Eight-year-old Tirzah Johnson announced last week that she will be playing the part of the wind in her school play in West New York – which seemed appropriate as she breezed excitedly around the front of the Town Hall with her mother, Danyse Johnson, her two younger siblings (10-month-old Kaleo and 3-year-old Irie), and Mayor Felix Roque on Wednesday afternoon.
They were on their way to see Manny Diaz at the North Hudson Community Action Center to take care of the deposit on their newly approved apartment in that town, which would finalize the long-awaited last step — one of seemingly hundreds — before their move-in date set for Friday, Nov. 11.
The family was in a completely different mood than the previous Wednesday, when they met with the Reporter in the playroom of a McDonald’s on Bergenline Avenue, unsure where they’d sleep that night, unsure where they’d live, and under the threat of further investigation by the Division of Youth and Family Services because they’d been essentially homeless for two months since moving here from Spokane, Wash.
“If it hadn’t been for the incredible kindness of all of those who offered a hand, I wouldn’t be where I am now.” –Danyse Johnson
Last week, Mayor Roque grasped Johnson’s hand and said, “I apologize for how you’ve been treated. We’re here for you, so what ever you need, please ask.”
As soon as Roque read last week’s article about the family, he called the Reporter immediately.
“That’s not acceptable,” he said. “They have kids; they have no place to live. I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to put all my effort into getting her a place.”
In addition, Town Commissioner Fior D’Aliza Frias told her to stop by her office for a list of possible job opportunities.
When Johnson moves into her apartment, that will leave an estimated 673 people still homeless in Hudson County, according to county figures from this past January.
How did it come to this?
After Johnson received a federal Section 8 voucher 10 months ago from her hometown of Spokane, the house she had been renting under the voucher was foreclosed upon, forcing her to relocate.
When she came to Hudson County, she stayed with a friend in Weehawken until the landlord said she had to leave. That’s when she began staying in hotel rooms, which ate up all of the savings meant for relocation expenses.
When she finally found a two-bedroom apartment in West New York for $1,250 a month (not including utilities), West New York Housing Authority Director Robert DiVincent told her she could not use the voucher. He told her she had to find an apartment for $1,200, utilities included, or the voucher would not be honored.
Then, housing officials also said there were other problems with the transfer of her voucher. Officials also called the Division of Youth and Family Services.
Under federal law, a Section 8 housing voucher will cover most or all of a family’s rent, depending on the family’s income and the amount of the rent. But there are limits as to how much a family can spend.
Housing officials change their tune
DiVincent said Monday that it turns out that Johnson was not eligible to rent the $1,250 apartment.
He said that a certain law about vouchers only applied to new recipients of the voucher, not to Johnson. But at first, he said, he thought she was a new recipient. He also cited other oversights regarding matters related to her case.
In last week’s article, Johnson had alleged that a housing official had encouraged her to make a side deal with landlords to make her paperwork reflect a $1,200 rent even if it was higher.
In response, DiVincent said last week, “I’ve negotiated with landlords and they’ve accepted lower rents before. You can still talk to landlords — if they’re already that close, as in Johnson’s case, they may be willing to lower the rent.”
Before last weekend’s Reporter came out, Johnson called several local shelters looking for a place to stay with her children, but every organization she called was full. Many locations told her to call back each day to check for availability, but each time, she had no luck.
She managed to convince the Days Inn that she would pay her bills once her child support and other checks came in.
Expediting the process
The situation improved after an article about Johnson ran in the Reporter last weekend.
Many locals e-mailed the Reporter or e-mailed Johnson personally asking how they could help.
Johnson also said a bunch of mothers in similar situations reached out to her to share their stories and offer advice.
She said that the chairman of the Hudson County Teenage Republicans, Demetrius Terry of Jersey City, called to ask how he could help and offered to try and find friends who could look after her dog.
On Saturday, she received her support checks. She spent hours walking around trying to find a place to cash them, but she didn’t have a local bank account or local place of residence.
The Guttenberg police, seeing that she had been walking around for hours, volunteered to drive her to a shelter called the Hope House in Jersey City, but the Hope House said they were full.
But then, a “beautiful woman” from Hoboken reached out to Johnson after she read the article. She met up with Johnson at the Days Inn.
The woman — who is also a mother of three and wishes to remain anonymous — bought the family a pizza, cashed Johnson’s check, paid for her previous and some future hotel costs, and offered to drive her around as she continued her search for an apartment.
During that search, Johnson was able to find a place for $1,150, all utilities included, on Saturday, Nov. 5.
DiVincent told the Reporter Monday to contact Johnson and ask her to call an official at the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, a local agency that provides health services for needy residents. DiVincent said that NHCAC’s Manny Diaz could give her help with her deposit for the apartment. (Diaz, according to Johnson, also gave her money out of his own pocket for a cab ride home the night she applied for emergency assistance.)
DiVincent said, “We’ll try to expedite this process and get it all started. My concern has always been for her children.”
Johnson and her family are relieved to have finally found a place, “but we’re simply exhausted,” she said.
Not everyone read Johnson’s story and wanted to help. One disapproving reader left a message for the Reporter saying Johnson was selfish for dragging her children here without arranging housing in advance, and for accepting government money.
But several e-mailed the Reporter asking where to send donations.
Daughter is adopted
At one time, Johnson herself was in a position to help others. She adopted her oldest daughter many years ago because Tirzah was one of the many children she had fostered.
Now the family will be stable again.
“Despite what I went through at the Housing Authority,” she said last week, “if it hadn’t been for the incredible kindness of all of those who offered a hand, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
If you wish to help Johnson and her family further, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com/a>