The rate of evictions and homelessness in America have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. I began writing about the rate of evictions and their disproportionate impact on people of color starting last year on July 19, 2020 and additionally on March 7, 2021, April 4, 2021, and most recently on August 1, 2021.
In August the U. S. Supreme Court blocked the administration from enforcing a temporary ban on evictions, stating only Congress can impose a nationwide moratorium. As of today, Congress has not acted. This means that thousands more Americans are facing eviction in the next few months. And while states, counties and cities can still ban evictions and enact other tenant protections, a significant growth in our homeless population is anticipated as the weather begins to change.
A GRIM SITUATION
Evictions and Homelessness
As of early July, there were nearly 6.5 million renter households behind on rent. Over 2.5 million of those households have annual incomes less than $25,000 and another million earn less than $35,000. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in only 5% of all U.S. counties can a full-time minimum-wage worker afford a one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.
As I wrote in March 7, 2021 communities of color are disproportionately rent-burdened, even before the pandemic, increasing their risk of eviction. “Rental burden” is defined as households that pay over 30% of their income toward rent. People of color are twice as likely to be renters and studies from cities throughout the country have shown that people of color, particularly Black and Latinx people, constitute approximately 80% of people facing eviction. That these groups are at higher risk is not surprising: job losses in the pandemic have been concentrated among the lowest-wage workers, and many jobs that require less education (like retail or food service) could not be performed remotely and many were eliminated. Through this pandemic, lower-income households have been more likely to lose jobs or wages and slower to regain employment. And without employment, no landlord will rent an apartment, and without a home, no employer will offer a job, creating a vicious cycle.
As the chart below shows, between August 2020 and July 2021, over 26% of Black renters were behind on rent as were 20% of Latinx renters and 19% of Asian renters, compared to just 11% of White renters.
According to the Eviction Lab’s most recent research, as of September 11, 2021, in the six states and 30 cities that the organization tracks, landlords have filed for 510,453 evictions since mid-March 2020. That is an increase from the 251,058 evictions filed as of February 20, 2021. In the week ending September 11, alone, 4,580 evictions were filed. The 6 states and 31 cities tracked can be found here.
According to the annual study, State of Homelessness, published by Security.org and based on federal data, before the start of the pandemic, 39% of people living in homelessness were living unsheltered and children accounted for 18% of homeless population. (These numbers were compiled prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Current statistics for 2021 are not yet compiled.)
Particularly during this spread of the Delta variant, evictions are a public health problem. Crowded shelters, and more crowded dwellings as relatives take in others, increase the risks of spreading this virus. In addition to losing their homes, those who are evicted also lose their possessions. A legal eviction comes with a court record, which can prevent people from getting future housing as many landlords screen for recent evictions. Children are more likely to have to change schools, miss out on school, or eventually drop out and are more likely to get involved in criminal activity.
Black Americans account for 13% of all people in the United States but 39% of the homeless population.
Delays in Federal Funding
In addition to renters facing eviction, many small landlords are facing potential bankruptcy if they do not receive some of the federal assistance. They need financial support from state and federal governments.
According to Treasury Department data, as of August 25, 2021, only about 11% of the $46.5 billion allocated by Congress for rental assistance to prevent pandemic-related evictions had been distributed. Although July saw a small increase in distribution compared to previous months, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA) had disbursed only about $5.1 billion of the $46.5 billion allocated by Congress.
On top of that, sweeps and evictions of homeless encampments have continued while the limited protections won by housing activists, such as hotel rooms for those previously living on the street or in shelters, have been rolled back.
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Clearly long-term solutions are needed. Systemic challenges such as the need for more affordable housing, ensuring people can earn a living wage, etc. will take time and political commitment to create. We can start working on long-term solutions now and I will share many ideas in next week's newsletter. In the meantime, with a national homeless crisis on our hands, and people of color disproportionately impacted, assistance is desperately needed for those who are currently, and will be in the next few months, living in homelessness, and the service providers who support them.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Abraham Lincoln said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, you can accomplish almost everything. Without it, practically nothing.” It is time to rally around our homeless population.
In next week's newsletter, I will share many immediate steps that can be taken toward long-term solutions. Watch for it in your inbox on September 26th.
- To those not yet been evicted.
- The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a searchable database to find Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance programs across the country. Share this link with those who are in danger of eviction.
- If you are a lawyer, or know a lawyer, offer to represent those in your community on the verge of eviction, pro bono.
- Work with tenants to help them understand the regulations and the steps they must take to avoid eviction.
- Encourage struggling tenants and landlords to check the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) Dashboard to find local assistance programs. A more extensive dashboard of emergency rental assistance programs can be found here.
