When Brenell Whitfield joined a San Diego subsidized housing waitlist, she was a single mother with two young children. Twelve years later, she's a mother of four, desperate to find places for her family to live day by day.
Over the last decade, Whitfield says she and her family have been homeless on and off. At times they've slept in a car or a tent, just miles from some of California's wealthiest neighborhoods.
"To have to live like that, people seeing us have to live like that, it's embarrassing," she said.
Although she's been on a waitlist for a dozen years already, Whitfield hasn't yet reached the average wait time for public housing in San Diego County. Last year, residents who made it to the top of the list had been waiting for 18 years on average, according to an ABC Owned Television Stations data analysis. Those who received housing vouchers to rent on the private market had waited an average of eight years.
San Diego County has the longest average public housing wait time among large U.S. metropolitan counties, but lengthy waitlists are not unique to the area.
'I feel like I'm never going to come up on that list'
An ABC News and ABC Owned Television Stations analysis of new data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that households that received housing assistance last year had waited more than two years on average.
Meanwhile in dozens of counties, average wait times were over five years. More than six million Americans live in counties where public housing wait times were longer than a decade, but little to no action has been taken on a national level in recent years to address this issue.
Another million Americans live in counties with waitlists longer than a decade for Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly known as Section 8. Even people who reach the top of that list face another hurdle: In most places, landlords can legally refuse to rent to voucher holders. Experts estimate only about three in five Section 8 recipients find housing before their vouchers expire.
Tanya Frazier sought Section 8 housing and joined two housing waitlists the same year that Whitfield did. She, too, is still waiting over a decade later.
Frazier lives with a disability and has three children, ages 32, 27 and 23. Since joining the waitlists, she has also become a grandmother.
"I tell my kids to stay hopeful," she said, "but deep inside, I feel like I'm never going to come up on that list."
Today, Frazier and her family live in a small two-bedroom home. But the rent - nearly $3,000 - is difficult for them to afford. Since Frazier joined the housing waitlists, the average rent in San Diego County has increased about 54%.
About a quarter of American renter households are considered severely rent-burdened, meaning that they spend more than half of their income on housing.
As rent increases have outpaced income growth, more Americans are finding themselves struggling to afford a home, yet the supply of subsidized housing has not kept up with demand. Of over 23 million households eligible for assistance, fewer than a quarter receive it, data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows.
'I just gotta be patient'
For many people on housing waitlists, they're waiting for more than just a place to live.
"I just want security where my kids will feel every day they don't have to worry about, 'Are gonna be evicted? Are we gonna have to go to the streets?'" Whitfield said.
Stephanie, a Massachusetts mother who asked her last name not to be used, is waiting for a safe haven from domestic violence. She says she has been on a Section 8 waitlist since leaving an alleged abusive situation four years ago.
While she waits, Stephanie bounces between friends' homes and makes the best of things for her kids. When the weather is nice, they stay at campsites, and she tries to make camping fun for the family. She builds makeshift fishing rods and carries around art supplies, keeping her kids occupied and trying to hide her worries from them.
Stephanie says she has now applied to 167 programs in Massachusetts, spending hours each day on paperwork.
"I'll take whatever I can get," Stephanie said, adding that her top priorities are keeping her children with her and staying safely away from her alleged abuser: "I'll move wherever, wherever he can't find us."
For Dawn Adams, waiting for housing is also about taking care of a child as she fights for custody of her grandson. Adams has been on the Philadelphia Housing Authority's waitlists for about four years.
In 2019, Adams' daughter was killed by her son's father in a Pennsylvania murder-suicide, according to police. Adams moved to Philadelphia to take care of her infant grandson, but found trouble affording housing. She says she was denied custody of her grandson because she didn't have a stable place to live.
Adams refused to give up on raising her grandson: "When I see him, I see her, so that right there's my key," she said.
Adams remained in Philadelphia, staying with friends and seeking an affordable home. She knew people on the waitlists who had given up hope, but she was determined to try everything.
"My plan is to get my grandson and get us a home to live in," she said.
Last fall, Adams received an email from PHLHousing+ saying that she had been randomly selected from applicants on PHA's waitlists to participate in a pilot program to support people waiting for housing. For two and a half years, she would receive a monthly stipend calculated to bridge the gap between her income and housing expenses.
Adams called the program a "lifeline," but as she saves her stipend to eventually rent a home, she still hopes she'll make it to the top of the waitlists and receive more permanent support.
"I'm not one to give up, so I believe it's gonna happen," Adams said. "I just gotta be patient."
'I just don't know what to do'
Patience paid off for Rebecca Young, who says she waited a decade on San Diego County's public housing waitlist before finally landing a unit.
"It was literally like winning the lottery," Young said.
While Young was waiting, she was living in canyons, tents and the occasional motel and said she hadn't had her own bed for 25 years.
Reno Moralez, who previously managed the complex where Young now lives, regularly saw people in similar circumstances.
"You put a face to the homeless person who comes in here and says, 'I'm on the list, but I've only been on it eight, nine years,'" Moralez said. "Then I have to tell them, 'Hey, you got another four or five, six years to go before you can actually live here.'"
Whitfield said she's been homeless for up to six months at a time. This is especially painful with kids, she added.
"I'll wait 'til they go to sleep, and then I just cry," she said.
Residents, housing officials and experts have all expressed concern that not enough is being done at the federal level to address long waitlists.
"Insufficient federal funding for rental assistance programs is a challenge for communities across the country, including the City of San Diego," said San Diego Housing Commission Vice President Scott Marshall.
HUD, which provides funding to housing authorities, told ABC News in a statement that President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan has helped more than 50,000 people experiencing homelessness.
"Even so, HUD recognizes that there is more work to be done. That's why, in this year's budget proposal, the Administration has requested additional resources to address this crisis and we encourage Congress to act," the statement read in part.
Last year, the agency counted about 582,000 Americans experiencing homelessness.
"We can't be desensitized by these numbers," said San Diego State University Assistant Professor Valerie Stahl. "We have to think about the households, the people who are behind these numbers and these waitlists."
Whitfield, Frazier, Stephanie and Adams are just a handful of the millions of Americans behind these numbers.
All they can do is continue to wait.
"Sometimes I feel like giving up," Frazier said. "But then I think, 'Okay, well I've been waiting for this long, so why not wait any longer?'"