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Fear of lead paint in HUD housing leads family to homeless shelter

CHICAGO -- Over the course of his difficult life, six-year-old Makheil McMullen has had his blood tested more than 30 times. And it's never been easy.

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Makheil cries as he has his blood drawn.

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It's been a routine ever since elevated levels of lead were found in Makheil's blood.

"He started having health problems around sixteen months," said his mom, Tolanda McMullen.

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Tolanda McMullen

CBS News

Nowadays, Makheil is a slow learner with a speech impediment and attention disorders.

"I feel betrayed. I feel robbed," McMullen told us. Because almost everywhere she's lived in Chicago, it's been in subsidized housing where lead-based paint is a common threat.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides rent subsidies for the McMullens and millions of other poor families across the country. But HUD regulations say a child must actually be lead-poisoned before any repairs are required or moves approved.

More than two and a half million HUD-subsidized homes have hazardous levels of lead. But HUD's measurement of the danger is four times higher than what's recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

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HUD, which declined our request for an on-camera interview, has proposed to bring its standard into line with the tougher CDC position -- but regulatory review takes a long time.

When we visited the McMullens, chipping and flaking lead-based paint was easy to spot at their home's threshold.

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Chipping lead paint at the McMullens' HUD-subsidized home

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Emily Benfer is a law professor at Loyola University, and the McMullens' civil legal aid attorney.

"In federally-assisted housing, families are being forced to choose between lead poisoning and the brain damage it causes or homelessness and life on the streets," she told us.

A few weeks ago, Tolanda McMullen chose homelessness. She and Makheil moved to a shelter June 3rd, and are now hoping HUD can find them a safe place to live.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.