Wendy Marcum became homeless during a divorce. She was evicted from the rental house she’d lived in with her younger son and former husband. Losing her home and her marriage led to a debilitating depression. She couldn’t even muster the energy to take a proper shower. Eventually, she got psychiatric care and medication. But she struggled to find a way out of homelessness.
Through the shelter grapevine, she heard about a program in Houston through which people living on the streets or in shelters were getting apartments of their own.
One day last July, she went to The Beacon, a shelter in downtown Houston, to be considered for this “rapid rehousing.”
It was the first step in a long, often bewildering process.
When it was her turn to be evaluated, Ms. Marcum entered a cramped room and sat opposite Joshua Davis, a shelter employee. He asked her scripted questions.
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“Have you been homeless before?”
“Do you have a serious physical health condition that requires frequent medical care?”
“Do you have income?”
Each of Ms. Marcum’s answers was given a number based on a scoring system meant to prioritize people with the greatest needs. But the disabilities, addictions, and physical and mental health issues that count the most are often the ones people try to hide in other contexts.
Ms. Marcum did not tell Mr. Davis about her depression or the medications she was taking. She seemed eager to emphasize her strengths, like her desire to find a job.
Ms. Marcum told Mr. Davis she was staying at a shelter but she could only stay there two more weeks, per the shelter’s policy, so she would soon have to move on. It was a familiar shuffle, but she was worried.
A shelter bed was never guaranteed.
“I’m 56 years old and 5-foot-nothing,” she told Mr. Davis. “It scares me to death to be on the street.”
Ms. Marcum’s score on the assessment was too low for her to qualify for housing assistance.
She did, however, qualify for “diversion” — various types of support such as money for groceries or help resolving an issue with a landlord. Diversion is meant to prevent people from becoming homeless.
But Ms. Marcum had already been homeless for a long time.
She was told she could apply again in three months.
Ms. Marcum moved into Star of Hope, a Christian shelter that allows people to stay longer than a month, but requires them to take Bible classes and volunteer around the building.
The shelter’s rules meant Ms. Marcum couldn’t leave during the day to look for work. She stayed there for three months.
In November, she returned to the Beacon. This time, she mentioned her mental health diagnosis and treatment, and her new score qualified her for rapid rehousing. Wendy’s rent would be paid for one year — giving her time to get back on her feet.
She still needed to find an apartment and a job, but she felt hopeful. “My glass is half full,” she said. “I think that’s kind of saved me.”
Ms. Marcum grew up in Houston, where she worked as an administrative assistant at accounting firms downtown before becoming a stay-at-home mother. Her two sons are now grown, but Ms. Marcum still has a maternal way of engaging with people and will start a conversation with anyone in her orbit. She also has a soft spot for animals, especially strays.
She moved from Star of Hope to a short-term shelter, where she was free to look for work. She hadn’t had a job in 15 years.
She was hired to drive older and disabled people for a contractor with Houston’s public transport service. She started training in late January and rode the bus back to the shelter every evening.
Ms. Marcum kept her homelessness a secret from her co-workers. She tried to look professional by pulling her hair back or wearing a hat to hide her grown-out roots. When her second paycheck arrived, she got her hair done.
Now she had a job, and her time at the new shelter was running out. Ms. Marcum started searching for a home, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
The case manager she was assigned as part of rapid rehousing told her Houston was facing a shortage of one-bedroom units.
There was one complex in northeast Houston that Ms. Marcum liked in particular. She visited the complex and imagined grilling with friends on the patio. She applied for an open unit, but an old misdemeanor came up on a background check and the landlord refused to rent to her.
She found another apartment whose owner, Michael Klanke, was more willing to look beyond her record. Mr. Klanke had never had a tenant who relied on a government rent voucher. He knew renting to her would mean jumping through bureaucratic hoops, but said, “Wendy seemed like a good gamble.”
A month into her new job, while she was still waiting for the housing voucher to process, Ms. Marcum awoke with sharp pains in her abdomen. She went to the hospital and learned she had a serious case of kidney stones that required surgery. She stayed in the hospital for more than two weeks. The depression returned, a weight on her chest.
“These last couple of days, I’ve just felt down,” she said from her hospital bed. “I feel in limbo, stuck. I’m finding it harder every day to remain my usual positive self.”
She was released from the hospital in early March, but she needed a second surgery and couldn’t go back to work yet.
Her employer kept her position open for her, but she wasn’t paid while on medical leave.
Luckily, her medical care was paid for by a Houston health care program for low-income residents. But because the shelter’s time limit was fast approaching, she moved yet again. She stayed at the Salvation Army shelter while she waited for the apartment to be approved by multiple local and federal agencies.
Despite her health issues and the daily uncertainties, Ms. Marcum’s energy and sociability rarely waned.
“I could probably make friends with a skunk,” she said.
Ms. Marcum was especially eager to have a place that would allow her to adopt a pet to keep her company. She dreamed of giving her sons, who are 21 and 30, a home-cooked meal.
Though she didn’t see them often, Ms. Marcum texted with her sons almost daily. She leans on them at times, but she doesn’t like to ask them for help.
“I have this feeling of guilt,” she said. “A parent should never ask their children for money. It’s not pride. It’s just, I respect my sons. They’re living their lives. They both work. I’m not supposed to be a burden like that.”
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Ms. Marcum’s prospective landlord, Mr. Klanke, was eager to help address the homelessness he saw around his city, and he sympathized with Ms. Marcum in particular.
“She’s a person I have respect for,” he said. “The wheels came off, but she’s trying to retrain, relearn, get a new career. Sometimes you’ve got to pick yourself up by your bootstraps, but if you don’t have bootstraps, you’ve got to get some help.”
But the bureaucratic processes tested his patience. His property sat empty for months as he fielded repetitive requests from different agencies.
In mid-April, three months after Ms. Marcum first contacted him, Mr. Klanke gave her case manager an ultimatum:
“If we don’t see some money in 10 days, I’m going to pull out and lease it to someone else.”
It didn’t come to that.
On May 2, nearly 10 months after she first went to The Beacon, Ms. Marcum moved into her apartment.
She wasted no time adopting a cat — a rescue she named Jax. He follows her around like a shadow. After three months of medical leave, she was finally cleared to return to work. Yet, she still felt on edge.
“It doesn’t quite feel like things are over,” Ms. Marcum said. “But I really would like this little gray cloud to just go, maybe find somebody else? I don’t even wish that on anybody, to be honest. But could it leave my head? Because I’m just kind of tired.”
“I trust myself,” she added. “I trust in what I’m doing. It’s just, life sometimes throws you unforeseen circumstances, or decisions from others affect you.”
“I know things eventually will work out,” she said. “I do.”
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.
Elliot Ross is a Taiwanese-American photographer based in Colorado. His work focuses on difficult issues facing the human condition — specifically how history, land-use and physical environments shape community and culture.