Story written by Abby Wade,
COLUMBIA — At 84, Vera Henson has great-great grandchildren, and she plans on staying around long enough to add another “great” to the list; Henson still has a steel in her voice when she speaks and despite being hard of hearing, she refuses to miss anything.
Henson is back at Oak Towers, a low-income public housing facility for adults over the age of 50, for her third time.
Returning, she said she had to swallow her pride.
“It’s hard to walk back in because you’re not better than they are,” she said. “Don’t misunderstand me, you’re no better than they are at all.”
According to the National Council on Aging, roughly 23 million Americans over the age of 60 live below the national poverty level, with a higher percentage of women than men.
“If you could get out of public housing and do better, I say go,” she said. “But for somebody that really needs a home, it’s OK. You just have to learn to adapt and tend to your own business.”
One of the places those individuals find to live is Oak Towers, operated by the Columbia Housing Authority. The authority was founded in 1956 to replace filthy or dangerous residences with safe, sanitary properties for low-income citizens in Columbia, funded by a federal urban renewal grant, according to the CHA website.
Oak Towers, built in December of 1966, is one of the only housing facilities specifically for low-income seniors in Columba. To be eligible, a single person cannot earn more than $36,600 per year.
The wait list can go up to six months, said April Steffensmeier, the services coordinator at Oak Towers.
“Columbia is really lacking in space in public housing,” she said. “There are way more people that need public housing than what we have available.”
“There are a variety of reasons people come into public housing,” Steffensmeier said. “It could be generational; that’s what they grew up with. Some people lose spouses and they don’t have the resources necessary to maintain the life they previously had.”
Steffensmeier stresses that Oak Towers is not a nursing home, and she works to help ensure residents lead independent lives. But individuals sometimes struggle to integrate into public housing and come to grips with their financial situation.
“It’s just consolidating your prior life with what’s available to you now, as far as the stuff,” she said. “People come in with a lot of stuff sometimes, and there’s not a lot of space to put all of that. So they’re left with deciding what’s really important to keep around, and what they can move on from.”
Bobby Turner, 67, moved into Oak Towers after a life that began in Waynesville, Missouri, where he dropped out of school after eighth grade.
Later, he worked as a janitor for Atkins Janitorial Service and as salad-maker at the Ramada Inn.
In eighth grade, Turner began working at a local movie theater, and he decided he would rather make a living than continue with school.
“If I went to high school, I could’ve had a better job,” he said. “I could’ve advanced myself in my job. Not having a high school education really hurt.”
Turner moved to Columbia in 1982 to receive help from New Horizons, a program to assist him with his mental health. In 1985, he moved into Oak Towers.
Seventy-five percent of adults over the age of 60 depend on Social Security as their sole source of income, according to the National Council on Aging. Turner collects $862 a month in Social Security, but after paying his rent of $285 a month, paying off the debts he said he owes to finance companies, and buying groceries, he said he’s “just about broke.”
Turner said he couldn’t afford to live anywhere other than Oak Towers.
“Rent is so expensive, and then on top of that, you have to pay utilities,” he said. “Any place else would be a $300-400 a month plus utilities. It’s really expensive.”
In Oak Towers, residents have built their own sense of community.
“Bobby’s an old shoe around here,” Henson said, smiling. “He’s been here for 20-something years. He never has family come see him. I think you’d call him a loner, but he’s a good man, he really is.”
Turner enjoys the dances, bingo and independent lifestyle at Oak Towers.
“I’m free now. I just get to kick back and enjoy life.”
And just as Turner regretted not graduating high school, Henson wished she had continued working.
“I didn’t have anybody to guide me,” she said. “I was a Christian, and I knew to always go to the Lord in prayer about things. But I’m human and I jumped before I listened to what I was supposed to be doing.”
Raised by her grandparents in Warrensburg, Missouri, Henson was a model before she began working as a nurse at University Hospital.
After meeting her first husband, she moved to Columbia where she had four children. Most of that time she spent at home.
“I thought my obligation was to be a wife,” she said. “That’s the way I was trained.”
After her first and second husbands passed, Henson was left with little to live on in retirement. She, too, relies on Social Security, but a significant percentage is deducted for her Medicare benefits. After also paying for food, rent, and her heart disease and arthritis medications, she can barely make ends meet.
Henson met her second husband in 1987 at a jam session when she first moved into Oak Towers. They were together for 10 years and two months, and they moved back to Oak Towers when he became ill. When he passed in 2004, Turner struggled again to sustain herself.
“I think the best part of my life was when I was married,” she said. “I don’t like living alone. And if I didn’t have the Lord, I couldn’t make it.”
“Back then, we lived,” she said.