Tucked back into the corner of a dimly lit kitchen, two boys giggle, then burst out into uncontrollable laughter. The bulb that sits atop a long, skinny floor lamp — the sole source of light for the Sigg-Brown family kitchen — is loose. The two boys, Isaiah and Malik, have realized that touching the base of the lamp ever so slightly causes the light to flicker. Malik, the younger of the two, seems to be the only one in a kitchen full of six who can make the light stay on. “I am magic,” the 6-year-old says. Not one of his four siblings, nor his mother, disagree with this statement.
They know that if things get much worse for their family, they’re going to need that magic.
This was the scene at the Sigg-Brown house last week, but it’s typical just about every day. Inside and out, this is one of the healthiest families living in Coal Creek Canyon. All five children and their mother, Jenae Sigg, eat only organic food; live in a mountain home with virtually no electronics; and spend an hour before bedtime each night reading, doing puzzles and sharing stories.
But as Sigg watched her boys tinker with the lamp that night, her glassy blue eyes tinged with fear — fear that within a matter of days now, they could be homeless.
* * * *
Federal sequestration went into effect on March 1, and it’s having local impacts. When you get down to it, “sequestration” is really just a fancy word for budget cuts, and in the case of the federal government, big cuts. The Taxpayer Relief Act, passed in 2012, pushed sequestration back until March 1, with the hope that Congress would strike an alternative debt reduction deal. Unfortunately, that alternative deal never happened, and across-the-board cuts were made to all discretionary programs meaning almost all homelessness and affordable housing programs in the United States were hit hard.
The Sigg-Brown family, like many Americans, isn’t really sure what sequestration means. To them, it sounds like something that might affect a jury, not a family of six struggling to keep a roof over their head. But right now, the family is living in house that has been foreclosed on, and they are looking to local organizations, such as Boulder Housing Partners and the Boulder County Housing Authority, for help. Yet these organizations depend on the federal funds being cut by sequestration.
Organic pizza is a favorite for the kids | Photo by Abby Faires
Sequestration will have a significant impact on programs such as Section 8, a federal housing program that provides assistance to low-income families, typically in the form of a federal voucher. In Boulder, approximately 50 low-income families per month will be affected by the cuts, according to Karen Kreutzberg, federal housing manager for Boulder Housing Partners. Nationally, 125,000 individuals and families will lose Section 8 assistance because of sequestration, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website.
“A voucher can be used by any landlord,” says Willa Williford, Boulder County Department of Housing and Human Services director. “Landlords like it because it’s a steady stream of income.”
Williford says that typical Section 8 tenants pay about $250 per month towards their rent, and the federal government covers the rest via the voucher. To be eligible for the program in Boulder, households must earn at or below 80 percent of the area median income. According to the Boulder County Housing Authority website, a family of six would need to earn less than $87,120 to qualify.
* * * *
The Section 8 program is the Sigg-Brown family’s best shot at receiving federal assistance for housing. Aside from the $750 per month it receives in food stamps, the family virtually has no source of income. Based on food stamps alone, Jenae Sigg would be making about $9,000 per year, far below the $87,120 it takes for her to qualify for Section 8.
Last year, when the Sigg-Brown children’s school closed, things began to spiral out of control for the family. Sigg was trying to figure out how to balance her full-time job as a barista, making approximately $10 per hour, with finding child care for her kids, not to mention $800 per month for the basement apartment she had found to rent in Coal Creek Canyon. Even though she was working full-time, receiving food stamps and making weekly trips to the food bank down in Boulder, she was struggling to make ends meet.
Sigg was right back in the same situation she had been just a few months earlier when, despite working full-time, she couldn’t keep up with rent and raising a family. That time around she was evicted from an apartment in Longmont, and the inseparable family of six spent about two weeks couch surfing before Sigg couldn’t take it anymore.
“I was tired,” Sigg says. “I was so tired of moving, of being unstable.”
So, she rounded up the kids and decided to sit in front of the Boulder Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) until someone decided they would help her family. This was the third time the Sigg-Brown family was without a home, and it was the third time she had been to EFAA for help. This time her perseverance paid off, and EFAA housed her family in a hotel room for a month while Sigg searched for a new home. Finally, she found the basement apartment for rent up in the canyon. Without federal assistance, Sigg felt like affording rent in Boulder wasn’t an option. She decided that paying the cheaper rent to live in the canyon would compensate for the extra gas she was using to make the trip to Boulder for work.
