Unemployment Diary: Families struggle to survive after additional benefits expire

Kelyn Yanez used to clean homes during the day and wait tables at night in the Houston area before the coronavirus. But the mother of three lost both jobs in March because of the pandemic and now is facing eviction.

The Honduran immigrant got help from a local church to pay part of July’s rent but was still hundreds of dollars short and is now awaiting a three-day notice to vacate the apartment where she lives with her children. She has no idea how she will meet her August rent.

“Right now, I have nothing,” said Yanez, who briefly got her bar job back when the establishment reopened, but lost it again when she and her 4-year-old daughter contracted the virus in June and had to quarantine. The apartment owners “don’t care if you’re sick if you’re not well. Nobody cares here. They told me that I had to have the money.”

Yanez, who lives in the U.S. illegally, is among some 23 million people nationwide at risk of being evicted, according to The Aspen Institute, as moratoriums enacted because of the coronavirus expire and courts reopen. Around 30 state moratoriums have expired since May, according to The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. On top of that, some tenants were already encountering illegal evictions even with the moratoriums.

Now, tenants are crowding courtrooms — or appearing virtually — to detail how the pandemic has upended their lives. Some are low-income families who have endured evictions before, but there are also plenty of wealthier families facing homelessness for the first time — and now being forced to navigate overcrowded and sometimes dangerous shelter systems amid the pandemic.

Experts predict the problem will only get worse in the coming weeks, with 30 million unemployed and uncertainty whether Congress will extend the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits that expired Friday. The federal eviction moratorium that protects more than 12 million renters living in federally subsidized apartments or units with federally backed mortgages expired July 25. If it’s not extended, landlords can initiate eviction proceedings in 30 days.

“It’s going to be a mess,” said Bill Faith, executive director of Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, referring to the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, which found last week that more than 23% of Ohioans questioned said they weren’t able to make last month’s rent or mortgage payment or had little or no confidence they could pay next month’s.

Nationally, the figure was 26.5% among adults 18 years or older, with numbers in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nevada, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, and Texas reaching 30% or higher. The margins of error in the survey vary by state.

“I’ve never seen this many people poised to lose their housing in such a short period of time,” Faith said. “This is a huge disaster that is beginning to unfold.”

Housing advocates fear parts of the country could soon look like Milwaukee, which saw a 21% spike in eviction filings in June, to nearly 1,500 after the moratorium was lifted in May. It’s more than 24% across the state.

“We are sort of a harbinger of what is to come in other places,” said Colleen Foley, the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.

“We are getting calls to us from zip codes that we don’t typically serve, the part of the community that isn’t used to coming to us,” she added. “It’s a reflection of the massive job loss and a lot of people facing eviction who aren’t used to not paying their rent.”

In New Orleans, a legal aid organization saw its eviction-related caseload almost triple in the month since Louisiana’s moratorium ended in mid-June. Among those seeking help is Natasha Blunt, who could be evicted from her two-bedroom apartment where she lives with her two grandchildren.

Blunt, a 50-year-old African American, owes thousands of dollars in back rent after she lost her banquet porter job. She has yet to receive her stimulus check and has not been approved for unemployment benefits. Her family is getting by with food stamps and the charity of neighbors.

“I can’t believe this happened to me because I work hard,” said Blunt, whose eviction is at the mercy of the federal moratorium. “I don’t have any money coming in. I don’t have anything. I don’t know what to do. ... My heart is so heavy.”

Along with exacerbating a housing crisis in many cities that have long been plagued by a shortage of affordable options, widespread discrimination and a lack of resources for families in need, the spike in filings is raising concerns that housing courts could spread the coronavirus.

Many cities are still running hearings virtually. But others, like New Orleans, have opened their housing courts. Masks and temperature checks are required, but maintaining social distance has been a challenge.

“The first couple of weeks, we were in at least two courts where we felt really quite unsafe,” said Hannah Adams, a staff attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

In Columbus, Ohio, Amanda Wood was among some 60 people on the docket Friday for eviction hearings at a convention center converted into a courtroom.

Wood, 23, lost her job at a claims management company in early April. The following day, the mother of a 6-month-old found out she was pregnant again. Now, she is two months behind rent and can’t figure out a way to make ends meet.

Wood managed to find a part-time job at FedEx, loading vans at night. But her pregnancy and inability to find stable childcare have left her with inconsistent paychecks.

“The whole process has been really difficult and scary,” said Wood, who is hoping to set up a payment scheduled after meeting with a lawyer Friday. “Not knowing if you’re going to have somewhere to live when you’re pregnant and have a baby, is hard.”

Though the numbers of eviction filings in Ohio and elsewhere are rising and, in some places reaching several hundred a week, they are still below those in past years for July. Higher numbers are expected in August and September.

