Tag Archives: homelessness

Can’t Pay Rent? You’re Out!

More than 20 million renters who are unable to pay rent are at risk of eviction as $600 weekly federal subsidies and eviction moratoriums that gave temporary relief expire on July 30.

As lawmakers spar over extended unemployment benefits, millions of displaced workers who relied on federal aid in the midst of the pandemic, now face the specter of personal bankruptcy and impending eviction from their homes as their safety nets disappear  in the midst of the continuing recession.

Earlier this year, when the pandemic totaled much of the US economy, lawmakers gave laid off workers a lifeline in the form of the Cares Act providing  $600 a week in unemployment benefits. That weekly federal supplement week enabled many displaced workers to afford to pay their rent and other bills, but that federal money stops this weekend.

According to a CNN business report, more than 44 million furloughed and out-of-work Americans filed for unemployment benefits since March this year.  That lifeline is due to disappear by end July with the Senate in disarray on how to resolve the relief package, forcing a housing crisis upon tenants who cannot make their rent.

In a double whammy, federal eviction bans offering COVID-related rent relief protection from evictions for renters living in homes with federally backed mortgages also lapse this month.

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by halting evictions of renters living in properties they finance and providing aid for an estimated 12 million rental units, some with federally guaranteed loans. Even so, only 25% of eligible renters received housing subsidies. That safety net ended on July 24.

Millions of vulnerable out-of-work Americans now face a precarious prospect. They could be kicked out of their homes with no reprieve in sight, as a merciless pandemic continues to ravage their lives and livelihoods even as COVID-19 restrictions  require them to shelter-in-place to control the coronavirus.

In an interview with NPR, Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, expressed concerns that “without a sustained federal intervention, there will be a wave of evictions and a spike in homelessness across the country.”

At a July 17th ethnic media briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, housing policy experts and advocates shared insights on the looming threat of mass evictions and identified measures that could protect tenants and at risk populations.

Who is Affected?

Experts are predicting “a tsunami of evictions nationwide,” as the pandemic exposes and deepens racial and economic inequities in American communities,

The housing crisis that already existed was exacerbated by the pandemic, said Dr.Emily Benfer, a visiting professor at the Wake Forest School of Law, and renters of color will bear the brunt of its impact.

“Between the scarcity of federal housing assistance and the loss of over 4 million affordable housing units over the last decade,” renters were increasingly vulnerable to eviction coming into the pandemic, she explained, “with seven evictions being filed every minute in 2016.”

Dr Benfer, the principal investigator in a nationwide study of COVID-19 eviction moratoriums and housing policies, confirmed that renters were experiencing increased financial hardship during the pandemic.

“50 million renters today live in households that suffered COVID-19 related job loss or income loss,” she stated, ”with 40 percent of that occurring in especially low income households.” The high demand for rental assistance meant that “programs were being exhausted within minutes of being opened.”

She noted that food pantry requests had increased “by as much as 2000% in some states,” which meant that renters were really financially stretched to pay their rent and had limited  resources for other necessities like food and healthcare. Nearly 31.6% had low confidence in their ability to pay rent during the pandemic while many were using credit cards or taking loans to make ends meet.

An analysis of findings from the Household Pulse Survey, estimated that almost 16.9 million households, many with families and children, are unable to pay rent and risk eviction. One in four households reported they were late on rent and mortgage payments, and, the highest insecurity rates were recorded in states where eviction bans had already expired. Nearly 60% of landlords surveyed by the American Apartment Owners Association  confirmed their tenants are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus.

Communities of color have been hit the hardest as benefit checks and housing relief measures vanish. They have experienced COVID-19 related infection, death and job loss at a higher rate than other demographics said Dr. Benfer. Almost 73% of black renters said they lacked emergency funds to cover expenses for three months and 61% of Hispanic renters said they had experienced COVID19-related wage and job loss.

Small  property owners who lack the financial cushion to sustain non-payment of rent, but who own nearly 22.7 million rental units in the country, will be affected, predicted Benfer, citing a Harvard University estimate that almost 20% of renters in these properties will have difficulty paying rent. The impending decline in rental payments will cripple the affordable housing market, and small property owners who cannot find new tenants are likely to take rental units off the market and repurpose them, further depleting the affordable housing market, she added.

