If you or someone you care about is having difficulty affording "decent, safe, and sanitary housing", navigating the (overburdened) housing assistance programs can be overwhelming. I've put together a little guide that I hope helps even just a little...
Proceed To Your Local Library
If you do not have computer/internet access, there's a very good chance your public library does. You will probably need to have a valid library card to use a computer, but even if you don't have one/aren't eligible for one, your local library may still be able help. I work at a small town library and help people with this sort of thing all the time. If your local library is too busy for someone to give you a significant amount of one-on-one time, there might be other ways they can help. I am always, always happy to help patrons in any way possible!
First, proceed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Rental Assistance and/or Home Buying page. This will direct you to the various types of HUD rental assistance and home buying programs, as well as guides to your rights as responsibilities.
From there, please proceed to your state's website for a wide variety of assistance.For example, the Illinois site covers the following topics:
Avoiding Foreclosure, Buying a Home, Economic Development, Energy, Environment, Fair Lending, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Grants, Home Improvements, Homelessness, Homes for Sale, Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), Housing Discrimination, Housing Research and Data Sets, HUD Homes, Information for Disabled Persons, Information for Senior Citizens, Limited Denials of Participation, Rental Assistance, Veteran Information, Volunteering, Working with HUD, Local tenants rights, laws and protections, Help with your utility bills, Find rural units for rent, Independent living centers
From your state's page, you can explore housing options in your desired area. A quick search for subsidized 1-bedroom apartments in Chicago yielded 265 results, though the majority are restricted to Disabled/Family/Elderly tenants. Each property listed includes a phone number and maybe an email address.
To apply for public housing, you'll need to contact your local Public Housing Authority for help applying (it's recommended you contact more than one PHA, as there are often waitlists). In the meantime, the HUD has lots of information, including what information/documentation you'll need to provide, who is eligible, rent estimates, and more. You can also speak with the office of Public and Indian Housing directly by calling 1-800-955-2232 (9am-5pm EST Mon-Fri)
Housing Choice Vouchers
This program "is the federal government's major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are able to find their own housing... The participant is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects." The Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet is where you'll want to start to see if you're eligible, how to apply, and how the program works.
Relative Caregiver Stipend
If you're caring for a relative, you may qualify for a stipend and/or tax break. Next Avenue has a very informative article on the subject, and you'll definitely want to visit Medicare's Tips and Resources for Caregivers. The Cash and Counseling program is especially intriguing- this guide will show what services are available in your area. And if you're caring for a relative's child(ren), please proceed to the Child Welfare Information Gateway for more information.
Hold Your Head High
In our recent Budget Living: Living On Minimum Wage discussion, many commenters expressed the shame they've felt when struggling to get by- and, even worse, the shame put on them by others. Remember, we all pay into these programs, and though we might hope we never have to use them, that's what they're there for. It would be ludicrous to pay for insurance for years, and then when faced with a hospital bill, say, "No, thank you, I'd like to pay the entire thing myself, thank you very much", right? These programs are how we help each other- and ourselves- out, and I know that I am grateful for them.