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With federal unemployment benefits ending soon and moratoriums on evictions soon to follow, social services organizations are bracing for a homelessness crisis to hit rural Americans.
Adrienne Bush, executive director for the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, says her agency anticipates the termination of federal unemployment benefits could mean as many as 240,000 Kentuckians facing evictions.
“To the extent that folks losing employment income have been able to still make rent, they’ve been able to do so using pandemic unemployment compensation and assistance, as well as the one-time Economic Impact Payment of $1,200, and other forms of informal support from family and friends,” she says. “Our phones have been ringing off the hook since March with people unable to make rent and being harassed for payment despite the moratoria.”
Although Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has stopped evictions until the state of emergency is over, Bush says, it’s unclear when that will be. And, federal guidelines in the CARES Act lift eviction moratoria on some properties on August 24. Whether the governor’s executive order will supersede the federal government’s directives are still to be seen.
To further complicate matters, Kentucky’s Attorney General Daniel Cameron has filed suit against the governor to have all of his executive orders issued during the pandemic overturned.
But the moratorium has not deterred some landlords from trying to evict tenants who can’t pay Bush says. In many cases, clients have come to the HHCK asking for help as landlords text them, send them threatening letters and even, in the case of one mobile home park, disconnect utility meters in an effort to get tenants to move out, she says.
Michael Howard, the founder and CEO of ARCH Community Health Coalition in Madisonville, Kentucky., says the agencies he works with are struggling to determine how they can best help those facing a financial crisis if the federal unemployment benefits end.
Madisonville, Kentucky, is a community of 19,000. It’s the county seat of Hopkins County and has a little more than 46,000 people in it. Located in Western Kentucky, it’s a farming community, with tobacco being its number one crop.
But, like in many rural counties during Covid-19, unemployment has skyrocketed. The last figures from the state show that the unemployment rate has dropped from 13.4% to a little above 11%, says Hopkins County Judge Executive Jack Whitfield, Jr.
Those residents, Howard says, have been living off of the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit, as well as unemployment benefits from the state, provided by the CARES Act.
According to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, half of Kentuckians had experienced a loss of employment income since March. Data collected by the organization shows that some groups, like families with children, people with poor health, and households with lower income were affected more severely.
According to the report, “A total of 59% of Kentuckians in Black households and 88% in Hispanic households have lost employment income, compared to 49% in white households.”
Of those, 28% rely on state and federal unemployment benefits to make ends meet.
Once the unemployment benefits end, that population is at risk, Howard says. Those benefits are scheduled to end on July 25.
“Within the next month or six weeks, I think we’re going to see a lot of people without shelter,” he says. “Once the unemployment ends and the moratorium on evictions is lifted, it’s going to be Armageddon around here. We have no earthly idea what’s going to happen, but our fear is it’s going to be ugly.”
According to Howard, because of the pandemic, social service agencies that would normally help with things like rent, utility payments, or food are stretched thin and many won’t be in a position to help. Additionally, many of the normal sources of philanthropy have dried up, he says, as the economic crisis stemming from business shutdowns has hit local businesses and donors. Churches, another traditional source of help in times of crisis, are running low on funds because tithes are down due to the lack of in-person church services.
Like many rural counties in the state and across the country, Hopkins County has no homeless shelter.
Judge executive Whitfield said he hopes that landlords and utility companies will work with those behind on their bills.
“I’ve talked with utility companies and landlords and they are being affected too,” he says. “I think there is a feeling that it is better to get something and work with their tenants, than trying to find someone else to rent that house. Everyone I’ve talked with said they are willing to work with them.”
But there’s a need to end the federal unemployment benefit as well, he said.
“Some of these people, for whatever reason, they were getting this money and knew they couldn’t get evicted or that their utilities wouldn’t be shut off, so they just didn’t pay their bills,” he says. “It’s not just the tenants who are affected by this, it’s the landlords and the utility companies as well.”
According to National Multifamily Housing, 87.6% of apartment households made a full or partial rent payment by July 13 for the month of July – a 2.5 percent decrease over the same time period in 2019.
“The government support, including unemployment benefits, that has proven so important to so many apartment residents expires at the end of the month,” says Doug Bibby, NMHC President. “Lawmakers need to continue to protect the individuals and families that call an apartment home. If action isn’t taken now we risk making the nation’s housing affordability challenges far worse, rolling back the initial economic recovery and putting tens of millions at risk of greater health and financial distress.”
Whitfield says there’s little the county can do if people are evicted.
“There’s no way for us to open up a homeless shelter, and even if we could, I’m not sure we could afford to keep it open,” he says.
Additionally, residents in the county face a two year wait to get into public housing, officials said.
In Washington, Congressional leaders are looking at extending the benefits, with modifications. Some of the latest reporting indicates the White House and Senate would put the unemployment benefit at $400 or even $200 per week if included at all.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was in Madisonville on July 14, but the topic of extending unemployment benefits didn’t come up. Instead, he touted the money that had flowed into the state due to the CARES Act, including $12 million for public housing organizations across the state.
According to a statement by McConnell’s spokesperson, McConnell recently addressed the issue of unemployment benefits during a recent press availability.
“Unemployment is extremely important and we need to make sure for those who are not able to recover their jobs, unemployment is adequate. That is a different issue from whether we ought to pay people a bonus not to go back to work…and we’re hearing it all over the country that it’s made it harder actually to get people back to work,” he said at the time.
Bush says her organization has reached out to Congressional leaders to discuss the importance of extending those benefits. Additionally, she says, she hopes the next round of stimulus money will include $100 billion in emergency rental assistance to ensure that households, and the communities they live in, won’t face the destabilization of mass evictions and homelessness.