As moratoriums expire and evictions are filed (80 thousand are expected in Michigan, for example), most court cases have moved to remote hearings, but it raises question said Benfer, about how people with limited computer or phone access and language barriers, will get a fair hearing.  Tenants rights advocate Nisha Vyas added that in California, landlords are represented by attorneys in the vast majority of eviction filings, yet, even if tenants have a strong case but no attorney, they will likely lose their case.


The Impact on Renters

“Evictions have negative consequences, warned Benfer. Being evicted takes a disproportionate toll on the financial wellbeing of renters; it will send credit scores, employment and academic prospects into a downward spiral; residential instability and homelessness will contribute to downward mobility forcing families into housing of substandard quality or crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the inability to access social services will leave many without a safety net.

Even receiving an eviction notice can increase stress and severely impact health outcomes, advised Benfer, referring to studies that document how eviction increases rates of respiratory diseases, mortality, depression, and suicidal ideation, while children become susceptible to early drug use, teen pregnancy and adverse childhood experiences.

Evicted families will be forced into overcrowded housing or homeless shelters, warned Benfer, which are spaces that will not allow them to safely social distance and puts people at risk of greater exposure to COVID19. “Evictions are likely to lead to a 20 to 40% increase in homelessness,” added Dr. Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center and the Director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, and many people “fall from eviction directly into homelessness.”

“Ultimately” Benfer pointed out, “the pandemic has magnified and heightened the socio-economic divide, and the health and racial disparities,”  shredding the already threadbare safety net for vulnerable communities in America.

Housing Relief Measures

Policy makers are introducing bills to ease the hardships that tenants face during the pandemic. Senator Kamala Harris introduced the Relief Act to ban evictions and foreclosures for a year for tenants and homeowners. Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the “Protecting Renters from Evictions and Fees Act,” to broaden the eviction moratoriums in the CARES Act and protect all renters for a full year, while HHS Secretary Alex Azar renewed the COVID-19 national public health emergency declaration, effective July 25.

The Children’s Defense Fund urged Congress to intervene and provide housing assistance on behalf of millions of children who could lose their homes, while the National Housing Law Project  together with a coalition of 100 other organizations, sent a letter to HUD to use its legal authority to protect low-income renters.

Landlords are also looking for creative ways like lease guarantees, to shield against non-payment of rent.

The House of Representatives passed the Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act of 2020, which would appropriate $100 billion for direct rental assistance, but the Senate continues to stall on a new coronavirus relief bill.

State Sponsored Interventions

Maryland State delegate Kumar Barve  told the panel that his committee  had urged Governor Larry Hogan to extend the eviction moratorium until January 2021 so as to craft a more permanent public policy response on housing relief for affected residents and avoid the potential for largescale social disruption.

”Evicting 10 percent of the population would be a humanitarian catastrophe” he said.

In California, due to dramatic increases in unsheltered homelessness during the pandemic, Governor Newsom launched Project Roomkey, to secure thousands of hotel and motel rooms to protect homeless people from Covid-19, stated Dr. Kushel. The initiative has successfully housed over fifteen thousand homeless individuals so far. The newly launched Project Homekey will provide $600 million to acquire properties and convert them into interim or permanent, long-term housing.

Sonoma County small business owner Akash Kalia described how the hospitality industry could make a social impact in the housing crisis. In 2015, he converted his family’s 104 unit motel ‘The Palms,’ into permanently supportive housing for homeless veterans and chronically homeless civilians. Robust, cost effective services provided on site – weekly food distribution, mobile health clinic and therapy – ensure that sustainable housing is maintained for this vulnerable population.

Meanwhile, as of April 1st, more than 80 cities and counties have adopted tenant protections including temporary bans on evictions said Vyas, a senior attorney at Western Center on Law  & Poverty. Her firm is co-sponsoring a Tenant Protection Bill  (AB 1436) designed to give tenants a fair chance to pay rent owed and for landlords to pursue unpaid rent through the civil actions rather than an eviction process.

Who’s to Blame?

