Nelson, who grew up in Orange in a family of eleven, worked thirteen years for the Dallas Housing Authority before taking a job in 2006 with the Fort Worth Housing Authority, which currently serves six-thousand-plus families. She determines the eligibility of applicants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, known as Section 8, which is provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

You could have someone on housing assistance living next door to you and never know it. Section 8 allows low-income families to choose the type of housing they’d like—an apartment, a house, a townhome, a duplex, whatever—as long as the landlord or owner offers the program. Our clients pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, 10 percent of their gross income, or a minimum rent of $50, whichever is highest; the housing authority covers the rest. This means that families can freely pick their communities and schools without the stigma of being on housing assistance. Having that choice is empowering.

Our typical family is a single mother of two who supplements her low-paying, part-time job with either Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF; Social Security benefits; or child support—or sometimes all three. In order to qualify for housing help, your income can’t exceed a certain amount. The guideline for a one-person family is $23,100; for a two-person family, it’s $26,400; for three people, it’s $29,700; for four people, it’s $33,000; and so on. The average family stays with the program for about five years.

The biggest misconception is that people who live in public housing are there because they’re lazy. I was recently invited by an upscale housing development to a question-and-answer session, and one of the topics that came up was the average income of my clients. Someone said, “Oh, you have clients who work?” Yes. There are people in the program who have made good decisions, who have worked all their lives, who saved, who had 401(k)s. And yet because of today’s economy, they are living from paycheck to paycheck. They’re in dire situations through no fault of their own.

It’s just the world that we’re living in. I try to offer compassion and see them through it. I had a client once who made mention of her education; she had gone to high school but didn’t think she could get through college. So I connected her with HUD’s family self-sufficiency program, and then, on a regular basis, I’d call or drop her a note. She ended up getting not only her certified nurse’s assistant degree but also a good-paying job. She sent me her graduation invitation. Later she was even able to go into homeownership. She called me and said, “Mrs. Nelson, I’m buying my own home.”

Of course, there are also clients who just don’t have the motivation to become financially independent, and they do and always will need assistance, and that’s just the truth of it. They get the same help as families who do want to be self-sufficient. It is what it is.

One of the sad things for me is meeting an applicant who has recently had an issue with drugs. We screen people for criminal behavior, and if there’s anything on your record in the past ten years that’s drug-related, your eligibility is denied. Sometimes an applicant hasn’t gotten beyond that ten-year mark yet, and that can be so sad, especially if he is really, really attempting to make a turnaround. But I have to maintain the regulations, regardless of my emotions. If you don’t satisfy the guidelines, you don’t satisfy the guidelines.

People do get angry if we can’t give them assistance. But often they are mad at the system; you just happen to be the person sitting in front of them. You learn not to take it personally. If you can offer information—I’ll say that I can’t help but here’s another agency or entity that might—this helps defuse the situation. To communicate that there is still hope, that this is temporary. There’s a box of Kleenex at my desk for clients, and I find that it doesn’t get depleted that quickly because of how hard I work toward hope.

Sometimes I have to use the tissues myself. There was a woman I met one time who was very articulate and beautiful. She came in, and everything about her seemed to say that she was there to take advantage of the system. But during a long interview with her, I learned that she had had an accident and dislocated some disks in her back. She had had a difficult time proving that she was disabled and had gone through her life savings trying to sustain herself. It took her years to get her Social Security benefits, and because of how long she’d had to wait, she had become disabled to the point that she was totally incontinent. She detailed the expenses for me of what it took just to maintain her daily regimen. And yet to look at and listen to her, you would have never known it. After she left my office, I had to close my door and use the Kleenex. The encounter taught me to never judge a person based on what you see. Since that day, I try hard to give every client the benefit of the doubt.

Clients’ stories remind you of how fortunate you are when life’s call has spared you from similar situations. Recently I had another client come in, a veteran, and while we were talking, I looked up and saw that he was crying. I said, “I’m sorry. Have I said something to offend you?” He said, “No, I’m not offended at all. It’s that today I have become a real person.” I don’t know what had taken place in his life, but I do know that the mere fact that his situation was about to stabilize—that he was important enough for the Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to take the time to put a roof over his head—gave him a sense of dignity.

This job is about having a heart for people. I grew up in a poor family, and even though we were never on public assistance, I understand how the majority of needy families are not in their position by choice. I always tell my clients not to let being low-income stop them from reaching their goals. I tell them every day of the week, and I don’t get tired of it.