After 7 years living in car, Utah woman thankful for housing
OGDEN, Utah (AP) — For seven years, Jennifer Barsell’s home was an old Toyota Corolla.
“It was a junk piece, so bad,” she said.
But nine months ago, she became one of the fortunate few in Weber County to surmount chronic homelessness. The 50-year-old former restaurant manager was allotted a tiny cottage in central Ogden, a unit leased by the Weber Housing Authority.
As Utah experiences a housing shortage amid rapid population growth, and correspondingly higher rental costs, low-income people are being forced to the brink of homelessness.
When tragedy strikes, like it did Barsell, economic problems can ensue and put a person on the streets.
According to updated U.S. Census data released in late September, an estimated 8,531 rental households in Weber County spend 30% or more of their income on housing — the statistical threshold where housing becomes unaffordable.
That represents 37.5% of renters in the county who, according to the numbers, are on the precipice of homelessness if their economic circumstances worsen.
Plus, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department estimated in 2018 there was a shortage of more than 4,000 housing units for extremely low-income people in Weber County.
HUD also reported fewer than 6% of chronically homeless people contacted by street outreach workers in Weber County end up obtaining permanent housing.
Brasell has achieved what often is the first step, acquiring a rent-assisted dwelling from the Weber Housing Authority.
People in this category receive intensive case management to help them continue to improve their circumstances and eventually obtain permanent housing, said Andi Beadles, the agency’s executive director.
“We’ve found that without the case management piece this population is typically unsuccessful in maintaining their housing,” Beadles said.
Barsell said her case manager, Laura Peters, and street outreach worker Courtney Slater check with her frequently to make sure her needs are being met.
“They don’t talk to you like you’re beneath them,” Barsell said. “You’re something to them. They treat you like a human being and not some scumbag.”
One morning last week, Barsell proudly pointed out to a visitor a small strip of lawn in front of her cottage.
“When I got here it was just dirt,” she said.
She bought grass seed and replanted the lawn — “sod’s too expensive.”
Barsell also built a small wood patio.
“I’m very thankful to have their help and their kindness and I want them to understand that,” she said.
Barsell’s troubles began when her husband got lung cancer. She said she quit her job to take care of him. After he died, she was unemployed and lost her house.
“I just spiraled down into drug abuse,” she said. “I just lost my mind. I was just trying to hide from my pain so I couldn’t think.”
She started living in her Toyota and descended into methamphetamine addiction.
“I didn’t want to tell anybody I was homeless,” she said. “I didn’t like to tell my friends because I didn’t want pity from them.”
One friend let her stay with her a few times, but Barsell said associating with other addicted homeless people helped drag her down further.
“And every time I went and asked for drug rehab? Blocked,” she said.
No insurance, no rehab, most often.
“I fought for years to get help,” she said.
She could not quit using meth.
“You’re out on the streets with people and they’re high. They’re using. There’s no way to stop once you’re out on the streets.”
Then Barsell hit an even lower point, a run-in with the law.
She flipped a cigarette from the window of her car and that drew a traffic stop. An affidavit by the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force later said she appeared to be under the influence of a controlled substance, and they found meth in the car.
She told them she had a firearm in the trunk, and they found a shotgun.
Barsell ended up receiving a suspended prison sentence and was put on probation.
During this time, she said she intensified her efforts to get help.
She also was mindful of what her mother had told her before she died.
“My mom asked my grandson, who do you want to be with when I die?” Barsell recalled tearfully. “He said, ‘I want to be with my grandma.’”
Slater answered an email Barsell sent to WHA and they met at the agency’s office the next day.
She had to go through a housing background check, but after a few weeks, she got the cottage.
It’s almost a year later and she’s trying to get a job. She said she’s been hampered by health problems, including a bad back and rheumatoid arthritis, and she recently had surgery on her arm — “they found a lump.”
She said she hopes to get an employment referral from her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bishop to apply for work at Deseret Industries.
“I think they are a little more understanding with people who have had problems,” she said.
Barsell never got drug rehab. But just having housing was rehab, she said.
“They got me to a house and I stopped,” she said. “I wanted to show them out of respect. They got me a home and I haven’t done anything since.”
Beadles said many chronically homeless have substance abuse, crime and eviction histories, all barriers to permanent housing.
That’s why a transitional apartment buys time for those like Barsell to become re-established.
Quitting meth “put me through hell,” Barsell said. “The withdrawal was really bad because I had been on it quite a while. But this gave me somewhere to go to stop.”
She said she would advise other homeless not to quit trying to find help.
“All homeless people have reasons they’re homeless,” she said, “but I would say they give up too easy.”
Now, she takes her grandchildren to and from school every day.
The battered Toyota is gone. Someone gave her an old Dodge Intrepid.
“It’s really cool inside,” she said. “It’s big. If I ever got homeless again I’d lay down in the back seat and sleep.”