Clarence Ealem laughed as he cleaned syrup off the sticky hands of his 10-month-old daughter, enjoying his all-too-brief time with his family over a pancake dinner.
Ealem and his wife, Kenisha, have been homeless together since February 2012.
Now at the Union Gospel Mission, the family of five is separated each night. Kenisha Ealem takes the children, ages 3, 2 and 10 months, to the women’s side, and Clarence Ealem sleeps on the men’s side.
“It sucks,” Clarence Ealem, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, said of being homeless as he watched the older children play in a tile-floor room at the shelter. “As a team, there is a lot we can’t do because we are limited in our interactions. Like the whole night routine — I have no part of that.”
As a homeless African-American couple, the Ealems sometimes feel discriminated against when they apply for jobs and housing.
“I think they definitely look at it as, ‘Well, you are homeless for a reason, so you must not have been able to take care of the last property you had,’ ” said Clarence Ealem, 27.
Because his address is a homeless shelter, he said, he believes he is less likely to get hired or be approved for housing.
The couple are not alone in their struggle to find affordable housing in Fort Worth.
A study commissioned by the city found that blacks and Hispanics face barriers to obtaining housing, from being denied mortgages more often to sometimes being charged higher interest rates when they find a home they want to buy.
The Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice also found that public transportation — or a lack of it — is a roadblock, concluding that getting people in lower-income inner-city areas to the job centers is a challenge.
A separate city analysis also found that affordable housing is scarce and that almost 50 percent of those who own or rent homes in Fort Worth are considered overburdened by their housing costs, said Jay Chapa, director of the Housing and Economic Development Department.
Mayor Betsy Price said the city plans to work on fair housing and expects another presentation in April by the Housing and Economic Development Department about what actions to take.
“Certainly, I think every large city has housing challenges, and we do, too,” Price said.
“We asked pointed questions of the presenter on that report, and they concurred that for a city this size, it was not significant findings. But they were not insignificant, either.”
Using data from the census, mortgages and other sources, the study found that even when African-Americans, Anglos and Hispanics have similar incomes, the minority groups face higher interest rates and more loan rejections. For example, at incomes over $75,000, the denial rate was 23.7 percent for African-Americans and 18 percent for Hispanics. For Anglos, it was 10.1 percent.
Loans with high annual percentage rates are heavily concentrated in southeast Fort Worth and the Como area, though the number of high-interest loans has decreased drastically, starting in 2007. From 2004 to 2011, 25.7 percent of high-interest loans were given to Hispanics, and 33.1 percent went to African-Americans.
“This is not unusual, but it always is a matter for concern,” Robert Gaudin, director of research and planning for Western Economic Services, said when he presented the study in January.
For the classes protected under federal fair-housing laws — race, disability, national origin, gender, family status, religion, color and retaliation — residents filed 1,853 fair-housing complaints in Fort Worth from 2004 to October 2013.
Of those, 745, or 40 percent, were at least partly based on racial discrimination, and 656 were based on a disability. (Complaints could be based on more than one category.)
When making the complaints, residents cited reasons including discriminatory terms in the rental market and failure to make reasonable accommodations. Nearly 60 percent of the complaints were found to have cause or were conciliated, a process in which the two parties negotiate and sign a HUD-witnessed agreement and the case is closed.
The Ealems’ experience
Clarence and Kenisha Ealem said they have felt discriminated against because of their race and their homeless status when trying to find housing and employment.
Originally from New Orleans, Clarence Ealem was 18 when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. In a flash, his steady job as a cook at a Cajun restaurant and his home were gone, and he came, homeless, to Texas. Being homeless, he said, affects his ability to get jobs and housing.
And there is truth to that, said Selarstean Mitchell, vice president of assisted housing for the Fort Worth Housing Authority.
The authority used to have a staffer whose only job was to find apartments and landlords willing to rent to the formerly homeless and those with disabilities.
Landlords “don’t understand that population,” Mitchell said. The homeless “have a lot of myths about them.”
Clarence Ealem also believes that being black has hindered his ability to get certain jobs.
“There are times they really liked me on the phone, but when I show up in person, it is all of a sudden, ‘We will get back to you,’ ” he said. “I really, deep down, felt like I didn’t get the job because I’m a black guy. And that hurts when you have the experience but can’t get your foot in the door.”
Gaudin said the city may be able to help by increasing testing and enforcement activities in the community, educating landlords and property managers about fair-housing laws, and increasing outreach and education among consumers.
While the city plans to work on those suggestions, Chapa said, a lack of funding will make it difficult.
