Lisa Stover sits in a clenched posture at a wood picnic table near the playground at Recreation Park.

She shifts her small frame to relieve pressure on her right side; she flinches, and shifts again. It’s no use.

“Everything hurts,” she says, forcing a smile.

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Stover, who goes by PJ, became homeless for the first time eight months ago after the roof collapsed in a room she rented on Seventh Street, one of the few places she could afford on her only income, $1,000 a month in disability.

Her body is riddled with neuropathy and arthritis from her years as a Hollywood stunt woman, during which she underwent three back surgeries after being thrown during the filming of “Man on the Moon” with Jim Carrey. She retired from the movie business a year later, then worked as a country music radio host and DJ for KFRG in the Inland Empire under the moniker PJ Pollywog.

Since 2014, Stover, now 53, has been unable to work.

She rented rooms and ate donated food while languishing for nine years on three waiting lists for a Section 8 housing voucher, a federal program that pays a portion of rent for those who are low-income. In January, after the roof collapse, she applied for an “emergency” housing voucher intended to eliminate the long waits for unhoused people under a new federal program funded by COVID-19 relief money.

After tracking down disability documentation, Social Security and birth records, a letter certifying she’s homeless and then undergoing a criminal background check, she waited for her voucher. And waited.

For weeks, then months, she pulled her Mazda SUV into the parking lot along Seventh Street in Recreation Park, where bathrooms are open 24 hours a day. She tried to find places near other people, some of them parked and homeless like her.

“I’m a woman out here by myself,” she says. “It’s scary and lonely. People don’t understand how lonely it is.”

Her only constant companion was her dog, Sam, an attentive Anatolian shepherd who likes to shake hands.

Two months ago, the city at last issued Stover an emergency voucher. She was elated. The voucher meant she would pay only 40% of her income, around $400, on rent.

She had no idea that getting the voucher—long promoted as a “golden ticket” out of homelessness and into a better life—would only usher in the next phase of struggle.

‘A very discouraging situation’ 

Subsidized housing has been around since the 1970s, but rental-assistance vouchers for housing took off in the 1980s when the Reagan administration sought to do away with the notorious public housing projects that were often plagued by crime and drugs. With vouchers, the thinking went, people would have more choice over where they live and a chance to move to more affluent areas that would spur upward mobility.

At a federal cost of $23 trillion, vouchers have since become a central pillar in the government’s strategy to prevent homelessness.

But only about one in four people who qualify actually get one; there are 12,000 people on Long Beach’s Section 8 waiting list, which has been closed since 2016.

A year into the pandemic, the federal government spent billions more to give Long Beach and other jurisdictions across the country a new batch of so-called emergency vouchers specifically targeting those living in cars, shelters and on streets. The goal was to get them into housing, fast, with supportive services.

That hasn’t happened. For many recipients, these vouchers have come to represent a dead end, not a new beginning.

One recipient, who had been living at the city’s subsidized motel at the Days Inn and has yet to find a landlord willing to take her voucher, says bluntly: “They’re about as useful as toilet paper.”

Just 38% of the 582 people who received an emergency voucher in Long Beach have managed to sign a lease since the program began in May 2021, according to data from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department.

Paul Duncan, manager of the city’s Homeless Services Bureau, says progress has been slow, in part because it took months for the city to sign contracts for case management—a federal requirement unique to this program—resulting in some individuals not getting the help that experts say is critical.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare,” Duncan says.

Duncan blames the dismal lease rate on the tight rental market and on landlords who won’t rent to these tenants, despite the more lucrative financial incentives unique to the emergency voucher program.

Landlords, for their part, have said the city offers little in the way of support in dealing with problem tenants. And when given a choice of sometimes dozens of applicants for open units, they say it’s safer to pick people with jobs, good credit, a rental history and money upfront.

“If you get a bad tenant, the city says it’s your problem,” says Ed Arnold, who rents to a few Section 8 tenants.

Caught in the middle are people like Stover, who says she’s been turned away by landlords repeatedly once they learn she has a voucher.

“There is a perception out there,” she says.

