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I am one of the lucky few in this state who is still employed and able to work from home. My employer, Gulfcoast Legal Services (GLS), is a nonprofit legal aid. We provide free civil legal aid for eligible individuals in four different counties.
Through GLS, I have seen firsthand how our community has been financially impacted by COVID-19. Our paralegals are swamped with calls. Our housing paralegal and our financial stability paralegal, who take incoming calls and requests for assistance, have gone above and beyond to meet an overwhelming increase in demand. Callers can reach out to them for support with many issues – scams, frauds, evictions, landlord-tenant issues (example: a landlord refuses to clean black mold in the apartment), public benefits, and more.
The staff who take these calls rely heavily on one another and are constantly referring callers to each other. Why? Because housing issues and financial stability issues are inextricably linked. As the grant writer, I learned this when writing my first housing grant. Many of our housing-specific grants include an element of financial stability, because one often leads to the other or, more commonly, they work against a client in tandem.
In a situation like a global pandemic, where massive amounts of individuals have been laid off through no fault of their own, delaying evictions and foreclosures is a good and necessary step. However, it does not address the root of the problem, which is financial stability.
A recent article by Politico states: “Only about 5 percent of applicants for (unemployment) aid in the past month have actually received payments from the state. Of the 650,000 people who applied for unemployment benefits since March 15, about 33,600 have received payments.” This is according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.
These numbers scare me. Not to mention our income cap for unemployment benefits is one of the lowest in the nation. In addition, there have been 82 cases filed against tenants for evictions or unlawful detainers since April 1, and that’s only in Pinellas. Recently, the Small Business Administration announced that the $349 billion authorized for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans has been exhausted.
I understand the reasoning behind recent housing orders on the state and national level – delay evictions and foreclosures and you keep people from becoming homeless during a pandemic. Eventually the economy will recover, and those who are unemployed will find new jobs. It’s a good start.
But what about the weeks (and possibly months) these people will spend without income? Most cannot bounce back from a lengthy unemployment while receiving zero support, get a job, and continue on like nothing has happened. The time we spend without income has a deep, deep impact on our ability to pay necessary expenses (like food and medical bills), to save, and to sustain suitable housing.
Those who do have evictions filed against them right now? They will face an even greater problem: chronic homelessness. Evictions stay on your permanent record. They make it difficult, if not impossible, to find other housing.
More focus needs to be given to providing financial incentives for those who have been laid-off due to Covid-19. Local foundations have been incredibly generous in providing funding for nonprofits like GLS, that are doing everything possible to help. Some, too, have direct funding streams for individuals in need, such as the Season of Sharing campaign through The Community Foundation of Sarasota County.
Still, charitable giving organizations cannot carry our communities on their own. More support and attention is needed from local and state leadership, as well as government officials, to address the underlying root of the housing crisis – income, business sustainability, workplace protections and inequalities between workers and high level management.
Until then, GLS is here. We will continue serving the public in any way we can, be it by addressing an impending eviction notice, assisting with public benefits, helping those who are in domestic violence situations, or in many other ways.