in a three-bedroom house could volunteer to have someone else live in the third bedroom. Someone who’s unemployed and can’t pay rent right now. Just temporarily, until they find a job.

That sounds reasonable. But then what if the person is mentally unstable and their presence disrupts the lives of the homeowners far more than expected? The family wants their physical and emotional space back. The newcomer still needs a place to live, still has no money, and is still a relatively innocuous person.

I’m that homeowner.

I gave this person 30 days’ notice to move out, she didn’t, and I filed for eviction. I’m evicting someone who has no money and no job, yet my entire career has been based on my belief that everyone has a right to decent, affordable housing—a right that extends to people with mental illness and an unsteady grip on reality.

I’ve tried to convince myself that eviction could benefit her by forcing her to apply for the financial and mental assistance that she won’t admit she needs and that no one else can request on her behalf (we’ve tried). But there’s no guarantee this will make her apply. And even if she does, there’s no guarantee she will be able to get the services and shelter she needs, given the current mismatch between demand and supply. I can be sure only that sometime within the next few weeks she and her things will be on the curb and I will again have a partly furnished, unoccupied guest room. 

It’s my right to have that empty room, I suppose, because I own the house. But the evictee has a right to a place to live. When mental illness keeps her from asking for help, and the system says no one else can ask for her, how does she exercise that right? Someone is failing to exercise the responsibility that goes along with the right. I may be feeling guilty right now, but that failure isn’t mine.

Leslie Strauss is senior policy analyst at the Housing Assistance Council.


  1. Thank you so much for this article. I work for a housing corporation that builds affordable apartments in a dense urban environment. We occasionally have a tenant that falls into the category you mention, and we are forced to proceed with eviction. In our city there are civil rights attorneys that we work with to assist the people with relocation “somewhere else” because here there are other possibilities, but it doesn’t always work, precisely for the reasons you state.

    Your key phrase is: “Someone is failing to exercise the responsibility that goes along with the right [to a place to live].” I think this goes to the heart of what freedom and democracy are attempting to achieve, and this also points to the tremendous successes and tragic failures of our society.

    There is not some one “person” who is going to stand up and address these inequities—it is up to each of us in our own individual ways. We expect government to “do something” about it, and yet try as we might, we have not yet been able to legislate human behavior to any great degree. There isn’t one area of our society where inequities do not exist, and we have never been able to answer the ‘why’ questions without creating an endless cycle of “blame” that never solves anything (but provides plenty of platforms for politicians to get elected…and continue the cycle again and again.)

    Homelessness, however, strikes a profoundly dissonant chord in all of us and we do not know how to resolve the complexities of the problem. I am continually amazed at how many of us are working on the issues of affordable housing, and how, person by person, we are able to help some, but not others. I do not think we have as yet figured out how to save the world. As long as each of us feels in our hearts that we are trying our best, then we are the ones taking the responsibility for our tiny sector of inequities in the world. That is what keeps me inspired, one success story at a time, and moving forward with hope.


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