Job losses, evictions and utility cutoffs: Being poor amid COVID-19 outbreak

By: - March 13, 2020 5:39 pm

An apartment building in Norfolk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Demetrice Taylor works as a clerk at 7-Eleven in downtown Richmond, but with schools around the state closed for at least two weeks, she said that’s about to change.

“Yeah I’m quitting,” she said as she walked down the street with her 4-year-old daughter who attends a public pre-school, “because my kids come first.”

Her job provides no paid sick days, no family leave and no alternative to care for her daughter, she said.

And she’s not alone.

With a viral pandemic set to disrupt daily life around Virginia, advocates are issuing urgent calls for state and local officials to step in to protect low-income, homeless and disabled Virginians who they say are least equipped to safely weather the growing crisis.

They’re asking for a state-wide moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, utility cut-offs and collections actions, including by hospitals. For those who already homeless, they’re asking for additional support and shelter.

How can a person evicted from their home over nonpayment of rent be expected to quarantine themselves, asked Martin Wegbreit, the director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

‘Low-income people need to self-quarantine, too’

“People who are feeling sick,” he said, “they need to stay in place. You’ve got senators, basketball players, actors self-quarantining. Low income people need to self-quarantine, too. And they can’t.”

The dilemma is more than a hypothetical in Virginia, home to five of the 10 top evicting large cities in the country, and the threat isn’t limited to people who think they’re getting sick.

Advocates said they support Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision Friday to order schools around the state closed, but note it leaves workers scrambling for alternative childcare. If they can’t find it, many will be out of a paycheck and, potentially, out of a job. Just a third of the lowest paid workers in the country have paid sick or leave benefits, according to the Department of Labor.

Va. lawmakers block paid sick time bill as coronavirus sparks national conversation

They also worry about how children will get fed in low-income communities, where many families rely on free breakfast and lunches served at school.

“People are already living paycheck-to-paycheck in a world without affordable housing and cannot be expected to stay healthy and care for children and aging relatives while also working to pay rent,” said Angela Ciolfi, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which advocates for low-income residents around the state.

The organization is in the process of preparing wide-ranging policy recommendations for state and local leaders.

Regulators asked to halt utility cut-offs

Advocates say they’re encouraged by some of the responses they’ve seen so far, but they say more drastic action is necessary.

Attorney General Mark Herring filed an emergency petition late Friday with state regulators that would bar all electric, gas and water providers from disconnecting customers for the duration of the state of emergency declared by Northam this week.

“A temporary suspension of disconnections is especially important for hourly wage earners who are most likely to lose income as a result of business closures and social distancing efforts,” Herring said in a statement.

Moments later Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, announced it had voluntarily ended utility cutoffs.

In Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration reached out to the legal aid community seeking advice for how to respond. He quickly acted on one of their recommendations, announcing the city would stop disconnecting residents’ water for non-payment.

To keep kids fed, the city’s superintendent pledged to keep school kitchens open and said the district is working on meal delivery options for people unable to leave their homes.

Charlottesville’s public housing authority announced Friday it would suspend evictions.

But advocates say more drastic steps are necessary and that other cities and states are already implementing them. New York State’s legislature is weighing legislation to ban evictions across the state during the outbreak. Kentucky put such proceedings on hold by default amid a broader decision to limit court hearings to exceptional cases that demand immediate action.

Courts implement ‘liberal continuance policies’

So far, the state court system in Virginia has responded on an ad-hoc basis, with some local courts announcing what they’re describing as “very liberal continuance policies” and others are simply asking people who are not a party to or witness in a case being heard to stay home. The Supreme Court of Virginia and Court of Appeals announced their building in downtown Richmond is closed to the public until further notice.

Meanwhile, the patchwork of organizations that serve the homeless is scrambling to figure out how they can continue to provide support. In Richmond, the city’s emergency shelter is closed for the summer and permanent shelter space is always scarce.

Organizations that provide free meals say they’re not yet sure how to proceed.

Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Richmond, which serves hot lunch to the homeless every Friday, has closed its offices and cancelled services. It still opened to serve food, but instead of opening their parish hall they took the precaution of handing out boxed meals at the door.

What will next week look like?

“We don’t know exactly yet,” said Rev. Matt Bates. “We hope we will have a way to serve.”

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