- To community and national organizations. The website Just Shelter contains links to over 600 community and national organizations offering housing assistance, education and advocacy, legal aid and tenants’ rights counseling.
- To The National Union of the Homeless. This organization is made up of members currently and formerly experiencing homelessness as well as organizers committed to the poor and dispossessed. Originally formed in the late 1980s, their bold actions resulted in winning the right of the homeless to vote. In response to the shifting economic conditions of the pandemic, resulting in mass homelessness, the organization was reborn in 2020. The organization has established multiple locals throughout 11 states.
- To the National Coalition for the Homeless. NCH is a national network of people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness, activists and advocates, community-based and faith-based service providers, and others committed to the mission to end and prevent homelessness while ensuring the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness are met and their civil rights are protected. There are many ways to be involved. Click here to learn more.
- To homeless shelters. When people are evicted from their homes, the local sheriff arrives and the occupant is forced to leave immediately. Many people may anticipate their eviction but choose to remain in their homes as long as possible, never knowing exactly when the knock on the door will come. When it does, the renter is forced to choose what clothes and other items will fit in a car, if they have one, or in a suitcase or backpacks. Most possessions are left outside on a curb for others to grab. This leaves people in homeless shelters in desperate need of: clothing, household goods, toys, diapers and wipes. While food is available to many experiencing homelessness, food banks do not typically provide diapers or baby wipes for families with small children.
- To organizations. Many of the organizations I’ve written about in this and other newsletters are hungry for donations to support the homeless. The Resident Relief Initiative is a fundraising effort to combat the national housing crisis and has helped hundreds of responsible residents remain in their apartments.
- Food. Most food banks are in desperate need of food, primarily shelf-stable food. Organizations such as MANNA, Covenant House, and others can be found in your area with a Google search.
- Money. Consider raising money to contribute to a security deposit for a potential new home. Ask your group to abstain from one meal and donate the proceeds to a shelter or soup kitchen. Organize or sponsor an event or yard sale and donate the proceeds to an organization working to support those living in homelessness or to a local shelter or soup kitchen. Send a donation to No Kid Hungry, an organization dedicated to ensuring kids have the food they need to develop. Or send cash or a grocery store gift card to your local food bank so they can buy what they actually need.
- Set up GoFundMe accounts. These funds can be used to assist those who are facing imminent eviction or those who have already been evicted.
Volunteering your time to work directly with people experiencing homelessness is one of the best ways to learn about homelessness and meet immediate needs at the same time. There is a lot of “behind the scenes” work (filing, sorting clothes, cutting vegetables, etc.) to be done at shelters and other direct service agencies. Think about what you do best and the kind of setting in which you work most effectively—with individuals or groups, with men, women, or children, and so on. Then, call a few places, ask what help they need, and arrange for a visit. You can find a partial listing of service providers on NCH’s Directory of Local Homeless Service Organizations.
- Work at a shelter. Take an evening or overnight shift. Help with clerical work such as answering phones, typing, filing, or sorting mail. Serve food, wash dishes, or sort and distribute clothes.
- Help build or fix up houses or shelters. Check with your local public housing authority, or find the nearest chapter of Habitat for Humanity by calling (800) 422-4828 or visiting http://www.habitat.org.
- Help turn over abandoned buildings to house the homeless. Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 obligates the federal government to make disused federal properties available for sheltering the homeless wherever possible and allows the transfer of disused federal properties to homeless-service providers. Further, a bill passed by Congress in December 2016 enables local governments, housing nonprofits and faith-based organizations to essentially bypass the veto of neighborhood associations and zoning commissions. Until recently, making use of Title V involved overcoming challenging obstacles. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) screens federal properties that fall under four categories—unused, underused, excess, or surplus—for suitability for homeless services. So if you serve on the board of a qualifying organization, you can apply to HUD for an emergency homeless shelter in your community. Title V opportunities are published weekly in the Federal Register.
- Offer professional skills directly or assist in job training. Direct service providers may be able to use many services and skills, including secretarial, catering, plumbing, accounting, management, carpentry, public relations, fundraising, legal, medical, dentistry, writing, child care, counseling, tutoring, or mentoring.
- Share hobbies. Teach your hobbies to a group of people staying at a homeless shelter. Ask them about their hobbies and have them teach you.
- Invite people experiencing homelessness to a community event. Invite people who are experiencing homelessness to a worship service, public concert or picnic, city council meeting, etc.
- Organize an event at a shelter. Plan an evening program such as a board game or chess night, an open mic poetry reading, a guest storytelling or musical performance, or a holiday party. Encourage your classmates, co-workers, church/synagogue members, or civic club to join or support your efforts.