Vyas cautioned against using the term ‘tsunami’ to describe the looming threat of mass evictions. “I want to be really clear that this is not a natural disaster. It will be a disaster of our own making.”

How will we recover?

Unquestionably  the housing crisis needs a humanitarian response. The Heroes Act is still stalled in the Senate awaiting approval for a second round of stimulus checks, even as the deadline draws near.

Will lawmakers use this opportunity to ensure that the new post pandemic reality that Dr. Benfer hopes for,  is one in which “health justice, racial justice and housing justice are realized?”

Time is running out.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Image 2 credit: Photopin

 

The Homeless Count In The Census

Reaching into neighborhoods to count the homeless for the census is a formidable task, given that homeless people are a transitory and transient community with no fixed address. But this year, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic makes that undertaking even more challenging, both for census takers at risk of encountering a lethal virus in face-to-face interactions, and for the homeless who  have nowhere to ‘shelter-in-place’.

Where the homeless are

Squirrelled away in locations that make their whereabouts difficult to pinpoint, the homeless are hard to count to begin with. The places they call home rarely have a mailing address. They live under bridges and in  tunnels, in makeshift homes and shacks, and  are not easy to find unless grassroots community sources can account for them. Those who seek homeless shelters, soup kitchens, social services  or city streets are more accessible to enumerators, but the ‘fluid’ nature of their lifestyle can contribute to inaccuracies in the estimate.

Understanding homelessness

Research shows that mounting an accurate count of homeless people is complicated. “Counting the homeless population is extremely difficult because of the lack of a clear definition of homelessness, the mobility of the population, and the cyclical nature of homelessness for many individuals. In addition, homeless people are often reluctant to be interviewed, and many of them remain invisible even to the most diligent of researchers.”

The NIH study reported that attempts to count the homeless in order to extend funds for emergency shelters or  food distribution nationwide has produced data that must be interpreted with great caution because “the everchanging and fluid nature of the homeless population presents great methodological challenges in obtaining an accurate measure of its size. ”

Who counts as homeless?

A key issue is defining who counts as ‘homeless’. The label itself has come under fire from advocates who demand a redefinition what it means to be homeless.

The push-back on the label “homeless,” rises from the complexity of living situations that people experience.

Nonprofit organizations working with the  homeless in San Francisco prefer to use the term ‘unhoused’ because “most individuals experiencing homelessness are doing so because they’ve had one, two, three—or more—strokes of bad luck that led to their current circumstances.” In a study conducted by Stanford professor Thomas Wasow, one participant objected to the term homeless explaining, “ the reason is, ‘I have a home, it’s Palo Alto. I’m unhoused.”

Researchers in the  NIH study also called for better definitions to be developed “concerning who is considered homeless  and defining Subgroups, such as homeless families.

Given this context,  how will the Census Bureau go about the business of  accounting for this marginalized community,  even as in-person outreach efforts are scaled back due to the pandemic?

Revising Outreach Plans to Count the Homeless

An integral part of the Census Bureau’s outreach efforts has been to create a network of local nonprofits and trusted messengers at the grassroots level to administer the enumeration.  For example, in California, the United Way Bay Area (UWBA) is implementing a census outreach initiative called Bay Area Counts 2020 with local non-profits and community partners.

That investment has earned a 63.2 % self-response rate for California (as of July 13), just ahead of the national rate of  62.0%.

However, health and safety concerns with COVID-19 forced the Census Bureau to delay counting people experiencing homelessness in the 2020 Census.  But, in renewed operations  scheduled between September 22 and 24, the Census Bureau is adjusting its operations for vulnerable, homeless and transient communities.

The Census Bureau is coordinating with local service providers and consulting with advocacy groups and other stakeholders to adjust its approach and boost outreach into this hard-to-reach population in response to COVID-19. Census takers will follow the latest local public health guidance regarding the use of personal protective equipment and social distancing.

The Census Bureau now plans to send specially trained census takers to count people at shelters, service providers and locations which the Census Bureau has identified as places where people are known to sleep. They will also work with local groups to identify these locations.

