Douglass Hayden moved into Crystal Towers in the summer of 2008, just before the onset of the Great Recession. The wait at the time was six months. His mother and father, with whom he had been living, had recently passed away.
“I came here at the age of 55,” said Hayden, who now serves as president of the residents’ council. “It attracted me because it was for seniors starting at the age of 55 based on income. I had been working in restaurants and bartending. With the economy fluctuating I had the benefit of having a rent that adjusted to my income. Employment at that time was, how shall we say it, somewhat inconsistent.”
Now 62, he works part-time for a janitorial service cleaning Hanesbrands offices. Preparing for second shift on a recent Friday, he wore a green shirt emblazoned with a corporate logo, tucked into neatly pressed khaki pants with an ID card clipped to his belt. His close-cropped hair was flecked with gray.
With about 200 residents, he said the atmosphere at Crystal Towers reminds him of college.
“There’s a certain amount of noise,” Hayden said. “But once you go in your apartment, you have your freedom. If you open your door and let the undesirable element in, that’s on you. Most people are very respectful.”
Getting into public housing will allow him to retire this year, Hayden said. Without it, he would probably need to work until he was 67 or 70. He’s looking forward to performing volunteer work with Goodwill and downtown-area shelters. He still plans to work — at the ballpark and as an usher at the Stevens Center — but it will be on a seasonal basis and he’ll be setting his own schedule.
Hayden is aware of widespread negative perceptions of public housing, and he said he sees a certain amount of hypocrisy in the notion that government assistance promotes dependency.
“What we’re going through in America with the so-called politicians that’s looking at less government, I guess it comes from Reagan,” he said. “Everybody is supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Everybody don’t have boots.
“With Obamacare, the whole idea started out to make sure everybody’s covered,” he continued. “I work 20 hours a week. Then you put in a subsidy, but you have to be working 40 hours a week to qualify for it. The state’s saying I can’t have Medicaid, but I’ve been paying into it for 40 years. The state says they don’t want to expand it because they don’t want the federal dollars and they might have to pay more down the line. That’s hypocrisy.”
There might be some merit to incentivizing a young person to pursue more education and better employment so they can eventually move to self-sufficiency. But that’s not for him, Hayden said.
“When you look at America today — economically, socially, et cetera — most of the people in this situation, even like myself, have worked in the minimum-wage bracket,” Hayden said. “As you get older, why at the age of 62 would I want to go back to school and retrain? Why would I want to own a home as a single person? I have no children. All the so-called American Dream — that’s not my concern. I’m comfortable, and everyone needs to find that for themselves.”