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How The Pandemic Recession Has Affected Housing Insecurity

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: For the last year, Lee Camp has been trying not to drown in a tidal wave of evictions. He's an attorney in St. Louis with ArchCity Defenders, an organization that represents tenants. And in this sea of clients in need, one story stands out to him.

LEE CAMP: The one client I won't forget from this pandemic was an individual I helped who was evicted by telephone call. He had attempted to represent himself in every possible way. He attempted to take documents to the courthouse and evidence to represent himself. He tried to appear in person at the courthouse. He then tried to do his best to defend himself in an eviction proceeding that took place over the phone and ultimately lost.

SHAPIRO: Lee Camp is one of our American indicators, people representing different parts of the economy who we'll follow over the coming months. As the economy recovers or sputters, we'll see what that looks like through their eyes.

CAMP: We'll see spikes in eviction filings happen almost every time there is a moratoria that lapses.

SHAPIRO: President Biden extended a federal moratorium on evictions, but that only covers about a third of rental properties in the U.S. And Lee Camp told me he's also seeing extrajudicial evictions right now. People come home to find their belongings on the street, the locks changed without a formal proceeding. Some of these tenants have dealt with housing instability before, and the pandemic has just made everything worse.

CAMP: Really, it seems to be exacerbated at a higher level for those individuals as now there is not as many options to find a new job or to catch up on rent. That being said, there is a kind of second tier of individuals that have never been through these issues - a lot of our service industry workers and individuals like that that now have fallen into housing insecurity.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about somebody who you've been working with whose story you think represents this moment that we're in.

CAMP: Yeah. I think of a client who was working in hospitality, who was a housekeeper at a hotel in St. Louis County.

CYNTHIA: Hello. My name is Cynthia. I just wanted to talk to y'all about...

CAMP: She lost her job early in the pandemic as travel dropped.

CYNTHIA: About the end of February, close to March, they laid us off because of the pandemic. And during...

CAMP: She was surviving. And then this pandemic, by no fault of her own, took her job away, took away her ability to pay her rent.

CYNTHIA: They laid us off. They sent the letters, saying, sign up for employment.

CAMP: She struggled to apply for unemployment benefits.

CYNTHIA: So I signed up for unemployment. I didn't get unemployment till four for five months.

CAMP: And in fact, through the better part of last summer, she did not even receive unemployment.

CYNTHIA: I'm trying to find a place to live. I can't find nothing. I can't find another job. I've been looking and looking. It's been a whole year now - you know, going on a year. I still can't find anything.

SHAPIRO: We're not using Cynthia's last name because she doesn't want this story to affect her future ability to find a place to live. She's 52 and lives in the St. Louis area with her two adult kids, who've also struggled to find work, and her 8-year-old grandson. They're all in a house where she owes about a year of back rent. There is sewage backing up in the pipes, and the landlord wants them to leave.

CYNTHIA: And I know these people want us out of this house. I want to be out of here just as bad they want us out 'cause I'm not like that, not paying my bills and don't want to pay. I want to pay.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I know that homelessness is awful even in circumstances when people are healthy. But when you think about the reality of what it would mean to be homeless during a pandemic, what goes through your head?

CYNTHIA: It's like, I can't take no more. I mean, I just can't. It's very stressful. It's a very stressful, hurting feeling to be there. If I'm going to be homeless again, it's going to separate my family.

SHAPIRO: Many people facing eviction right now are like Cynthia. They're disproportionately people of color, often parents. That's true across the country, and it's what Lee Camp sees in St. Louis, too.

CAMP: Families are juggling so much more than just getting by. Schools are not back in person. If you are continuing to work, your hours have likely been cut, or you're in a different kind of stability with your work than you had before. And I feel those stresses and anxieties from my clients when I work with them. I generally, you know, acknowledge that trauma and try to work with them in the most sincere way that I can and show empathy to their situations at this point. But it is difficult for, I think, everyone working with families going through this right now. And it's always certainly hard when it's a mother.

SHAPIRO: You know, a lot of landlords are not wealthy developers. They are people who depend on rental income to pay the mortgage for the building that the renters are living in. And so when the tenants don't pay the rent, then that has ripple effects. So how do you feel about the landlords who, in some cases, are trying to keep their own head above water right now?

CAMP: Yeah. I think what we're experiencing is a moment of loss in this country that is no one's fault. It's not the tenants' fault that they have lost their jobs generally in my experience right now. It's not the landlords' fault that their tenants are losing their jobs and not available to - are not able to afford their rent. But my focus primarily remains on tenants. We are in a public health crisis, and one of the defenses to this pandemic is remaining in your home. And we need to keep people housed to stymie the spread of this deadly disease.

SHAPIRO: When Cynthia looks at the next six months, she dreams of a world getting back to normal where she can find a new job and get back on her feet.

CYNTHIA: And be happy and just live a nice, comfortable, safe life in a nice house, nice neighborhood. That's what I want. You know, that's what I pray every night for - just peace for everybody.

SHAPIRO: And as for Lee Camp, the future is a big unknown.

CAMP: I am writing things in pencil versus pen. I have stopped trying to predict what I'm going to be doing in three months or six months. However, I know that my work will absolutely be continuing at this breakneck pace. On the back end of this pandemic, we will see families saddled with debt like we have never seen. We will still likely be dealing with mass evictions, which will turn into homelessness into the streets.

You know, I hope that the tsunami of evictions never happens. And I hope that because a tsunami is a - you know, a natural disaster that can't be prevented. Well, we can prevent this. But I cannot with any certainty say what I will be working on three to six months from now. It will likely change 40 to 50 times in that timeline.

SHAPIRO: That's Lee Camp, a housing attorney in St. Louis. And tomorrow we'll head west to meet the woman who runs the largest mobile food pantry in the state of Nevada.

BROOKE NEUBAUER: Now it's a different animal because now you have people from all walks of life. So now you have people that were casino executives in our lines.

SHAPIRO: She's our next American indicator.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I'VE SEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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