Elmer Gilbert Winn Jr. sleeps between a refrigerator and his oxygen tank in a small room that reeks of sickness. For the past dozen years, that corner of a friend’s apartment in Fairfax city has spared Winn, 59, the danger and indignity of living on the streets.
Before that, he had slept on a sheet of cardboard outside a grocery store in Vienna, behind Kmart in Fairfax, and in a plywood shack in the woods in Tysons Corner.
Now soaring rents, Winn’s failing health and the budget deadlock in Washington are threatening to upset the fragile balance that has kept the one-time custodian going.
His right lung has collapsed four times. His roommate has been hospitalized and might be headed for a nursing home, which could push Winn from his cramped quarters by month’s end. And as a result of the sequester, the federal housing voucher that was Winn’s main alternative was rescinded this month before he could find a place to use it.
“I can’t live outside . . . no way. I can barely survive indoors, going room to room,” said Winn, who spoke on a recent afternoon between coughs and gasps and pauses to rest as he shuffled across the wood floor.
The math isn’t in his favor.
Winn’s monthly income from Social Security is $710, and he receives an additional $35 in food stamps. He pays about $400 a month for space in his friend’s apartment, which is just off Fairfax Boulevard.
But the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fairfax, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, is more than $1,200. Amid the high incomes in many Washington communities, the disabled and poor still struggle to find housing and some face homelessness even as they hold down jobs, as was the case with Winn.
And for many people, the sequester could make that search harder.
The federal housing voucher Winn received in December, which he hoped to use to find his own place, was rescinded earlier this month by Fairfax officials, who cited the loss of $2.5 million in federal funds. Assistance for up to 150 homeless individuals or families, and others who had reached the top of Fairfax’s years-long waiting list to get a voucher, will be blocked in 2013, officials said.
The decisions pain them, housing officials said, but they blame Washington.
“We understand . . . that this situation — the result of federal decisions that are out of our control — is frustrating,” wrote Paula C. Sampson, Fairfax’s housing director, in a letter to Winn.
In interviews, county housing officials acknowledged the disappointment they’re bringing, but they declined to be quoted by name. In a written statement, they said they are “very sympathetic to the painful burden this places on some of our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Having help, but then so quickly losing it, has been tough for Winn to accept.
“It ain’t that I didn’t get one. I got one,” Winn said of the voucher. “I think they ought to follow through.”
Fairfax officials could find room in the county’s multibillion-dollar budget to make up for the lost federal funds and subsidize Winn’s housing. But even in one of the commonwealth’s more generous jurisdictions, where affordable housing and preventing homelessness have been priorities, officials say they face limits.
“We could step in, but where does it end?” asked Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D). “We can’t just pick up everything the federal government is going to cut. If we did that, our tax rate would go through the roof and we’d end up with a taxpayer revolt in Fairfax County.”
The county will cover some shortfalls, but officials haven’t decided which ones. They’re planning an $8 million reserve fund, but it likely won’t be enough, Bulova said. Officials also are concerned about potential Head Start cuts. There will be competition for that money, and it’s unclear how much of the reserve might go to housing people such as Winn.
The pressures in Fairfax mirror challenges facing officials nationwide. With Washington’s fiscal standoff slowing the flow of funds, local governments must make choices.
Housing officials in Prince George’s County are considering reducing staff through attrition and cutting grass at housing projects every three weeks rather than every 10 days. In Montgomery County, there’s talk of privatizing housing inspections. In the District, officials say they won’t be able to assign needed vouchers for disabled youths and family members seeking to reunify with relatives after leaving jail.
Once he received a voucher in December, Winn searched for an apartment but couldn’t find one. Either the rent was more than the voucher’s ceiling of about $1,200, or landlords didn’t accept vouchers.
“Plus, I can’t climb no stairs,” Winn said.
In February, for the fourth time, his right lung collapsed. His roommate called 911. “You can’t breathe, you can’t talk, they can’t understand what you’re trying to say,” Winn said.
He was hospitalized for weeks, and it was a terrible time to get sick. The county sent him a notice dated March 28 giving him until April 1 to use his voucher.
“We basically just began scrounging,” said Jerrianne Anthony, a manager at Facets, a Fairfax housing and poverty group.
Winn made calls. The interns made calls. County housing officials offered leads. It didn’t work.
“Even when you have the full amount of time for a voucher, it’s hard for them to find one,” Anthony said. Now they’re looking for another room to rent with his limited income.
Even with the struggles, Winn can’t seem to suppress a sense of humor. “I’m in the Guinness book of records for the man with the most collapsed lungs,” he says, before catching himself: “That’s not supposed to be funny.” He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “It’s bad when you’re scared to go to sleep, and you can’t sleep because you can’t breathe,” he said.
Winn’s decline into illness and destitution has come during a life that tracked Fairfax’s rise.
Winn made it through only part of eighth grade. He had trouble learning and dropped out to start working at the school as a custodian, he said.
As a young landscaper, he planted trees in suburban developments as Fairfax grew, then worked for the county cutting them down to clear right of way for sewer lines. Later, as a Ford mechanic, he breathed in asbestos while servicing brakes. The dust and fumes from remodeling floors didn’t help, and neither did smoking.
He lived for years with his mother in a modest house in Tysons that his stepfather purchased for $13,000. After his mom died of breast cancer, he headed out on his own but couldn’t keep up with housing costs. “You’re in Fairfax. You’ve got to have money,” Winn said.
The old house, which has since changed hands and was torn down, was replaced with a grand, two-story white mansion that sold last year for $1.8 million.
During long stretches of homelessness over a decade, Winn usually found a way to come indoors during the winter, staying with friends or finding other shelter. When he couldn’t, he’d light a fire for warmth.
“You have to kind of rotate,” he said, otherwise one part of your body scorches while another freezes. “It’s like rotisserie chicken. . . . You have to keep it evenly hot. It’s just horrible, that’s all.”
Now, his priority is finding a safe place to live, and he wants it to be in a place he knows.
“I’ve been living in Fairfax since I’m 13,” he said. “I should be able to find something here.”