Melissa Thigpen and her dog, Buzter, spent a few nights sleeping in her car because she was  unable to find an apartment she could afford on her $1,100 monthly disability check. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

With her money gone and with nowhere to go, Melissa Thigpen turned to her chocolate Labrador, Buzter, in late June and told him the bad news: they would have to sleep in her Nissan Altima, which was packed with all the possessions she could fit. 

Thigpen, 53, had moved back to Memphis from Atlanta just a few weeks earlier, planning to move into her old $650-per-month rental home in Westwood. When she arrived, the management firm told her she owed $4,000, which was more than twice what she thought she owed or could gather.  

A stroke in 2017 had stolen Thigpen’s ability to write, stand for long periods of time and, therefore, return to her career in retail. Since 2019, she had lived off of an $1,100 per month disability check plus the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. In early June, she realized it might not be enough to live in Memphis anymore. When she looked for alternatives to her old place, all either required tenants to earn three times the rent or charged at least $800 per month.

“If (living on disability income) was hard before, it’s damn near impossible now.”

Allison Donald, independent living specialist at Memphis Center for Independent Living

By the end of the month, Thigpen was driving down to Southaven — where she used to manage the Goldtoe outlet store — and pulling into a Walmart parking lot to sleep, figuring she and Buzter would be safe there.

“It’s literally becoming impossible to try to find somewhere to go,” said Thigpen.

In Memphis, rental rates have jumped during the last year, climbing by 19% between September 2020 and last month, according to research from Apartment List. And, renters say more landlords are requiring income three times the rent to move in. These conditions are tough for all kinds of Mid-South residents, from Cordova to Southaven, more than offsetting the rise in wages the region has recently seen — a 5% bump between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. 

But for disabled Memphians living on a fixed income, the leap in prices has been even more difficult to deal with. It’s left many without a place to land and reduced the number of apartments they can afford to almost zero, said Allison Donald, an independent living specialist at the Memphis Center for Independent Living, which trains, advocates for and supports people with disabilities. 

“If (living on disability income) was hard before, it’s damn near impossible now,” Donald said. 

Before the age of 65, disability benefits come in two main forms: Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. SSDI is only available to people who — like Thigpen — were working before a disability made them unable to work. Its payments vary widely, based on the income recipients earned prior to their disability — averaging $1,128 per month and maxing out at $3,148, according to the National Council on Aging

SSI is available to low-income, disabled Americans regardless of their work history and pays an average of $515 per month and a maximum of $794 per month for a single adult. About 25% of SSI recipients also receive some form of housing assistance — such as Section 8 vouchers, which require surviving a roughly 5-year waitlist in Memphis — and 57% are enrolled in SNAP, according to the Census Bureau.

Susie Mitchell and her mother, Shirley, received aid from the Emergency Rental Assistance program earlier this year but have been waitlisted or denied a place in the complexes they’ve sought to live in. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.   

Two of the more than 33,000 Shelby County residents enrolled in SSI are Susie Mitchell and her mother, Shirley. The pair, who were featured in an MLK50 article about Emergency Rental Assistance, receive a total of $1,300 per month between the two of them. During the pandemic, they spent about $1,000 to help bury four relatives and ended up needing the Emergency Rental Assistance program to save them from eviction.

While the ERA safety net was a huge relief for the Mitchells, it wasn’t a long-term solution. The eviction ordeal soured them on their current Whitehaven apartment complex, and — especially with the complex raising its rate by $20 to $629 per month, plus $45 for water and insurance — the Mitchells have been looking hard for alternatives. In fact, they never unpacked the boxes they loaded when they feared eviction back in August.

Their search, though, hasn’t turned up anything so far. Susie Mitchell knows she can only afford $600 per month in rent, and the four complexes she’s found in that price range have either told her they don’t have room or have placed her on a waiting list.

“A lot of people have been out looking,” she said.

When Thigpen’s search didn’t turn up anything right away, she turned to a couple cheap hotels, the Travelodge near the intersection of Brooks Road and I-55 and a motel on Sycamore View Road. The daily payments quickly depleted her cash so she asked a friend from church for help, but the friend ran out of funds as well, leaving Thigpen to her Altima.

Melissa Thigpen’s car is parked outside of a fellow church member’s house where she and her dog, Buzter, are staying temporarily. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

Ten percent of Memphis residents under the age of 65 — about 56,000 people — were living with a disability as of 2015-2019, which is roughly in line with the national average, according to the Census Bureau. This number includes anyone who says they have difficulty with vision, hearing, cognition, movement, self-care or independent living.

For the five or six local apartment communities that specifically cater to people with disabilities — with features meant to make life easy for people who have difficulty walking or seeing — Donald said waiting lists are at least a year long.

For this reason, Donald is recommending to many people that they find a way to stay in their current housing situation and try to find some sort of work to supplement their checks — a difficult ask for many.

Rachel Brooks, her son and her sister currently live off a combined $3,000 of disability benefits per month, though Brooks hopes she can get her in-home childcare business restarted soon after COVID cut her client list to zero. They rent a three-bedroom home in what she described as a relatively low-crime part of Frayser for $730 per month.

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Brooks started looking for a new rental home last fall. She hasn’t had any problems with the home and hasn’t had issues with her landlord but wants to move for “other personal reasons” she wouldn’t disclose. So far, she hasn’t found anything she’d feel comfortable living in for less than $1,000 per month — the most she’d be able to spend.

“The type of three-bedroom that’s $850 or $925, most likely you don’t want it … it’s been shot up (or) the house itself is jacked up,” Brooks said.

Out of 573 available Memphis rental homes in Apartments.com’s database, only 68 have at least three bedrooms and are listed for $1,000 per month or less, most of which are listed for more than $900.

One way to help people such as Brooks, Mitchell and Thigpen would be to increase SSI and SSDI payments. SSI payments are currently equal to about 75% of the federal poverty rate. While they are set to increase by 5.9% at the start of 2022 — to account for an increased cost of living — some Democrats are working to increase them to 100% of the poverty rate or higher. However, neither this major proposed expansion of SSI nor any expansion of SSDI were included in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill being pushed by Democrats in Congress. 

After three nights in her car, Thigpen moved in with another woman from church, who has a three-bedroom home. Her church’s bishop was able to make the connection for her. 

Long-term, Thigpen is hoping to convince her old management company to let her move back into her old home. Beyond there, she doesn’t know where else she would go. 

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com


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