The family’s dog, Coda, with Keenan Sigg-Brown and Jenae Sigg | Photo by Abby Faires
Not long after finding the apartment for rent, Sigg was dealt a sweet hand: one of her regular customers raised $7,250 and donated it her family. Internally, Sigg was struggling with whether to continue working and trying to afford child care, or choosing to stay at home with her kids. In the end, she decided that paying $800 per month for rent was far cheaper than the money she would have to spend on day care. With her rent paid for the next few months and some extra cash to live on, Sigg felt like the right choice was to quit her job as a barista, and she decided to be a fulltime mom for the summer. Her intention was to get the kids back to school in the fall, so she could get back to work.
“If I had a safe place for them all to stay, I would work,” Sigg says. “I worked during my entire marriage, and I enjoyed it.”
* * * *
Sigg’s marriage to Jason Brown, who fathered four of her children, ended five years ago. According to Brown, he has been without a steady paycheck for about three months now. He says he can’t afford to pay child support at the moment, but he does see his children a few times each month.
Brown did not father 3-year-old Keenan, the youngest of the Sigg-Brown children. Keenan met his father for the first time earlier this year. He has fathered several other children, according to Sigg, and says he can’t really afford to be in Keenan’s life.
Sigg’s plan to get the kids enrolled in school for the fall so that she could return to work didn’t pan out. Her hope was to keep all of the kids together in a Montessori school in Gilpin County, but because she had missed the Oct. 1 enrollment deadline, she wouldn’t be able to receive federal assistance to pay for the school. After that, Sigg applied for open enrollment in Nederland and elsewhere in the Boulder Valley School District.
Sigg did get her two oldest children, Tiana and Jayden, enrolled at the Nederland Middle/Senior High School for the spring term. Luckily, the bus stop is only four blocks away from their home. Nonetheless, Nederland Elementary was full, and Sigg was told to bring Malik and Isaiah back when fall enrollment opened.
As of today, 9-year-old Isaiah, 6-year-old Malik and 3-year-old Keenan stay home with Sigg while their older sisters are at school. All of the Sigg-Brown children but Keenan have been accepted and enrolled in Boulder Valley schools for the fall. But for the time being, Sigg homeschools the boys. Although they work on reading, spelling and math on a regular basis, it’s hard to anticipate how the transition into the public school system will go for the boys next fall. For their sisters, the transition from their Montessori background to public school this year was tough, but the boys are all-too-eager to get to class.
“I’m excited to go to school in Boulder,” says Isaiah. “Because I get bored being up here.”
“Yeah!” Malik chimes in. “I like Boulder.”
The family tries to spend an hour every evening playing games together. | Photo by Abby Faires
With the school situation temporarily settled, the family got dealt a devastating blow. Sigg’s dream house, her family’s “mountain sanctuary,” was being foreclosed on. Soon enough, it would be auctioned off, and her family would be evicted once again.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Sigg says. “I thought that this house was going to be the most stable environment for us.”
The basement apartment Sigg was renting, in the bottom of her dream house, belonged to a woman she had known for years. Plus, the house had been in this woman’s family for three generations.
“When I moved into this home, my garden-level apartment in this big, beautiful mountain home, I was for sure it would be long-term,” Sigg says.
In fact, Sigg was so sure that she refused to let her kids live out of boxes once they moved in.
“They wouldn’t unpack,” Sigg says. “So, I unpacked for them. I was like no, we are not living out of boxes anymore.”
“But I liked living that way,” says 13-year-old Tiana. “I was used to living that way. Being homeless three times, you know, that is a big impact.”
* * * *
But when the family got the laminated foreclosure notice on the front door, courtesy of a residential brokerage firm, reality set in — at least it did for the children.
Even now, a month after the house was auctioned off and bought by Fannie May, Sigg still walks the property dreaming about her family’s future there. She points to the wood-paneled doghouse that sits across from their driveway.
“See, and this is where I would put my chickens,” Sigg says.
Then she points over to a shoddy garden area, where nothing grows.
“And that would be our garden, where we could grow all kinds of herbs,” Sigg says.
She looks over to the right.
“And that’s the compost,” Sigg says. Then she moves on to the upstairs level, where another man currently lives.
“And when Jed leaves, Tiana, Jayden and Isaiah could move upstairs,” Sigg says. “Isaiah could have his own room, and Jayden and Tiana could have more of their own space. But only if they can take care of it. If they can’t take care of things up here, well, we’ll have to figure something else out.”
Sigg teeters between fantasies like this and the harsh reality her family is now facing. A couple of days after talking about plans for moving upstairs and getting her own chickens, Sigg told 6-year-old Malik that he couldn’t glue a glow-in-the-dark star onto their bedroom ceiling.
“But why, Mom?” Malik asked.
“Well, because,” Sigg said. “Because this isn’t our house, and someday people will live here after us, and they won’t want our things glued onto the walls of their house.”
Malik stared back at his mother blankly and sauntered back into their bedroom. Five minutes later, he had an epiphany: He would try to tape the star to the ceiling instead.