Experts credit the slower pace to the federal eviction moratorium as well as states and municipalities that used tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funding for rental assistance. It also helped that several states, including Massachusetts and Arizona, have extended their eviction moratorium into the fall.

Still, experts argue more needs to be done at the state and federal levels for tenants and landlords.

Negotiations between Congress and the White House over further assistance are ongoing. A $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed in May by Democrats in the House would provide about $175 billion to pay rents and mortgages, but the $1 trillion counter from Senate Republicans only has several billion in rental assistance. Advocacy groups are looking for over $100 billion.

“An eviction moratorium without rental assistance is still a recipe for disaster,” said Graham Bowman, staff attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center. “We need the basic economics of the housing market to continue to work. The way you do that is you need broad-based rental assistance available to families who have lost employment during this crisis.”

“The scale of this problem is enormous so it needs a federal response.”

Sorry, boomers. Millennials and their younger siblings and children now make up a majority of the U.S. population.

A new analysis by the Brookings Institution shows that 50.7% of U.S. residents were under age 40, as of July 2019.

The Brookings’ analysis of population estimates released this summer by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the combined millennial, Generation Z, and younger generations numbered 166 million people. The combined Generation X, baby boomer, and older cohorts represented 162 million U.S. residents.

“To many Americans — especially baby boomers themselves — this news may come as a shock. For them, the term “millennial” has been associated with a youthful, often negative, vibe in terms of habits, ideology, and politics,” William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, wrote in the analysis. “Now, the oldest millennial is 39, and with their numbers exceeding those of baby boomers, the millennial generation is poised to take over influential roles in business and government.”

Those under age 40 are more diverse than the older cohorts, with almost half identifying as being part of a racial or ethnic minority. Past surveys show that the younger generations split from the older generations on issues such as immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and environmental protection, and the pandemic and recent racial justice protests are likely to galvanize the younger groups to promote an array of progressive causes, Frey wrote.

Millennials typically are defined as being born between 1981 and 1996. Baby boomers, long considered a primary driver of demographic and social change in the U.S. because of their large numbers, were born between the end of World War II and the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. in 1964.

Squeezed between the boomers and millennials, Generation Xers were born in the late 1960s and 1970s. Members of Generation Z were born after 1996.

With federal unemployment benefits ended Friday and no deal in sight, some of the 32 million unemployed Americans are resorting to food banks for the first time in their life.

Larrilou Carumba, a 47-year-old single mother of three kids in San Leandro, California, was furloughed recently from her job as a housekeeper at a hotel.

She says she “never expected” to have to go to a food bank. Now that the pandemic unemployment assistance has expired, her income has fallen by more than half — and she’s struggling to feed her family.

“I live paycheck to paycheck when I'm working. But I was able to provide them at least the things that they need,” she told NBC News. “It's like your life before the pandemic turns upside down.”

Carumba is not alone. Food banks distributed over 1.9 million meals from the beginning of March through the end of June, according to data from Feeding America, a national nonprofit network of food banks. In March alone, foodbanks gave out 20 percent more food than average.

“These are our neighbors,” said Daniel Johnston, Director of Operations at the Davis Street Community Center. “We are seeing people from all walks of life, individuals who have been residents in our community for 30 or 40 years and have never heard of us or never needed help are coming to us now.”

Since the pandemic began, the number of families per day the center is feeding has quadrupled.

Johnston said that these workers are being forced to make an impossible decision.

"Am I going to pay the rent this month so that I don't get evicted? Or am I going to purchase groceries?" he said.

Coronavirus layoffs have fallen heavily on the service industry, leisure and hospitality, putting these workers at extra risk for being “food insecure,” without reliable access to affordable and nutritious meals.

Over 11 percent of households were food insecure at least sometime during the year in 2018, the most recently available figure. It's a number that has certainly risen during the pandemic.

Absent the $600 per week federal pandemic unemployment assistance, families must navigate a tangle of bureaucracies and programs in order to access food relief benefits, already under threat. President Donald Trump's administration has proposed making cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, reducing the number receiving assistance by 700,000. After pushback in Congress, the administration has agreed to hold off during the pandemic.

Food banks have stepped into the gap but are having trouble stocking the cupboards to keep up with the heightened demand. Lines of cars to pick up at some food banks have stretched for miles.

Emilie Awwad, a manager at Davis Street, said he sees moms and dads come in “depressed” and “upset.”

“‘They cannot have food and they can't feed their family,” he told NBC News. “They cannot pay the rent. They're thinking of the next day, what's going to happen, what does the future hold for them?”

He says the community center is “that one step, to help them. But it's not the solution for the problem.”

What is needed is “the force of the federal government,” said Awwad. “To be involved to help these people just to get over the hump.”

Absent that, Carumba is putting her faith in a different higher power.

"The only thing that I have right now is my faith and my courage to fight,” she said. “I know that I'm going to make this."