Ashley Baca is one of the many American workers whose income has dried up thanks to the coronavirus-caused economic downturn. As a transport driver for special needs medical clients in Sioux City, Iowa, she's seen her rides disappear throughout the month of March as many of her clients are at risk for the coronavirus and need to self-quarantine.
“I get paid for each trip,” Baca said. “My boss is doing what he can to spread out clients among us drivers, but a lot of places have closed leaving not many runs for us.”
Baca had to quit her truck driving job in August due to medical issues and found herself in a homeless shelter, where she worked her way through transitional housing to being able to afford her own place, which she pays for on a week-by-week basis. But now that she's struggling to afford bills for things like the cellphone she needs for work, she worries she may have to return to the shelter.
“I pay $215 a week with where I'm staying,” she said. “I was only able to afford one week with my last paycheck and next week I have to move into a homeless shelter as I have nowhere to go or afford with this big hit to my check. Everything I worked hard for to get back onto my feet is being pulled out from under me with the virus closing everything and causing work to slow down. It's really hard to deal with.This is leaving me frantic to call family and friends to get help to pay my rent otherwise I'll literally be out on the streets.” She recently filed for unemployment, but is still waiting on a response.
Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, as well as several cities throughout the U.S., have enacted temporary moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, while housing rights groups are calling for rent payments to be suspended through the coronavirus pandemic. Some activists are even asking everyone to stop paying rent as a show of solidarity with those who can't. Congress is set to pass a federal stimulus package that will provide most Americans with individual checks of $1,200, but that relief isn’t expected to be available until at least May.
Help isn't arriving for workers already on the margins like Baca, who are now staring down eviction and homelessness. According to the U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index, more than 37 million jobs could be lost soon, including nearly 6 million in support and accommodation services, which includes Baca's job. Clothing, retail, food service, tourism, sports and entertainment are other industries where millions of jobs are currently at risk.
“Where I am, Michigan, it is OK right now because Governor Whitmer stopped all evictions until April 17," said Brian Gilmore, an associate professor of law and director of the housing clinic at Michigan State University. "But what happens after that is anyone’s guess. It likely needs to be extended indefinitely and/or some kind of temporary housing subsidy be commenced. If tenants don’t pay, then landlords won’t pay mortgages and liability protection payments or property taxes. It is just a ripple effect.” Gilmore noted Michigan and other states have various emergency programs for rental assistance, but employment or some form of income is required to qualify in Michigan.
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An estimated 2.5 million people filed for unemployment benefits across the U.S. last week, and unemployment rates could climb as high as 30 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard. Many workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits, including those who are self-employed, classified as independent contractors or haven’t worked long enough or made enough income to be eligible. Several states are also struggling to process the sudden deluge of claims over the past week, with websites crashing. Even for those who do receive benefits, they only typically provide 45 percent of lost income and it can take several weeks for benefits to begin.
“I tried applying, but the system says due to the amount of requests they’ve received its taking time for them to send out any responses,” said Daniela Sanfilippo, a mother of two children and a restaurant server in Boynton Beach, Florida, who was laid off as restaurants have shut down. “My paychecks paid for the car payment, insurance, and groceries. Now we all have to live on my fiancé’s income to pay the rent in April and other bills that are due. Hopefully I can apply for unemployment. We’re definitely not making enough right now to get by and if they lay him off too, then I’m afraid of what will happen.”
Several people who spoke to VICE about facing financial hardships due to recent layoffs are full-time college students who relied on their jobs to be able to afford rent while attending school.
Andrew Aguirre, an 18-year-old student at California State University–Fresno, recently lost his job as a detailer at a car wash. Currently on his own with no family, he has no way of affording rent for the month of April.
“My landlord and I have an under-the-table type of contract and he’s told me that he also is lacking hours at work so he will not be able to be lenient with me in order to feed his own family,” said Aguirre. He’s currently applying to local grocery stores to try to find work before the end of the month.
Hailey Konop, a student at California State University–Channel Islands, lost her full-time job at a local bowling alley. “I have no source of income and may need to forfeit up my lease because I can not afford it,” she said. “It’s devastating. I could wind up homeless due to the coronavirus outbreak”
Homeless shelters, already grappling with many problems thanks to the coronavirus, are expecting an influx of people when eviction moratoriums end in the states where they’ve been enacted. Daniel Gumnit, the CEO of People Serving People, a family homeless shelter in Minneapolis, said his organization is already dealing with supply chain issues, is unable to rely on volunteers from the community and had to switch food services from a cafeteria to delivering boxes to families.
“We are anticipating a wave of families experiencing homelessness,” said Gumnit. “We can usually handle up to about 350 people a night, about 200 kids, and the remainder being their parents. During normal circumstances, we create overflow space, but with the pandemic that is something we won’t be able to do.”
The coronavirus has also impacted individuals with limited resources who have rental leases expiring at the end of the month.
Lydia York, a disabled veteran who lives outside of Washington, D.C., has relied on the Housing Initiative Program in Montgomery County, Maryland, but her current lease expires at the end of this month. She’s struggled to find new housing that will accept her voucher, and her housing program won’t tell her if she will be permitted to continue her current lease due to the pandemic.
A spokesperson for Montgomery County’s Housing Initiative Program said in an email, “We are following all guidance related to the state of emergency issued by the Maryland governor. We are continuing to work with all of our clients to ensure their housing needs are met and that they have access to safe and affordable housing.”
But that kind of help may not arrive soon enough for York. “Just a few days before my lease expires, I have nowhere to go,” she said. “I’ve asked several different times what the future plan is for me, yet, nobody will tell me. I’m living in a sea of boxes, with nowhere else to live.”
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