ANDERSON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Inside a cheap hotel where poor people in this small town come because they have nowhere else, Sheila Simmons sits on a bed wondering if she might die soon.
She eats crackers for dinner because she has no money. On winter days, she grows afraid of being forced to live outside.
The disabled woman and her roommate already had asked friends and family if they could borrow $67, enough for another night at the extended-stay hotel, without success.
Simmons, 55, trudged almost a mile to Walmart on her painfully swollen feet and ankles. She put her pride aside and began begging for spare change. After a bit, she realized she wouldn’t collect enough for the next morning’s bill at the Intown Suites.
“I’m desperate. I can’t sleep outside in the cold,” said Simmons, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and severe arthritis. “I might really be at the graveyard end.”
The motel stays, the borrowing and begging, came while trying unsuccessfully to use a federal Section 8 “housing choice voucher” — a hard-to-get ticket that was supposed to provide housing and some freedom in determining where she would live. A six-month USA TODAY Network data investigation called “Segregated by Section 8” has uncovered how broken the voucher system is in the housing-segregated South, even as President Joe Biden is poised to expand it.
A Section 8 voucher is meant to help people like Simmons get an apartment or house. The government agrees to pay a portion of rent directly to the landlord. The renters pay the rest of the costs on their own.
In a nation where four in 10 adults cannot cover an unexpected bill of $400, the idea is to help the disabled, seniors, combat vets and other vulnerable people avoid homelessness and handle basic needs.
For Simmons, the voucher at first had seemed lucky.
Some people in the South wait a decade to get a Section 8 voucher and never do. She had seen before how it could work.
Simmons, who is Black and a former tobacco farmworker, had years earlier escaped a period of living in a Jeep when she used a voucher to rent a simple two-bedroom trailer. It had water leaks, mildew and other problems but was a roof over her head and a warm place at night.
She was happily living there until the trailer failed a voucher program inspection and the government stopped paying her landlord.
Officials issued Simmons a replacement voucher that was meant to help her lease a different home. It was useless by that point, she said.
The voucher didn’t encompass a security deposit, and she could not afford one. She earns roughly $500 a month in federal disability benefits, so there was no chance she could pay the money that many landlords require upfront, like a security deposit or the last month's rent.
Where was that money supposed to come from?
Simmons squatted in the moldy trailer that failed inspection until the landlord kicked her out in December. On the day she was evicted, she sobbed as movers took furniture, TVs, her cane, her other possessions and dumped them on the front lawn.
She walked away with just a book bag bursting with clothes and two boxes of personal papers. And a federal voucher she couldn’t use.
Within a short period of time, her winter fears had come true.
Simmons found herself sitting at a bus stop with no money and no place to spend the night. With the temperature hovering at 40 degrees, she and her roommate shared the one coat they owned.
They took turns wearing it.
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