Census takers will count people in person at previously identified potential outdoor locations such as under bridges, parks, wooded areas, designated beach areas, tent cities, alleys, and under highway systems as well as  all-night businesses ( transit stations and 24-hour laundromats).

They will obtain data from emergency and transitional shelters with sleeping facilities for people to stay overnight,  such as “missions, hotels and motels used as shelters, and places for children experiencing homelessness, neglected,  or who have run away from home. Census takers will work with the administrators at different service provider locations including soup kitchens and regularly scheduled mobile food vans, to utilize rosters to ensure a complete count of this population.

People experiencing homelessness will be counted where they are staying when census takers visit between September 22-24. People experiencing homelessness who are not counted in households or other operations will be counted where they stay or receive services when census takers visit.

In its message to shore up support for the homeless count, the Census Bureau reiterates, “Census statistics are crucial to programs and service providers that support people experiencing homelessness. A complete and accurate 2020 Census can ultimately help organizations provide better services, more food and improved shelter options to those in need.”

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.

 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Photo by Adam Thomas on Unsplash

Homelessness in the Silicon Valley

‘Tis the Season of Joy. The time of year when we count our blessings. Neighborhoods are sporting signs of festivity all around. Twinkling lights and fresh coats of paint adorn homes. Swathes of fall colors render the scene with an extra helping of cheer. Families gather to celebrate kinship, filling homes with warmth brought on by togetherness.  And above all, there is Love – the secret ingredient that makes a house a ‘Home.

I am holding a set of greeting cards in my hands. They make me smile with their vivid colors and childish renderings of stick figure humans, bugs and nature. Flipping them over I read the names, Anaya, Noe, Kaelyn – the artists who created these beautiful scenes. Ranging in ages between 6 and 10, they are children who live amongst us. What sets them apart from the average child is the fact that they have been or are currently homeless. Their existence has none of the safety or security that calls for celebration.

And yet, there is nothing in the scenes created by their little hands that alludes to their dire reality. These images are bursting with cheerful promise and hope. A playground sits nestled among trees on a glorious sunny day. Flowers abound as butterflies flit about. Children sport smiley faces as they play and enjoy their time outdoors. Houses rest under shady trees beneath an azure sky. The pictures project joy in a manner only a child can depict. It is a way to frame their fervent dreams and hopes. Because reality is often very different from these scenes.

Nandini Gondhalekar is Director of Individual Giving, for LifeMoves,  a non-profit organization committed to breaking the cycle of homelessness in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. I met with her at LifeMoves | Haven Family House shelter in Menlo Park. Walking me through the clean, efficiently-run, welcoming premises, Nandini impressed me with her passion for the cause. I grew up in Mumbai, India. My family is deeply committed to and active in community service, social justice and advocacy. This early experience of volunteerism has profoundly influenced my career and professional decisions,” she says.   

For Nandini, bearing witness to discrimination based on poverty and hunger instilled in her a strong sense of community mindedness, and a desire to help address such issues. Poverty, hunger and homelessness are complex social issues; providing effective solutions requires both knowledge and empathy. Nandini’s educational and professional backgrounds have helped with the work she does at LifeMoves.

The Changing Face of Homelessness

We see the homeless everywhere. Holding placards, carting their possessions in shopping carts, inhabiting street corners, and store fronts. Yes, we do see them. But do we really “See” them? Steeped in the drama of our own existence, we seldom stop to consider the hapless souls we share space with in our everyday meanderings.

But the face of homelessness is changing. The boundary of homelessness is no longer limited to a story of mental illness, substance abuse, PTSD or worse. It casts its long shadow across social strata, encompassing people of all ages and backgrounds; many of them work credible jobs, and draw a paycheck but they are still unable to provide a safe home for their families. This is the reality. It is a story that affects human beings across cultural and partisan lines.  It is a story of abundance breaking at the seams. It is the sad saga of the American dream gone horribly wrong. The helpless inability of a fully deserving person to create a sanctuary called a ‘Home.

Talking to Nandini was a revelation. Citing the many changes occurring in Silicon Valley over the years, she spoke of dramatic cuts in the Federal shelter budget and a radically shifting housing market. How, you may wonder, does this connect to homelessness? Speaking of Silicon Valley alone, one in five households has an average income of $35,000. Many of the families cannot do without the services of public programs for their medical, nutritional and general assistance needs.

