Weather Forecast


Bad credit, choices serve as barrier to housing

John Stennes / Forum News Service Mark and Tanya Vega and their six children, clockwise from top center, Tyler, Justice, Carlos, Kayden, Julian and Ethan.

GRAND FORKS — They crash at friends’ places, stay with relatives or can sometimes afford a motel room.

There’s a roof over their heads and they’re not on the streets in the public eye, but these people are homeless — a group that sometimes seems to slip through the cracks of a social care system by circumstance or by choice.

In 2012, the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People found that 16 percent of the 972 homeless people it surveyed statewide described this as their living situation. 

The Vega family of Grand Forks falls into this category.

Tanya Vega and her six children have lived with her mother, Carol Huus, in her apartment since mid-August. Before that, they stayed in a hotel with her husband, Mark. 

“We feel like we’ve exhausted all options,” 32-year-old Tanya Vega said while sitting at her mother’s kitchen table.

On Oct. 7, Mark Vega, 34, was sentenced to three years in prison for two felonies — aggravated assault and interference with an emergency phone call — placing responsibility for finding a home solely on his wife’s shoulders.

Like others in the family’s situation, bad credit, criminal history and high rents keep them out of rental housing. Grand Forks’ tight apartment vacancy rates add another layer of complexity to the hunt for housing.

There also is growing competition among those in need for housing assistance and subsidized housing, which makes the waiting lists for these services longer and longer.

Unseen homeless

Point-in-time surveys conducted by the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People reveal just how often displaced families seek shelter with relatives or in motels.

For the past five years, more than 13 percent of the state’s homeless have answered the coalition’s survey each year saying they stayed with family or friends the night prior to filling it out.

In Region 4, which includes Grand Forks, Walsh, Nelson and Pembina counties, 10 percent of the area’s 133 homeless adults said they spent the night with family or friends before filling out the 2012 survey. Another 1 percent stayed in a motel.

The coalition’s annual survey also asks what individuals consider the reason for their homelessness. Each person could cite more than one reason.

Having criminal record was a reason selected by 18 percent of Region 4 homeless in 2012. Fifty percent said bad credit was the reason they are without a home.

Good credit serves as a gatekeeper to rental housing in the city, as the Vegas have learned.

“I was young and stupid,” Tanya Vega said of having bad credit. “I can pass a background check — no problem. But if you need good credit to get a place, then it’s like ‘Yeah, that’s not happening.’”

The most commonly cited reason for being homeless was high rent costs, at 65 percent. In Grand Forks, about 32 percent of renters make less than $15,000 each year, according to a 2012 Grand Forks Housing Authority housing assessment.

An apartment renting for $500 would consume 40 percent of a $15,000 income. An affordable rent is considered 30 percent of income.

Stumbling blocks

Having bad credit isn’t a reason the Grand Forks Housing Authority turns away those applying for subsidized housing, according to Executive Director Terry Hanson.

While applicants aren’t rejected for bad credit, criminal history can play a role in whether they can receive housing through the authority.

Being a registered sex offender or being convicted of manufacturing meth in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development housing is an automatic disqualification for the authority’s programs. Recent felony convictions also can keep applications from being accepted, according to Hanson.

Sometimes, individuals accepted into the organization’s voucher program — which provides part of a rent payment up to a certain limit — choose not to go through with it.

“They don’t go out and find a unit but continue to live with family and friends,” Hanson said. Most realize the additional costs of having their own place and decide they can handle living with family a little longer, he added.

“Sometimes, it only takes one or two stumbling blocks before someone gives up.”

And then there’s the high competition for its rentals and vouchers.

The organization has received about 50 applications a week for the past few months, Hanson said. The waiting period for its housing programs range between two months and two years depending on the applicant and what they are seeking.

‘Just a piece’

Over the past year, Tanya Vega said she has applied for housing from the Grand Forks Housing Authority and a home from Red River Valley Habitat for Humanity.

“We know that’s not a quick fix,” Tanya Vega said of applying for Habitat for Humanity. “But having something a year from now is better than nothing.”

Getting a house through Habitat for Humanity won’t be an easy fix either.

Families chosen to receive a home must put in 250 hours of “sweat equity” per adult, according to its Executive Director Kyle Kosior. Sweat equity refers to volunteers hours put in a building other families’ homes or their own.

The home also isn’t free but purchased by the family on a mortgage its income can sustain.

Before applying for assistance through those agencies, the Vegas were part of a transitional housing program run by St. Joseph’s Social Care in Grand Forks.

The house the Vegas lived in is one of three units managed by the organization, according to Executive Director JoAnn Brundin.

Living in a unit doesn’t come without effort from the tenant, she said. While in the program, residents are asked to pay back any outstanding bills, rent or damages they owe to landlords or utility companies. Weekly meetings and home visits with St. Joseph’s staff also are required.

“People aren’t just entering an apartment. They’re entering a program,” Brundin said. “The apartment is just a piece.”

The program strives to have clients address issues that have left them homeless in the past. Rent ranges from $35 to $50 per month and participants can stay up to two years.

In and out

While qualifying for housing and other public assistance can be a difficult process for some, sticking with a program can be just as challenging.

John Fuher, a social worker at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks, has helped more than 40 families with the housing process, right down to furnishing the apartment they get into if the process is successful.

“When you’re in a state of crisis, you have no sense of normal,” he said of families hopping from one relative’s house or motel to the next.

Fuher, who sees the Vega’s two oldest sons, Tyler, 14, and Ethan, 11, helped the family submit an application for St. Joseph’s housing program.

He had high hopes for the Vegas’ stay, but the family was asked to leave after one year.

Pictures kept on Program Director Maria LeBlanc’s camera to tell the tale. They focus on stained carpets, chipped surfaces and damaged furniture. Others capture the debris left in the wake of the family’s exodus.

There wasn’t enough time to clean after the eviction notice was given to them, according to Tanya Vega.

Next steps

Becoming homeless and moving from one place to another in attempt to stay off the streets is stressful situation for all involved, according to Fuher.

“We have kids in all stages of development trying to cope with such a heavy load,” he said of the Vegas’ situation.

In addition to the 133 homeless adults in Region 4, the Coalition for Homeless People survey found that 24 children also were homeless last year.

Leaving the transitional program brought the Vegas to the Budget Inn Express, where they met other families who also had bad credit histories or couldn’t afford an apartment in the city.

But at more than $200 a week, the motel soon became unaffordable and forced the Vegas into Huus’ apartment.

For now, Tanya Vega and her children will remain there.

“We’ll make it work a little longer,” she said as sons Kayden, 3, and Julian, 5, hunted for a pesky fly in the kitchen of their third place to stay this year.