Proactive testing of fair-housing laws requires having people act as potential renters or buyers to see whether they are discriminated against.
“We will recommend that we do it, but the whole thing is: Where do you get the money to do it?” Chapa said.
Councilman Joel Burns, chairman of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, did call for the city to take immediate action on streamlining the process for obtaining city variances for reasonable accommodations, especially for the disabled.
Chapa is expected to propose solutions for the application process by April.
Besides the struggles in the rental and home-buying market identified in the study, the city doesn’t have enough affordable housing, Chapa said.
According to HUD, residents are paying too much for housing if more than 30 percent of their gross income is going toward a home, and they are severely cost-burdened if more than 50 percent of household income goes to rent or a mortgage.
In Fort Worth, 49 percent of households are cost-burdened, and an additional 16,695 affordable units are needed for the poorest population, or those living on 30 percent of the area median family income. For a family of five, 30 percent of the area median income is $21,350.
The Ealems, a family of five, made about $5,000 in 2013, Clarence Ealem said.
Kenisha Ealem, 26, works at Liberty Tax on Lancaster Avenue and is about to start a second job in North Richland Hills in auto financing. Clarence Ealem, who most recently worked at Whataburger, is unemployed and trying to get into a culinary arts program.
The Ealems are one of 3,971 entries on the waiting list for public housing at the Fort Worth Housing Authority, and they could not even get on a waiting list for a home voucher program. The program, which was opened for five days in 2011, had 19,000 people sign up, Mitchell said.
Today, the waiting list for vouchers is 18,000 people long, Mitchell said, and it sees little shift. With federal funding cuts, as people come off the voucher program, their spots are no longer funded and cannot be filled.
Because the couple had a hard time finding a place to rent, they used to live in an extended-stay hotel, but that was too expensive and they couldn’t buy the basics, like food.
“All of the money was going to rent, but the kids needed diapers. There’s bus fare, transportation and all of that,” Kenisha Ealem said.
The study on fair-housing impediments also found that affordable housing units are overly concentrated in southeast Fort Worth. Gaudin said that’s partly because tax credits and other incentives used to be offered for affordable housing applications close to other low-income facilities.
“Now we are realizing that is not such a good idea, so there are some legacy issues there we are working with,” Gaudin said.
Councilwomen Kelly Allen Gray and Gyna Bivens, both of whom represent areas of southeast Fort Worth, said the overconcentration has been an issue for a while.
“We are not against low-income housing, but it has to be equitably distributed across the entire city,” Gray said. “Instead of just focusing on low-income housing, why don’t we focus on mixed-income housing so you have all different levels of people living together?”
Gray was also concerned that a survey used during the fair-housing study was not distributed widely enough and may have asked questions that were difficult to understand, making it hard for officials to get a good idea of how residents feel about housing.
The study found that getting people in lower-income inner-city areas to job centers like Alliance is a challenge. Specifically, the Hulen Heights, Hulen Springs Meadow and Stone Meadow neighborhoods, though they have a high concentration of housing vouchers, are “beyond the orbit of public transit.”
Gray said she hears from residents citywide that even when the bus system stops close by, it takes too long.
“Transportation is a big issue for our entire city, being able to get people to the major job centers. … There are things we could do to make it easier for those who need itand those who are willing to get out of their car and get on public transit,” Gray said.
At the economic development meeting, council members agreed that reliable public transportation is an issue.
“We really don’t have a good mass-transit system in our city. Obviously, we made some changes to that agency … but clearly the city’s transit system, I would even say the regional mass-transit system, needs to be improved,” Councilman Sal Espino said at the housing meeting.
For people receiving housing vouchers, transportation is often a key factor in deciding where to take a voucher, Mitchell said, and it can also contribute to the overconcentration of low-income housing in certain areas.
For Kenisha Ealem, that problem is all too real. A commute to her job in North Richland Hills, which starts in February, could take up to two hours each way. And she has to leave enough time to pick up and drop off the kids at day care.
“I have to walk a mile from the bus stop just to get to the job, work the shift, walk a mile to the bus stop and then wait on the bus,” she said, adding that she has to schedule her two jobs to take into consideration the long bus rides and when day care closes.
She also believes that depending on public transit makes her a less attractive applicant to employers.
By working with a caseworker at the Union Gospel Mission and putting their names on every list for assisted housing they could find, the couple hope to overcome their chronic homelessness and be together as a family soon.
“Eventually I want to own my restaurant, and Kenisha is going to be the business person in that,” Clarence Ealem said. “I just want to cook, so I need to get the paperwork behind it and get back in the workforce. I don’t want to do something I’m not passionate about.”