A federal moratorium on evictions issued last year to help keep people housed during the COVID-19 pandemic is set to expire on June 30, potentially threatening thousands of people’s housing as back rent comes due.
Service providers in the region say there’s no way to know what the effect of the lift will be or how many people in West Virginia will be affected. A number of these people — as has been the case throughout the pandemic — will be accessing assistance programs for the first time, making the process even more difficult, said Margaret O’Neal, executive director of the United Way of Central West Virginia.
More calls than ever are pouring into the United Way’s 211 hotline, a resource center for anyone looking to navigate available social services and find help, O’Neal said.
“We have people calling every day, still, who are first-time callers, and you can often tell, because you hear the emotion in their voices,” O’Neal said. “They’re often scared, they’re emotionally distressed and they don’t know the first thing about who to call or where to go, because they’ve never had to before.”
From Jan. 1 to May 31 of this year, there were about 5,000 calls from across the state for utility assistance and 2,500 calls for rental assistance.
In 2019, there were 760 calls to the agency for utility assistance and 148 for rental assistance. That’s a near-600% increase and a near-1,600% increase in utility and rental assistance calls, respectively.
“We know that’s not scientific, but it’s impossible to deny that increase. Need is up, across the board, but I think looking at that call volume is telling,” O’Neal said. “It doesn’t tell you everything, but it makes you think.”
At the Charleston-Kanawha Housing Authority, director Mark Taylor said the agency is working with 80 local families who are behind on rent or utility payments.
Ellen Allen, executive director at Covenant House, a day shelter for people who are unhoused or under-housed in Charleston, said her team has been serving an average of 29 people a week, many of them for the first time, as well.
Some of these cases likely overlap, but Allen said it’s impossible to deny that there is a greater need today than there was two years ago. O’Neal said the need is greater than it was even in 2020, when people were just starting to lose income sources and stability because of the pandemic.
The eviction moratorium has been expanded and extended several times during the pandemic. It is enforceable only for nonpayment, so people were still being evicted over the past several months for breaking terms of a lease or other issues.
While it’s possible that another extension could be issued at the last minute, keeping people housed and giving them time to sort their affairs, service providers said people should prepare anyway.
The rent that is due isn’t going to disappear.
“We tried telling people to keep making payments, any they could, and don’t let the debt add up, because the deeper you get, the harder it is to climb out,” Allen said.
If people are potentially at risk of being evicted or losing their housing, there are simple things they can do now to get ahead, she said.
Have a copy of your lease on hand. Don’t wait until the day of eviction to ask for help. Talk to your landlord to see if they’ll work with you. Get documentation of everything you owe money on, including back rent and utility bills. Try to get proof of income, if you have it.
Although it’s not necessary to have legal representation when facing eviction, research shows it can make a difference. One study out of New Orleans found that 65% of people facing eviction without legal representation in the city were evicted, compared to just 15% for people with lawyers.
O’Neal said people who are facing eviction can call Legal Aid of West Virginia for assistance navigating the situation and responding to it correctly.
The initial eviction moratorium was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a public health measure, because people who are without homes are more at risk for disease spread in shelters, on the streets or in other scenarios.
Even without a pandemic, evictions can come with health risks. Studies show an increase in suicides among people who face eviction. In West Virginia, increasing HIV, hepatitis, endocarditis and other disease rates pose more risk to people without stable living.
“Housing is health care, and that’s all there is to it,” Allen said. “If people don’t have housing, a roof over their heads, it’s hard to do anything to stop these diseases and protect them. It’s hard for them to protect themselves.”
Money has been made available through several grant and relief programs in West Virginia and nationwide for agencies assisting people who are homeless, under-housed or at risk of being homeless.
O’Neal said this is where the 211 phone line is handy: It’s somewhat of a clearing house for all the programs and services available. When people walk into the United Way building — “Which they’re more than welcome to do,” O’Neal said — they are still instructed to call the 211 phone line for help.
“Even if it’s sitting in the lobby and making the call, it’s much easier to get information that way, and it helps us with the data collection,” O’Neal said.
The data helps service providers see trends in need and where potential service gaps exist, O’Neal said.
Anything shared over the call, though, is completely anonymous.
“We don’t even take a name, unless there’s some reason we have to call you back for something,” O’Neal said.
Although there are several pots of money, each one comes with its own qualifications and restrictions, said Traci Strickland, executive director at the Kanawha Valley Collective, a regional nonprofit focused on preventing and ending homelessness in the Kanawha Valley.
Sometimes, depending on the program, housing coordinators and case managers might ask seemingly intrusive questions about how a person identifies or their activities. Strickland said it’s important to know that these questions are meant to help better match someone with a program or service, and there is not any judgement or ill intent behind them.
“For example, if you’re in recovery or have substance use disorder, there are different housing options than if you’re not. They aren’t better or worse, they are just funded differently, with varying qualifications,” Strickland said. “We aren’t going to not house you, we just want to make sure you get the right help and support for the situation.”
But she gets why people might feel that way, or be nervous to answer questions. For many — especially those who’ve never relied on social services — the process can be daunting. People often blame themselves for the situation they’re in, and could put off asking for help.
Some in the community attach stigma to using these services, Strickland said. If someone hears that enough times, they might internalize it.
“There are a lot of people in this country that think poverty and homelessness is a moral failure. It’s not at all.” Strickland said. “But if you’ve always kind of thought that, or even if you don’t think it but always heard it, then you know other people believe that. I think you’re always going to question it.”
Most people in West Virginia are much closer to relying on these services than they think, Strickland said. Those working at support agencies will not judge someone for their past or current circumstances, she said. They are there to help.
“There is no moral failure here. The challenges people are facing could happen to anyone. People can do everything right and still end up here. There is no judgement, no matter the situation you come from,” Strickland said. “People call [service providers] going down tons of different paths and, for us, it’s about helping them find the best path out. Finding the best path to a home and stable housing for them and their families.”