Stover says she had been promised a backhouse near the Traffic Circle, but the landlady reneged. And she was sure she would get an apartment near Rosie’s Dog Beach, where Sam could play on the sand, before being told it had been rented.

She’s now found a one-bedroom near Rec Park, but hopes the landlord is willing to wait for the city to conduct an inspection, a requirement of the voucher program. In the meantime, she’s been able to stay in a hotel thanks to donations from some community members. But time is running out there, too. 

“I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be,” she says. “You go to so many different apartment buildings and management companies. It’s a very discouraging situation.”

Lisa “PJ” Stover, 53, smiles at her dog, Sam, who is in the car after a few hours at Recreation Park in Long Beach. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
‘Nowhere to go’

Stover was among the 3,296 counted as homeless when the city conducted its annual survey in January, reflecting a startling 62% increase since the last count in 2020.

In releasing the new figures, the city said 400 people granted emergency vouchers were at that time still looking for housing. Had they been successful, the city said, the number of unsheltered individuals in Long Beach would have dropped by 20%.

Statewide, roughly 40% of people with emergency vouchers have been able to use them; in Los Angeles, that number is just 6%.

The central problem, many acknowledge, is that there isn’t enough available housing to make the vouchers a truly effective weapon in combating homelessness. In today’s tight rental market, landlords don’t want to bother with vouchers, which come with paperwork, inspections and other requirements—along with negative perceptions of prospective tenants.

“It’s hard for any intervention to be effective when there’s nowhere to go,” says Christi Economy, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Duncan, the city’s Homeless Services Bureau manager, conceded as much. In fact, he said he wouldn’t advocate for more spending on vouchers when there’s simply not enough housing to go around.

“There’s 582 people with vouchers looking for a place, but there’s not 582 apartment listings out there,” he says. “There’s maybe 100, 150 on a given day.”

As a result, many who’ve obtained the vouchers find themselves whipsawed between hope and despair, which, they say, exacts an emotional toll at a time when they’re already struggling.

“I feel like I’m trying to do everything right,” says Roshni Mercadel, 31, who got her emergency voucher in February but still hasn’t been able to use it. “It gets you down.”

Roshni Mercadel, 31, stands in front of the Days Inn where she had been living as part of Project Roomkey. She had to move out on Sept. 30 when the program ended. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

For 18 months, until recently, Mercadel had been living in a federally subsidized room at the Days Inn on Pacific Coast Highway as part of Project Roomkey, an effort to get vulnerable homeless people off the street during the pandemic.

By then, she was pregnant with a son, was clean and sober and had a job doing office work for a company that manages sober living homes. She also had met with case workers at the city’s hub for social services.

And she had her emergency housing voucher, which she hoped would give her and her newborn a permanent roof over their heads. Instead, Mercadel says landlords repeatedly turned her down, citing her poor credit score.

On Sept. 30, Mercadel was forced to leave the Days Inn as the funding for the Project Roomkey came to an end. Although she’s still been unable to use her voucher, she did find a temporary place for her and her 1-year-old son with the help of Councilmember Suzie Price.

While Price was canvassing for her mayoral campaign, she met a woman in East Long Beach with a spare room. Price connected her to Mercadel, who had been calling the councilmember’s office.

Still, given events so far, Mercadel says she has little reason to believe her voucher will amount to much more than an empty promise.

“It’s very frustrating,” she says.

  A tough sell  

Ed Arnold, the landlord who has rented to some Section 8 tenants, grew up in the Carmelitos Housing Project in North Long Beach before working his way out of poverty, becoming a fire captain in Los Angeles and eventually investing in real estate.

Though he has misgivings about renting to people with vouchers, he encouraged landlords and property managers to attend a meeting in August to talk about the new emergency voucher program. Among the 170 rental units he owns or oversees in Long Beach, seven are rented to tenants with vouchers.

“I do believe in the Section 8 program,” he says. “I truly believe in it. Especially veterans. They need the help and they deserve our help.”

It’s the right thing to do, he says, but not easy. And it’s hard to convince landlords to do it solely because they should.

