After Child Protective Services in Pocatello, Idaho, took her son away in April, Candice Cluff fought to get back on her feet and regain custody. She went into rehab for meth addiction, got sober and started a new job as a hairdresser.
Then, nearly a month ago, she got a call that she was finally off the waiting list for a Section 8 housing voucher — a subsidy that will enable her to rent a two-bedroom home, which she's required to have before she can reunite with her 2 1/2-year-old son, who has been in foster care.
But Cluff's long-awaited voucher has been on hold for weeks. First it was delayed by the record 35-day government shutdown, and now, as the federal government reopens and catches up, the timeline remains uncertain.
"This is the last thing standing in between me getting my son back," said Cluff, 30, speaking last week before the government reopened. "It really hurts knowing I'm doing all the work I possibly can, and now this is an obstacle that I have no control over."
Cluff is one of many whose hopes and plans were upended by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, and her situation demonstrates the vulnerability of many Americans when Washington politicians get into a spending dispute — a possibility that could recur when the current temporary spending bill expires in less than three weeks.
She was among the thousands of low-income Americans across the country who were frozen out of the Section 8 voucher program during the shutdown, prohibited from accessing public subsidies to private landlords who rent to about 2.2 million families. When vouchers became available through turnover, many local housing authorities decided to stop re-issuing the vouchers to new participants because they couldn't guarantee they'd be able to pay landlords after February, according to Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an advocacy group.
While federal workers went back to the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Monday — 95 percent of them had been furloughed during the shutdown — Congressional staffers and budget experts say that it will take time for HUD to get its affairs in order and get approval from the White House to extend funding for the Section 8 vouchers and other affordable housing programs past February.
"It's going to take a time for them to clean up the wreckage and get the money out the door," said Ellen Lurie Hoffman, federal policy director of the National Housing Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing and owns HUD-funded rental properties. "Everyone at HUD is blowing the dust off their desks, literally."
The shutdown stopped affordable housing vouchers from being passed on to new families in Pocatello, lengthening wait times for assistance and putting a strain on local homeless shelters that are already overflowing in the dead of winter. Housing Alliance & Community Partnerships, the local housing authority, froze about 50 Section 8 vouchers that it normally would have re-issued to those on the wait list, which is more than 400 people long, including Cluff, according to Sunny Shaw, the organization's executive director.
Shaw, like other local housing officials across the country, isn't going to release the new vouchers until she receives greater assurances that HUD can and will fund the program through the end of April — especially since the federal government is only open for the next three weeks, with another potential shutdown looming in mid-February. The funding uncertainty has made it even harder to find affordable housing in Pocatello, a town of about 55,000 that's home to a large research university but has struggled in recent years with rising poverty, as well as a heroin and meth epidemic.
"I want us to be moving forward," said Shaw, who broke the news to Cluff about her frozen voucher last week. "We won't change anything we're doing right now."
When asked on Monday if HUD would now be able to extend funding for Section 8 vouchers, the department declined to answer. "We're slammed," said spokesman Brian Sullivan, who offered to reconnect "later this week or next." The White House's Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, families who have been waiting — typically for years — to enter the Section 8 voucher program remain in limbo. That includes urgent cases like Cluff's — she received expedited consideration after applying last June. "She would be getting ready to have a voucher issued, but the paperwork has been put on hold," Shaw said.
Public housing authorities administer Section 8 vouchers on behalf of HUD, and HUD made it clear during the shutdown that it could only guarantee funding for those vouchers through the end of February. That made some housing authorities reluctant to move forward with new housing contracts they might not be able to honor, and why they are waiting for HUD to commit more funding before opening up the program again.
"We don't feel like it would be fair to set landlords and tenants in a situation that could end poorly, pressuring tenants to move," said Shaw, adding that she didn't want to undermine landlords' trust in the local housing authority by shortchanging them.
The same thing is happening in York, Pennsylvania, where the local housing authority stopped re-issuing all Section 8 vouchers during the shutdown, including a handful designated for chronically homeless veterans, according to Regina Mitchell, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of York.
The shutdown froze Section 8 vouchers for more than 200 families in central Pennsylvania, and they are all still on hold until local housing officials get the green light from HUD, Mitchell said.
The delayed vouchers could continue to burden local homeless shelters and other service providers that are already overflowing. "If they're not able to help funnel qualified people into various housing programs, it will come back into the shelter," said BJ Stensland, executive director of Aid for Friends, a Pocatello homeless shelter.
Cluff is scheduled to appear in court next month and plead her case with a judge to get her son back. She's already prepared to move, with furniture and "tons of toys" on hand for her son, who loves Legos, cars and superheroes. She can't wait to spend more than a handful of hours every week with him — especially to read him his bedtime story and tuck him in, since she is prohibited from overnight visits while he is in foster care.
But she doesn't want her son to sense that anything is wrong. "I don't want him to see mommy is hurting and mommy is sad," she said last week, shortly before the shutdown ended. "But without my housing, there's no question I don't get him back."