Victim is not a role Bashira Abdus Samad wears well. The 50-year-old mother of five has spent her life helping victims — mostly women and children — as well as others in need. But now the tables have turned.
Last month before the primary election, someone circulated a flier listing the addresses and rental information of all the Section 8 tenants in Samad’s neighborhood. To her horror, she was on the list.
"It just hurts. It’s like a stigma now," she said. "Before, no one knew. I was just like my neighbor."
Samad has lived on the 400 block of Daly Street for the last three years with her four sons, ages 11, 14, 16 and 17, all of whom are Sunni Muslims like herself. Her 29-year-old daughter lives away from home.
The family — and the others on that list — should never have had their privacy violated, according to Kirk Dorn, general manager of communications for the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
PHA administers and oversees the Section 8 program, which provides rental and housing subsidies through the federal government to low-income residents. All Section 8 information is kept confidential to protect the rights and privacy of the tenants, Dorn said.
So just how did the information get leaked?
"Clearly, somebody in PHA gave out information that they should not have given out. So we’re trying to find out who this is and take action," the spokesperson said.
He added that PHA is conducting its own investigation into who released the flier. Numerous employees are being interviewed, and when the culprit is discovered, PHA will probably "move to fire the person," Dorn told the Review.
"We ourselves are as victimized as the residents because we, of course, keep that information confidential," Dorn said of the agency.
The spokesperson believes the flier is politically motivated, and whoever released it was trying to hurt a particular candidate — Councilman-at-Large James Kenney.
The councilman has a history of supporting and implementing changes with Section 8. "I think I’ve done a lot to improve the program. It’s by far not perfect, but we’ve made a lot of recommendations that have been accepted [by PHA]," Kenney said.
He added that whoever is behind the flier did not have the courage to put a name on it, and it’s hard to fight anonymity.
The flier claims Kenney moved out of the neighborhood, which is false. The councilman was born in South Philly and still lives in the community.
"I believe it was a campaign dirty trick done at the last minute in an attempt to enflame people in that area not to vote for me — which apparently didn’t work, because I did very well in that area," Kenney said.
The councilman added he feels sorry for the residents on the flier who have been exposed.
A second flier with the councilman’s picture and alleged racist statements attributed to him also was mailed to black committee people, he said.
What does appear at the bottom of the Section 8 flier are the names of Mike Driscoll and Dan Pellicciotti, Democrats who both ran unsuccessfully in the primary election as Council-at-Large candidates. Alongside each name is the proper lever to pull on primary election day. The bottom of the flier reads, "Driscoll and Pellicciotti Against Section 8."
Neither Driscoll and nor Pellicciotti could be reached for comment by press time.
Samad brought the matter to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union and Congressman Bob Brady’s office. The ACLU is reviewing the matter, Samad said earlier this week.
On Tuesday, Karen Warrington, press secretary for Brady, said her office sent a letter to PHA regarding the matter. The congressman’s office also might contact the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Warrington said.
A woman Samad knows brought the flier to her attention. Then one day, Samad went to a neighborhood store she frequents and the owner, who had seen the flier, told her people might start to shun her now that they know she’s a Section 8 tenant.
Time proved the merchant right.
Since the flier hit the streets, Samad’s sons have stopped wearing their kuffees (prayer caps worn by Muslim males) because they don’t want to be targeted and stigmatized any further, she said.
Samad said she has noticed people on the street hurry by when they see her coming or, worse yet, not make eye contact. Even some neighbors who used to talk to her have given her the cold shoulder since the flier was distributed.
Samad, who is black, a Muslim and a woman, now feels she has another label that results in discrimination — poor. That shouldn’t be the case, she maintains.
"Drug dealers buy houses every day. They don’t ask where their W2 form is or, how did you get that Mercedes?" Samad noted. "People on welfare have to show proof that you’re poor before you can get a house, medical care or anything else."
In Philadelphia, close to 16,000 families receive Section 8 subsidies. Of that number, 3,000 live in South Philly, Dorn said.
The spokesperson said it is unfortunate that some of these local residents are now under scrutiny.
"In most cases, they were living [anonymously] among their neighbors.They were outed and suddenly they are the target of harassment," Dorn said.
Woman and children comprise most of the Section 8 tenants, he added.
"Section 8 are not bad people," Samad said. "They are not shiftless, good-for-nothing people." She believes the residents on the list are now subject to retaliation.
Though Section 8 is a controversial program that has drawn residents’ ire because of some irresponsible tenants, there are standards of conduct that tenants must adhere to or risk losing their assistance, Samad said. In addition, anyone with a criminal record is ineligible for the aid.
Like all Section 8 tenants, Samad fell on hard times. First, there was a bitter divorce and then a debilitating car accident that left her disabled with severe back pain.
Samad holds an associate’s degree in general science and education from Community College of Philadelphia. She is a year away from completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is taking a double major in education and folklore/folklife. In 1995, Samad attended a worldwide conference in Beijing for the betterment and rights of women and children the world over.
"I’ve been advocating for women and children for a very long time," she said.
Today, Samad performs volunteer community clergy work, going wherever she is called — hospitals, churches and schools. While she deals mostly with fellow Muslims, she said she works with anyone who needs help. Her goal is to start a nonprofit, faith-based social-services organization for all races and creeds in the community.
The home on Daly Street that Samad shares with her sons is far from palatial. Three of the boys share one bedroom. One sleeps on an old mattress on the floor, another in a fold-out futon.
But Samad said she is happy there. She isn’t interested in a waterfront property or a mansion, as long as she has a roof over her head in a decent neighborhood, she said.
Dorn said that security is what Section 8 tries to afford its recipients.
"These people need assistance and we give it," he said. "Because many [other residents] resent that assistance, we keep that information confidential."