The two biggest reasons they resist, Arnold says: They are afraid they won’t be able to evict tenants for violating lease provisions and they don’t want to deal with the government any more than they have to.

Some landlords said in interviews they would consider more voucher-supported tenants once the county’s eviction moratorium expires at the end of this year.

But Alison King, director of the Housing Authority in Long Beach, says the moratorium doesn’t change anything.

“I’m not sure why people use that as an excuse,” King says. “It’s not specific to people who are subsidized.”

King did acknowledge that Section 8 and the emergency voucher programs do have more strings than the usual landlord-tenant relationship.

The Housing Authority, for example, must be notified if a person is being evicted and why. Vouchers also require an inspection of the unit before a lease is signed. This includes ensuring there are no rips in the carpet that could cause a fall, no cracked windows, a railing for a staircase of three or more steps and a working stove and refrigerator.

“It’s pretty basic stuff,” says Keith Cunningham, whose portfolio of properties includes about 35% voucher tenants. “It’s stuff that, as a landlord, you should want fixed.”

To entice landlords, the new emergency vouchers offer more incentives than traditional Section 8 vouchers, including an additional $2,500 that can help cover things like higher security deposits and paying for rent during possible delays in getting the tenant into the building.

The rents paid by both the Section 8 and emergency voucher programs are adjusted based on ZIP code: The voucher would, for example, cover up to $2,343 for a one-bedroom in the Belmont Shore area and $1,595 on the Westside. The average monthly voucher subsidy in Long Beach is $1,241 a month, according to HUD data.

Almost all of the units on the city’s listing for Section 8 landlords are located in Downtown, West, Central and North Long Beach. Southeast Long Beach had no listings—seemingly defeating the voucher system’s goal of promoting upward mobility.

‘Help this woman’

Despite her predicament and the wear of disappointment, former stuntwoman Stover is upbeat, almost winsome, in recounting her ordeal. She attends to Sam, her dog, who’s had digestive and other health issues over the past few months as life in her car wore on.

“I’m not going to give up,” she says, her eyes certain and hopeful beneath long brunette bangs as she crouches to pet Sam. 

Close by is Christine Barry, who over the years has become a nagging advocate on behalf of the city’s homeless. Where Stover is sweet, Barry is relentless.

“Help this woman,” Barry says, incredulous, as if talking to government officials. “She is a woman living in her car, in a park, alone.”

Homeless activist Christine Barry talks to Lisa “PJ” Stover with her dog Sam at Recreation Park in Long Beach Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Barry at times interrupts Stover, filling in gaps when she forgets details: There was the confusing letter Stover got from the city about needing a stove and refrigerator for one place—“I’ll buy you one,” Barry barked—and the fact that Stover had to search for apartments herself, on Zillow.

“She got zero help from the city, none,” Barry insists.

And that help is critical, according to a recent four-year study of whether vouchers have been successful in the Los Angeles region.

Barry and Stover met on Nextdoor, a neighborhood social media site, where Barry, 71, is somewhat of a celebrity—a hero to some, an annoyance to others. At the time, Stover hadn’t heard a thing about the status of her voucher.

Barry, who founded a nonprofit four years ago to help the homeless, asked a police resource officer, Rich Armond, to intercede on Stover’s behalf. A week later, she says, the voucher arrived.

Though the city and others cite the dearth of housing inventory as a reason for the low success rate of the vouchers, it is an open question whether people like Stover have received the help promised under the emergency program.

Duncan says the city has done what it can to serve a population that is often hard to help. Some of the people who received vouchers have been on the streets for 10 to 15 years, he says, and “sometimes they don’t present in the best way” for landlords.

The city now has 25 case workers assisting those with emergency vouchers, about one case worker per 20 clients. They are supposed to assist with filling out paperwork, guiding tenants through interactions with landlords and helping track down documentation and listings.

But it took nine months to sign contracts with four nonprofits that would be charged with providing this help. Duncan says it took time to put out a “request for proposals,” vet the organizations and then find qualified staff.

It’s not clear how many people got vouchers before caseworkers came aboard, but the rushed timeline, Duncan admits, wasn’t ideal.