- Work with children. Assist program directors that are coordinating events such as field trips, picnics or art workshops for children staying in homeless shelters. Find out if there are children who could benefit from tutors or mentors.
- Get connected to a coalition. Volunteer at your local, state, or national housing or homeless advocacy coalition, or make a financial contribution to support their work. For the name of the coalition nearest you, see NCH’s Directory of National Housing and Homeless Organizations.
- Contact local agencies that are distributing federal rental relief funds. Volunteer to assist with the process of distributing funds. Getting the federal monies into the hands of renters and landlords will help avoid additional homelessness.
- Ask: What skills can you offer? Think about other skills that can assist those experiencing homelessness.
- Learn about the root causes of homelessness and teach others. The NCH website includes extensive information on many aspects of homelessness including causes, numbers, and special issues. Here you can familiarize yourself with the latest information, and then share what you learn with your community—your place of worship, school, colleagues, friends, neighbors, media, and elected officials.
- Consider visiting the following sites:
- Annual U.S. Conference of Mayors Report on Hunger and Homelessness: http://usmayors.org/publications/default.asp
- The National Alliance to End Homelessness: http://www.endhomelessness.org
- The National Low Income Housing Coalition: http://www.nlihc.org
- The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness: http://www.studentsagainsthunger.org/
- The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty: http://www.nlchp.org
- Homes for the Homeless/Institute for Children and Poverty: http://www.homesforthehomeless.com/
- National Health Care for the Homeless Council (Formerly The Better Homes Fund): http://www.nhchc.org/
- Universal Living Wage Campaign: http://www.universallivingwage.org
- To find out other ways to help homeless people: http://earthsystems.org/ways/list.html
- Follow your local news. Read your local newspaper regularly to keep abreast of what is happening to homeless and low-income people and the policies that affect them in your community.
- Talk to children about homelessness. For book lists, video suggestions, lesson plans, and teaching materials about homelessness, contact NCH at (202) 462-4822, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Read. Check out some of the many books published about homelessness in America. The National Coalition for the Homeless has an archives of books, research, artwork music and films relating to homelessness. The collection is housed at the NCH office in Washington, DC and can be accessed here.
- Listen to podcasts. The Voices of the Homeless podcast is sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
- Smile. Don’t look away from homeless people as if they don’t exist. Make eye contact, say a few words, and affirm the humanity of the person at a time when homelessness has stripped it away. Treat them with dignity and respect and understand they are going through a difficult time in their lives.
- Become more aware of your language. Try to minimize language in your own and others’ vocabularies that refers to people experiencing homelessness in derogatory ways. By using expressions such as “people experiencing homelessness” rather than labels such as “bum,” “transient,” wino,” or even “the homeless,” we remind ourselves that people who are in such situations are still people first—people who are going through a difficult period in their lives. In a time when they may find it difficult to hold onto their sense of humanity, it is particularly important not to further diminish the dignity of people in homeless situations. Changing your language and behaviors in small ways can contribute to larger changes in the way people experiencing homelessness are seen and treated in our society.
- Offer cell phone assistance. Organize a cell phone drive, help people by offering the chance to make calls from your phone. Offer to help charge cell phones of people living in tent homes.
- Offer a place to store the belongings of the evictee. If you have available space in an attic, basement or garage, offer to store the possessions that the individual is unable to carry with them at the time of their eviction.
- Help. An unfortunate stereotype of people living without a home is that they will use any money given to them for alcohol or drugs. While this stereotype is no longer the dominant reason behind our current level of homelessness, if you are uncomfortable providing money, you can give a meal, buy clothes, pay for transportation, or give a gift certificate to a restaurant. Try carrying peanut butter crackers, protein bars, or fruit when you are out and about and you pass someone who is hungry.
- House a person experiencing homelessness. If you have, or know of anyone who has, a spare room, a vacant basement, or a warm garage, consider offering a safe space to someone who has been evicted from their home. Remember that many of these people had steady jobs before the pandemic, making regular rent payments and are now finding themselves homeless due to a world-wide pandemic. Think about what you would want if it were you.
The pandemic, the spread of the Delta variant, and the expiration of the eviction moratoria and unemployment benefits is threatening a winter of exploding homelessness.
Take a moment to imagine how you would feel if you and your family had no place to live. Imagine if you had live in your car. What would that feel like to you? Imagine the anguish you would experience if you were on the verge of homelessness and the relief you would feel if someone helped you to avoid living on the street or in a crowded shelter.
These are difficult time for all of us. But increased homelessness, especially among Black Americans, will only increase the spread of this horrible virus. We can all take steps to help eradicate the spread of this disease by helping to reduce homelessness. I hope you will help.