A House is a Home
It’s been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty in his State of the Union address, initiating a variety of government programs in an effort to give every American a “fair chance.” Fifty years later, the faces and dynamics of child poverty in the United States have changed dramatically, but the nation’s approach to ending it is still based largely on the policies and programs laid out then.
Public housing and rental vouchers were the results of one of these programs, and have given some families and their children a certain level of stability. But as Education Week found out, “too many families who qualify for help won’t get it, housing-policy experts say, and children in assisted families still often live in areas of concentrated poverty.”
We spent time with Kourtney Mills, a single mother of four, who has lived in Potomac Gardens, a massive 1960s-era public housing project in Washington, since 2010. Before she was offered a spot in the 352-apartment complex, she was on a waiting list for five years.
“I got lucky,” Mills said. “Can you imagine you need a place to stay, you have children, it’s five years? Me with my five years, I got lucky but for people, who have to knock on doors, do whatever they have to do just for a place to stay?”
Although the Gardens has a reputation for drugs and crime issues, Mills says the small two-bedroom apartment she rents is a huge improvement from the shelters and streets.
“I felt so happy when I could just sit up there and touch my knob and close my door, decorate it the way I wanted to, have my couch whatever color I want to, have my kids’ toys, let them come in the living room,” Mills said. “It’s cliché but there’s no place like home.”
Dashawn Smith, 6, left, looks over at his friend Malachi Davis, 10, as he hangs off of a fence outside of their apartment building while waiting for a bus to an after-care program. District of Columbia officials erected a prison-grade iron fence around the Potomac Gardens public housing complex in the early 1990s to keep out drug dealers and other criminals. At the time, the fence stirred an emotional reaction from residents, who said it made them feel further separated from the surrounding neighborhood. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
John Hewitt, 19, plays with his cousin Donyae Vaughan, 7, at Potomac Gardens on a March afternoon. Hewitt was home on spring break from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Fla. While older public housing complexes, like Potomac Gardens, have fallen out of favor with many city housing agencies around the country, residents say they have built a sense of community and support with their neighbors. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Charlene Burwell, a resident and maintenance worker at Potomac Gardens, tends to the trash outside of the building. The complex has been known to some city residents as the site of violence over the years, but that doesn’t bother Burwell. “I don’t live out here,” she said. “I live in there,” she added, gesturing toward her apartment. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Kourtney Mills peers out from the kitchen to check on her children Emily Bakker, 20 months, left, Blake Bakker, 11 months, center, and Nathan Mills, 8, right, while eating her breakfast. Mills says living in public housing has provided stability for her children, allowing them to take the same walk to school every morning and return to the same bed every night. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Kourtney Mills changes her daughter’s diaper. The Mills family was on a waiting list for five years before an apartment opened up for her family at Potomac Gardens. Many people who qualify for subsidized housing or rental assistance don’t receive it, and, in many cities, families wait longer than Mills did. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Troy Bakker, Mills’ boyfriend, spends time with their son Blake Bakker, 11 months, as he works on his laptop. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Mills, mother of 4, studies for a test Thursday one morning before taking her children to daycare. Mills dropped out of high school in the 9th grade. She later finished her GED and returned to college. Mills broke into tears when she remembered the day a worker in a community program told her that she is smart and that she should pursue a degree. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Residents walk in between buildings at Potomac Gardens. Workers started construction on the complex the year President Johnson declared a War on Poverty. In the 50 years since, housing programs throughout the country have changed their approach, scattering low-income developments throughout communities instead of clustering them in concentrated areas. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Mills and Bakker walk to the bus stop to take their children Emily and Blake to daycare. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Children play outside Potomac Gardens. A program called Little Lights Urban Ministries works with children in the housing development, providing tutoring, mentoring, and after-school support. Several residents also volunteer with the program, which is an example of community supports that have developed around traditional public housing complexes. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
The sun sets over Potomac Gardens, which has 352 apartments. The District of Columbia housing authority has 56 public housing properties throughout the city, a total of 8,000 apartment and townhouse units. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week