Most of LIfeMoves’ homeless clients are employed. Some of them hold two jobs to make ends meet. If they are not on disability, managing a health issue or a psychiatric condition, they are out there working,” says Nandini. A significant number hold specialized and/or white collar jobs. A majority of the clients seek employment in the service sector. These jobs offer them no benefits. At most, they make $10 or $12 an hour.  And this is where the cycle begins.

Silicon Valley has an abundance of new homes being built. Everywhere we look there are billboards advertising the latest community offering the most modern of amenities. For every family that joins the race to make their dream of home ownership a reality, there are at least three fighting a battle to maintain a roof over their heads.  “The average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment in Redwood City nowadays is $2745. Menlo Park or Palo Alto is upwards of $3000! It is very very difficult for a person working a service sector job to afford these rents!”, exclaims Nandini. Many of these families are living in basements, garages, and very often in their vehicles, one precarious step away from the streets. For me personally, this was a jarring realization!

Life Moves – the Organization

An organization whose mission is to break the cycle of homelessness, LifeMoves (formerly InnVision Shelter Network), is the largest non-profit in San Mateo and Santa Clara serving homeless families and individuals. Providing interim/ transitional housing and food since 1987, LifeMoves also provides supportive services that helps residents return to a stable, long term, self-sufficient life. Operating 9 shelters and 8 facilities that include a permanent supportive housing site, they also run a drop-in center in Palo Alto called the Opportunity Services Center, which provides two meals a day, including laundry and shower facilities. Of the approximately 700 people they help every day, roughly half of them are minor children.

LifeMoves runs non-site programs through which they help their clients apply for benefits like Medi-Cal, SSDI and food stamps. They also offer specialized services to veterans and their families, distribute motel vouchers and help people who desperately need emergency assistance if they are at risk of becoming homeless.

As an organization with a long history and a strong infrastructure, LifeMoves takes pride in its therapeutic service model – which takes into consideration the source of homelessness instead of only trying to fix the symptoms. This approach has made a huge positive impact and garnered far-reaching results over the years. Serving over 10,000 homeless individuals and families annually, and providing more than 266,000 nights of safe shelter, LifeMoves has successfully helped 89% of families and 73% of individuals end their cycle of homelessness, change their lives, and return to stable housing in the last year.

The LifeMoves | Haven Family House shelter in Menlo Park is equipped with a well run day-care facility for younger children, an upgraded teen center, and two play areas. It also features a community garden maintained by the residents. Located in a quiet residential area, the shelter has a welcoming air about it. Case workers work with clients and residents, volunteers are busy off-loading supplies and donations and the shelter operates with a well-oiled efficiency. 

Walking the quiet halls of LifeMoves | Haven Family House shelter, we met a resident in the laundry room. In a large well lit room lined with washers and dryers, she folded baskets of clothes as she spoke with us, ecstatic about the chance she and her family had been given at LifeMoves. It was such a simple thing – clean laundry free of charge, and it had made such a difference in her life! It is these little things that most of us take for granted everyday.

Giving Back

Nandini spoke about the active volunteer program that keeps LifeMoves and its programs running smoothly. “Homelessness is a reality across the diaspora. It is imperative that we realize the harsh truths in our own backyard. There is always a need for volunteers. Donate in kind, donate your time! Make a financial donation if you can! It will help make a difference,” she urges.

We have had a lot to give thanks for these past months. California has seen depravity and hopelessness with wildfires ravaging entire neighborhoods. This and other events have touched us all, bringing home some harsh truths to reflect upon. As the cooling rain quenches the roaring thirst of the arid land, it clears the grey smog to reveal blue skies once more, bringing with it a reminder of the many lives who have lost so much.

In this ‘Season of Joy’, it behooves us all to consider stepping out of our bubbles, to try and take the first step in making a change in the life of someone other than ourselves.

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If you would like to learn more about LifeMoves, please go to www.lifemoves.org  or contact Nandini Gondhalekar at 650-685-5880 X 115; [email protected]

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Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.