Fear of eviction and hunger grip America’s poor during pandemic

Residents of one of the country's most expensive cities unable to pay rent and buy food

Bags of groceries for those in need at Bread for the City in Washington. Willy Lowry / The National
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Selena Martinez sits in her cramped bedroom in south-east Washington, DC. The small room where she and her children sleep at night has been transformed into a classroom during the day, with peeling posters on the walls showing numbers and the alphabet.

In one hand, Ms Martinez wrestles with a tablet. With the other, she tries to herd her two young children, Natalie, 4, and Mateo, 3, back to online school.

In the other room, her mother watches television as she waits for her work shift to start.

This is how they spend their days, for now, but Ms Martinez is not sure how much longer she can keep this up.

Selena Martinez helps her children Mateo (3) and Natalie (4) with online schooling. Willy Lowry / The National
Selena Martinez helps her children Mateo (3) and Natalie (4) with online schooling. Willy Lowry / The National

Ms Martinez, 25, is one of millions of Americans struggling financially and emotionally during the pandemic. “My kids aren’t learning. I’m not a teacher, I don’t have a diploma or anything,” she said. “It’s just me. My mom doesn’t know how to work the tablets at all. And I’ve been having issues with the school because they’ve missed some classes and I’ve had doctor's appointments.”

Ms Martinez, a single mother, lives with Natalie, Mateo, her mother and her sister in a three-bedroom apartment.

They live in America’s capital, a few minutes away from glistening government buildings. But they may as well live in a different country.

The well-paved roads that lead to the US Capitol building and the National Mall start to decay somewhere over the Anacostia River. By the time they reach Ward 8, where the Martinez family lives, they are pothole ridden and in desperate need of repair.

Ward 8 covers a historic stretch of the capital. It was once home to Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of the nation’s great heroes. Today, the neighbourhood is impoverished and struggling.

The median household income for Ward 8 is $36,697, which is a little more than a third of the city’s average household income of $90,695. And it is still significantly more than the Martinez family has been able to bring in since the pandemic started in January 2020.

The family has lived in the same apartment complex since 2009, but they are worried they may soon be evicted. “Right now, we’re short and wondering how we’re going to pay rent.”

Ms Martinez's mother Maria, 59, is the sole provider for the family. She has a warm smile and a cheerful laugh that masks the deep anxiety she feels. Maria works part time cleaning an office building in Silver Spring, Maryland. She makes $15.80 an hour and works three hours a day, five days a week. A month of work earns her less than $1,000, more than $400 short of the rent they pay on their apartment.

She tries to pick up other cleaning shifts when she can, but most of her side work has all but dried up in the pandemic.

With her hands full taking care of her children and their home, Ms Martinez is unable to work herself. Each month is a nail-biter. “We’re not sure for next month at all, to be honest,” she said.

The Martinez family is part of a growing number of Americans who can no longer afford their rent. One in five renters in the US are not up to date on their rent, according to the Census Bureau Household Survey from December. Renters of colour are even more likely to be behind on rent, with about one in four Latinos not able to make rental payments.

The likelihood of someone being behind on rent during the pandemic increases for those with children in the house.

Last week, in one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden signed an executive order extending a federal moratorium on evictions, which was meant to end at the end of this month, until the end of March. That means landlords can not kick out tenants even if they are behind on rent.

Many states and cities have their own eviction bans as well, but that has not stopped many landlords from exploiting loopholes to evict thousands of Americans from their homes, contributing to a rise in homelessness in many places across the United States.

According to a new study from The Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles research organisation, the recession caused by the pandemic will lead to twice as much homelessness over the next four years in the US as did the 2008 recession. Without government intervention, the group said chronic homelessness could increase 49 per cent.

“I’m anticipating we go from eviction moratoriums ending to this very bumpy period where a lot of people are in desperate situations, and then there comes some sort of solution but it will be a little too late,” said Brianna Weck of Her Resiliency Centre, which helps women in need in Washington and Baltimore.

While the group is not necessarily seeing an increase of women in need, the women coming to them for help are in much more desperate situations since the pandemic began, Ms Weck said.

Waiting for relief

As part of his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan, President Biden proposed $30 billion to help renters and small landlords. He also called for the eviction ban to be extended until September 2021.

As Congress debates the plan, thousands of Americans like Ms Martinez are desperately waiting for any assistance that may trickle down to them.

On a cold Wednesday morning, Teddy McNair, 43, lined up outside Bread for the City, a Washington food bank, looking for help to feed his family.

 A volunteer packs a grocery bag at Bread for the City in Washington. Willy Lowry / The National
 A volunteer packs a grocery bag at Bread for the City in Washington. Willy Lowry / The National

He was laid off from his job because of the pandemic.

“It’s been a rough year, but I think I see signs of hope that we can rebound from this, it might take a minute, it’s a lot of chaos,” Mr McNair said of his living situation.

According to the Census Bureau survey, about one in three children living in rented housing experience food shortages. That is something the Martinez family has been dealing with as well. “Right now, we’re struggling with food,” Ms Martinez said.

Like Mr McNair, the Martinez family relies on food bags from Bread for the City. The organisation has two locations in the city. One in Anacostia near the Martinez family and another in the Shaw neighbourhood.

They prepare 400 to 600 bags of food every day for community members in need. “When you think about certain areas in the city like Wards 8 and 7 where there’re food deserts, a lot of community members don't have access to quality food, so they rely on us to be able to give them that quality food,” said Kenrick Thomas, a communications and events manager at Bread for the City.

Selena Martinez poses with her Mother Maria and daughter Natalie outside Bread for the City in Washington. Willy Lowry / The National
Selena Martinez poses with her Mother Maria and daughter Natalie outside Bread for the City in Washington. Willy Lowry / The National

The organisation has noticed a significant increase in new community members requiring their services, with demand for food up three to four times what it was before the pandemic, Mr Thomas said. "There are families who have never had to use Bread for the City who are now using us consistently. We have a lot of community members now who were employed and now they are underemployed and they are not getting paid a consistent income."

Mr Thomas said that on top of the financial toll, the community his organisation serves is being disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 disease itself. “We also have a lot of community members who are dealing with stress now because of the possibility of being exposed to Covid-19,” he said.

For Ms Martinez's mother Maria, who speaks only Spanish, that fear of getting sick is compounded by the fear of not being able to provide for her family. She pointed to her legs, which were covered in red dots. "She just got overwhelmed with everything going on," her daughter said in explanation of the rash.

Both mother and daughter have suffered from anxiety and panic attacks as they tried to navigate the pandemic. Their one constant is each other, and together they are determined to get through the challenging times.