Sigg says that she has been looking for housing ever since she learned of the foreclosure, but she hasn’t come up with any options. Her gut tells her that she needs to be in Boulder because of the great assistance programs the county has to offer. But because she hasn’t found anything else, she believes they are “right where we are supposed to be.”
Sigg was able to get the rest of her rent money back, a little more than $5,000, and decided she would use that for living expenses and a deposit on her next place. At least that was the plan. But as of today, the rest of that money has run out. Sigg says the majority of it has gone to gas and food for her family. While she waits for eviction, Sigg is no longer paying rent. And for now, food stamps, food banks and friends are helping her family survive.
In its latest installment of laminated notices, the brokerage firm posted a new “Relocation Assistance Offer” on Sigg’s door. If her family had vacated the premises by April 6, they could have received $1,700. Now, if they choose to leave by April 22, they will get $900.
After doing her own research, however, Sigg found out that she legally has 90 days to vacate her mountain sanctuary, which means she can stay until July.
“So, I’m sitting tight,” Sigg says. “I’m not going anywhere. Ninety days is three months of rent for me. That’s way more than the $1,700 they offered me.”
* * * *
The Section 8 lottery and the public housing wait list at Boulder Housing Partners opened on April 10. Both the lottery and the wait list will close April 24. Sigg hopes that they will get chosen for one of those programs, but she won’t let her hopes get too high. They’ve been on a wait list for housing assistance before, before sequestration happened, and they’re still waiting. Plus, Boulder Housing Partners still doesn’t know how many families they will be able to pull from the lottery this year.
“That’s the million-dollar question that I don’t have the answer to yet,” says Kreutzberg. “We’ve been looking at funding from HUD, looking at what we expect to get from them for the rest of the year, looking at how many families will go off of Section 8 assistance this year, and how many will stay on. But the truth is, we just don’t know yet.”
Even if the Sigg-Brown family were drawn for the lottery or taken off of the wait list for assistance, Kreutzberg says it would be at least 12 months before Boulder Housing Partners could offer them housing.
“We are hoping to select lottery winners by mid-May, and then offer vouchers within 12 to 18 months,” Kreutzberg says. “That is our hope. But if we run out of federal funding, we can’t offer the money to pay for those vouchers.”
The Sigg-Brown family needs a home, and they need it now. They can hardly afford to wait 90 days, let alone 12 months.
“It’s one of the most difficult things we have to do — to turn people away,” Kreutzberg says. “Housing is a basic need. It is so hard to have the rest of your life in order, much less maintain stability and advance, without it.”
Three-year-old Keenan plays daredevil as his brothers look on. | Photo by Abby Faires
Sigg knows that she can’t wait another 12 to 18 months for help, but she also knows that she can’t afford the rent in Boulder by herself.
“I’m tired of moving,” Sigg says. “And I’m tired of not having a home. I’m just tired. And if I didn’t have five little souls depending on me, I’d be more than happy to wait for the bank to come and literally move me and all of my shit out.”
But giving up when you have five children depending on you isn’t an option. Camping, however, has always been a viable option for the Sigg- Brown family.
“We’ve camped before,” Sigg says. “I know we could do it again.”
True, the family is used to camping. For her sixth-grade language arts class, Jayden even wrote an essay about her family’s camping adventures.
“I like camping,” Jayden says. “Well, except for when it rains. One time, it rained for three whole days, and we had to stay in our van.”
“Yeah, that was terrible,” Tiana agrees. “We were all stuck inside the van, and we couldn’t do anything.”
Camping also meant they were living without hot showers — one of Tiana’s most prized possessions. For the 13-year-old, shower time is her time.
Tiana usually waits until later at night, when all of the younger children are in bed, or are almost there. She slips into the empty bathroom and closes the door behind her. For those few minutes, the teenage girl finds some peace and quiet. She finds time to get lost in herself and only herself. The steam rising off of the hot water relaxes her, and when she steps back out into the house again, usually all is dark and quiet.
“Without my showers,” Tiana says, “I don’t know if I could sleep at night.”
The dictionary says “sequestration,” like many words, has two meanings. Both apply when it comes to the Sigg- Brown family and the 125,000 families like them.
The government that created the sequester uses the definition to “confiscate until a debt has been paid.” But for the families affected by the government’s actions, the definition “to isolate or hide away” seems more apropos.
For the Sigg-Browns, it literally means that they may once again be homeless in just a few days. It means that schools and food and transportation — and even hot showers — along with all the other things that most folks take for granted are once again a question mark for the family of six.
And now they are hoping for a little bit of magic.
Editor’s note: Abby Faires had previously known Jenae Sigg when she was an employee at Alfalfa’s Market.