Phoebe's Story: The System Failed Her

“Phoebe,” an elderly woman with disability, had lived comfortably in public housing, surrounded by her family photographs and heirlooms, inherited furniture, favorite books and records, with her clothing in closets, and with her parakeets for company. Today, she is homeless with her few possessions in paper bags.

The root cause of Phoebe’s homelessness is the failure of her landlord, the local housing authority, and the lack of any protections for a tenant who is the victim of mobbing.

The small public housing authority where Phoebe lived was full of bullying among tenants and by management, and it was mobbing because the landlord—the public housing authority— did not act to stop and prevent bullying. The Attorney General says—it is unlawful to prevent others from enjoying their rights as citizens and tenants. When Phoebe applied for a reasonable accommodation, not only was her request rejected, but she became a target of the mobbing.

Fair Housing Law establishes the right for Phoebe to obtain a reasonable accommodation from her landlord. But Phoebe’s landlord failed to grant the accommodation and was not held to account.

Because of a climate of bullying and mobbing, the housing authority board and even elected town officials did not respect or believe Phoebe. Authorities concluded that she was making it up to gain advantage, and rejected her plea for help. She experienced “constructive eviction.”

And in the following time while she has been living without a home, several agencies failed to provide for Phoebe and there is no oversight to hold them accountable.

How can we, the people of this Commonwealth, allow a disabled elderly woman to be homeless? Despite the Fair Housing Law and the existence of numerous social service agencies, we have no adequate response to the essential needs of persons living with disability. Currently, the Mass Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is short of qualified personnel and the waiting time for resolving a case can be months or years. Neither the Federal office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) nor the state Department of Housing and Urban Development (DHCD) has effective oversight that protects the rights of tenants. And we certainly lack protection against bullying and mobbing.

We know how to house the homeless. In Houston veterans living on the street are quickly housed.

“Ten years ago, homeless veterans, one of the categories that the federal government tracks, waited 720 days and had to navigate 76 bureaucratic steps to get from the street into permanent housing with support from social service counselors. Today, a streamlined process means the wait for housing is 32 days.” —New York Times

Pamela and “Margaret” are additional examples of how individuals are made homeless because our public and subsidized housing fails to provide a safe environment. Pamela chose to live out of her car to escape the constant stress of mobbing in her public housing setting. A disabled woman, Margaret, who stood up for the rights of other disabled people in her subsidized apartment building, was bullied, harassed, mobbed, unjustly evicted, and made homeless.

Like a refugee from a natural disaster, Phoebe experiences a continuing trauma, as did Pamela and Margaret.

But finding the relevant agency and actually getting it to provide housing is not easy. The various services are in distinct silos and each agency is constrained by extensive regulations. The system that was intended to help people in need has become part of the problem; we are protecting the system instead of those in need.

We need to see Phoebe safely housed, and then we need to strengthen, or actually create an effective safety net. We, the tenants must have oversight and accountability for landlords. 

“Phoebe” and “Margaret” are pseudonyms. Details have been changed to protect their identities. Pamela Goodwin’s experiences are detailed in articles on 


Michael Kimmelman, How Houston Moved 25,000 People From the Streets Into Homes of Their Own, New York Times, June 14, 2022

Molly RockettPrivate Property Managers, Unchecked: The Failures of Federal Compliance Oversight in Project-Based Section 8 Housing, 134 Harv. L. Rev. F. 286, Mar 20, 2021

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