‘No one at the party’

Voucher recipients interviewed by the Post almost universally say they were forced to navigate the application process and the housing market alone or were lucky enough to receive help from organizations and people outside the system.

Kevin Yarbrough, an Army veteran, says the process of getting a voucher—he qualified for a veterans program called VASH-HUD—and finding a place was beyond frustrating.

“I went to all the events, all the hoopla, where they’re shaking hands and congratulating themselves,” he says of housing bureaucrats. “It felt like someone opened a door for me, invited me in, but there was no one at the party when I arrived.”

Kevin Yarbrough, 59, is a veteran with a voucher and found a place last May in Downtown Long Beach. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova

He would take buses to the Veterans Affairs building in West L.A. to get a certain piece of paperwork, only to find that the person whose help he needed was on vacation. The application process alone took six months, he says.

Veterans do get added support through the VA, and Yarbrough says the employees are good—but turnover is high. Things get delayed, overlooked and suddenly people stop answering their phones.

When he received his voucher, he was handed a map, apartment listings and some phone numbers of property managers.

He was asked to leave his prior place earlier this year after the owner said he was selling the building, which meant Yarbrough had 60 days to find a new place in order to keep his voucher. “I looked at 30 apartments, one every other day. There was no vacancies. ‘We’ll put you on a list,’ they said.”

In May, Yarbrough, 59, eventually did find an apartment in Downtown Long Beach, but, he says, “I had to sell my sanity.”

The authors of the four-year study on vouchers in Los Angeles County, which ran from 2016 through early 2020—before COVID-19 hit—say the pandemic likely worsened the situation, as services went online and homeless individuals had less access to places like libraries, where they could use the internet. Agencies and nonprofits also struggled with staffing shortages.

As rough as it is in a normal year, the authors estimated that a third fewer people found housing in 2021, likely due to logistical challenges and lack of help.

‘Just a home’ 

Richard Glassman wasn’t having it. He was going back and forth with a commenter on Nextdoor who argued that homeless people are victims. Glassman retorted that no, a good number of the homeless are criminals who’d been let out of jail early and were, in fact, victimizing others by committing crimes.

Glassman, 62, a retired correctional officer for youth offenders in Ventura County, is skeptical of just about everyone.

But on this day he was moved by a woman named PJ Stover who jumped into the conversation thread on Nextdoor.

Richard Glassman stands with Lisa “PJ” Stover, 53, and her dog Sam at Recreation Park in Long Beach Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

She explained that she’s not a criminal, that people can just fall on hard times. He asked to do a background check on her—he would pay for it—and she agreed. When it came back clean, he met Stover at a grocery store and bought her some food and supplies, and later took her dog to the vet. She refused to take any cash.

“I thought about her after, how hard it must be living in a car in this heat,” he says.

He posted a link to a GoFundMe page she had created but never publicized, and made a donation. Soon, many others were making donations, enough for Stover to get a room at the Extended Stay hotel in East Long Beach, where she’s been living for the past few weeks while she looks for a permanent place that will take her voucher. 

“Sam’s a happy boy—and I’m a happy girl,” Stover says in a video on Nextdoor, thanking those who contributed. Sam darts from room to room, lapping from the toilet, jumping on the bed and wiggling his coiled tail.

Stover managed to change Glassman’s mind. She hopes that more people change their minds about the conditions that lead to homelessness—including those who have committed crimes—because “sometimes people have no other choice.”

What she really hopes is that landlords will see beyond the stereotypes and give her and others a chance—the people who have been frustrated by a system that is slow and often seems uncaring.

For many, like her, the clock is ticking as each day brings new uncertainties and fears.

After roughly a month in the motel, Stover says, her GoFundMe money is almost gone, consumed not only by room charges but by mounting vet bills for Sam. Still unable to find an apartment to use her emergency voucher, she says she will likely be back to living in her car.

“I don’t want to stop looking for any reason,” she says of a permanent place to call home. “I just don’t want to go through this anymore.”

Melissa Evans

Melissa Evans is the executive editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach her at melissa@lbpost.com, @melissaevansLBP or 562-437-5814.