Community

With more than 17,000 people on the waiting list, securing a spot in Louisville’s public housing system can be difficult.

Some spend years waiting their turn to move into one of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority’s 17 housing sites. Others can spend years trying to get out, people like Errin Johnson.

Johnson, 51, lives on the eighth floor of Avenue Plaza at 400 S. Eighth St. in downtown Louisville, an 18-story public housing building that opened in 1974.

For the past 20 years, she’s been in and out of public housing — mostly in, a result of some bad decisions and tough luck, she said.

She knows that getting out of public housing is up to her, and now she’s trying to do just that by learning a new skill: computer coding.

Finding Her Place

Before public housing, she was moving through the city’s homeless shelters.

She came to Louisville from California in the 1980s after getting married. She had a daughter, had a job and a home.

Then things began to unravel. She got divorced, turned to alcohol, started struggling at work and eventually lost her job. She said she was diagnosed with a mood disorder. Looking back, she remembers it as a confusing time.

“I didn’t realize I was self-destructive as I was,” she said. “I couldn’t hold down a job.”

After losing a string of jobs and getting deep into debt, Johnson’s self-esteem plummeted, she said. Spending days at the Avenue Plaza tower didn’t help much, either.

“You walk down the halls and it’s just disparity,” she said.

She wanted a change.

The layoffs and resignations made her realize she didn’t fit the mold of a typical 9-to-5 worker. She needed something different, something that fit her.

Through the online learning program called Treehouse, offered at no cost by the Louisville Free Public Library system, she began learning the basics of coding.

“Just teaching myself,” she said.

She liked it, so she enrolled in Code Louisville — a free 12-week online coding workshop that anyone with a Louisville Free Public Library card can access — to further her learning.

Then, things started clicking.

“I started finding my niche, and that was new to me,” she said. “It was easier to work on my self-confidence. My view about me started changing.”

She kept enrolling in Code Louisville sessions to learn the finer points of frontend and backend web development.

Becky Steele, project coordinator for Code Louisville, said many of the program participants are like Johnson. They want to reinvent themselves.

But Steele said Johnson has more — an “insatiable desire to improve.”

These days, Johnson spends most of her free time at the iHub space in the East Market District working on her coding skills and crafting a plan to turn what she’s learning into a money making concept.

She’s interested in data mining application design and even has a goal to start a business and have at least one customer within 12 months.

“‘I’ve always wanted to work, but just needed to find what works for me,” she said. “It only took  20 years.”

Getting Out and Giving Back

Her new-found camaraderie with some of the city’s top tech minds motivates her.

“I felt like an outsider at first, but you keep coming around and you start realizing that you have more in common than you expect,” she said.

Louisville has thousands of vacant technology jobs, city officials say. The tech industry is poised to expand with the anticipated arrival ultra-fast Internet access from AT&T and Google Fiber.

Despite the success in finding a passion, a niche and an idea of a way out of public housing, Johnson still has to return to her eighth floor apartment each night after days of coding and talking tech with some of the city’s top entrepreneurs.

She admits it’s not an empowering place.

She’s been overrun by bedbugs and bothered by marijuana smoke drifting in the halls.

She said the building itself is fine, but there’s no community — it’s depressing.

And getting out can be tough.

Tim Barry, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, said people stay in public housing for an average of six years.

When new residents move in they get information about self-sufficiency programs, Barry said. They can learn about budgeting, predatory lending, financial goal setting and managing debt. They can learn how to further their education, get their GED or they can gain resume building skills.

Many of these services, however, depend on the resident to take part.

Johnson said she’s participated in the financial empowerment classes, but came away underwhelmed.

“To me, it was very important, but we needed practice, it’s like coding, if you don’t practice everyday you’re not going to remember it and get good at it,” she said. “That was the missing part.”

The lack of a clear path out of public housing is a missing link in the system, Johnson said.

She wants to help build that path, but first she knows she’ll have to find her own way out.

Her own economic situation is dire. Most of her income comes from Social Security.

Each month she decides which bill she’ll pay. She can’t pay them all.

“Some months are better than others,” she said.

Though she may be broke, she’s certainly not broken.

“I’ve made poor decisions, but I’m not going to let society to tell me I’m a bad person anymore. Because it’s not true,” she said.

Success isn’t certain and she knows that. But, like the entrepreneurs she meets, she’s willing to take the risk and chase her dream. She has her eye on an apartment at RiverPark Place on River Road. On nice days she’ll take her dog, Piper, on walks along the marina and think of the better days to come.

She wants out, but she wants to return to help others confined to public housing. She wants to share the skills she’s learning with her neighbors.

“That would give them confidence,” she said. “Soon, they might be out getting a hobby, who knows.”

And she’s finding out herself that confidence is a key to success.

In her two decades in public housing, she didn’t go out for coffee or tea or meet up for luncheons.

“I didn’t feel equal. I felt less than,” she said. “It’s the environment you’re in. If you’re there long enough you’re going to buy in to it. So either you stay there and buy into it, or you leave.”

WFPL News is partnering with Al Dia en America to provide Spanish-language versions of stories. Read this story in Spanish

Jacob Ryan is the Metro Affairs reporter for WFPL.