Ethiopia Williams finally saw an end to the constant struggle, a future in which she could start living and stop surviving, as she puts it. Coming into March, she had been living in a room in the InTown Suites with her 9-year-old daughter Haleigha for two years after going through an eviction elsewhere in Mecklenburg County in 2018. That’s when she finally got a shot at stability.
Williams had spent much of those two years driving for Uber, Lyft and Postmates to make ends meet, sometimes barely making the $1,200 a month for the room she and her daughter lived in, sometimes needing to switch to weekly or daily pay, which raised the total cost more than 50% from around $40 a night to $67.
She was never without work, but couldn’t get an apartment because of the eviction on her record. She and Haleigha had been put out of Southgate Apartments because Ethiopia was late on her rent three times in a 12-month period.
After someone crashed into her car in July 2019, ending her driving gigs, Williams found a temp job in the fulfillment department with LSG Sky Chef, which caters food and drink for American Airlines. After nine months of that, she was offered a full-time job with the company. She started on March 2. After COVID-19 effectively ended all air travel later that month, Williams was laid off on March 20.
“For me it was really just, it was literally like someone taking the breath out of my lungs,” Williams recalls. “I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and then this happened, and I was like, ‘OK, what am I going to do? There’s no money coming in.’”
She filed for unemployment, but with so many people doing the same, she knew it wouldn’t come in time to help her pay rent in April. Williams and her InTown neighbors were scared they would lose their rooms, so Williams did something she was too prideful to do in the past: She called Crisis Assistance Ministry.
She ended up speaking with Bonnie Tiernan from the organization, which helps folks facing financial crisis in the Charlotte area. Tiernan told her that on the previous day, March 30, Gov. Roy Cooper had signed Executive Order No. 142, temporarily prohibiting residential and commercial landlords from evicting tenants for late payment or nonpayment of rent.
“It’s 5:30, they’re putting people out at 7,” Williams recalls. “Ms. Bonnie called me and said, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about.’ She was the one that informed me that they can’t put people out at this point. We ended up being on the phone for two hours, and she was like, ‘You know what, I want to work with you.’”
The governor’s order gave Williams some breathing room, and with the help of Crisis Assistance and the eventual arrival of unemployment insurance, she was able to get back on her feet for the time being.
However, now with eviction hearings in Mecklenburg County resuming, unemployment extension benefits drying up, and countless employers still unable to rehire employees, a new wave of people are now facing the same situation Williams found herself in back in April.
According to the North Carolina Division of Employment Security (DES), 1,223,589 people in North Carolina applied for unemployment benefits between March 15 and Aug. 10. Of those, only 69% have been approved for benefits.
“So many of our clients have not received unemployment after they applied, and trying to get information can be so difficult,” said Sandra Conway, executive director of Matthews HELP Center, another crisis assistance organization in Mecklenburg County. “The [DES] wasn’t prepared to handle the volume of this, but we’re still hearing people say they have not received their unemployment.”
Between mid-March and June, Matthews HELP Center assisted 365 households in its coverage area with rent and utility bills, which added up to $125,000 in assistance; $69,000 of which went out in June alone, according to Conway.
The organization also provides food pantry services to local families in need, which totaled $65,720 in costs from mid-March to June. Since the state moratorium on eviction hearings was lifted on June 20, and eviction proceedings in Mecklenburg County resumed a month later, Conway expects to see an increase in the demand for help.
“The sheer demand of what’s needed and the resources that we have, it’s really tough,” Conway said. “That June number is two-and-a-half times the volume of what we normally do. We have some extra money; our community has been sending us money and we’ve applied for some grants. We just need to help as many people as possible. It’s the demand versus the resources that are out there. As much money comes in that we can possibly put back out into our community, that’s what we’re going to do.”
While the Matthews HELP Center only serves a select group of zip codes, its social workers receive inquiries from the whole county. When an inquiry comes from outside the service area, the first place they refer to is Crisis Assistance Ministry, which serves all of Mecklenburg County. It is often the one organization that can help when others cannot.
According to Liana Humphrey, chief marketing officer for Crisis Assistance Ministry, many in the county are going through similar experiences, waiting on their unemployment benefits, while some are still awaiting the $1,200 stimulus check that was supposed to arrive in March.
“We hear stories about the challenges of navigating the unemployment system, or from people who don’t qualify for unemployment for a variety of reasons,” Humphrey said.
Those who did qualify and have been receiving unemployment benefits saw the end of a $600 bonus that kept many people afloat through the crisis but expired in July. On Aug. 8, President Donald Trump signed an executive order extending the extra aid, cutting it to $400 and adding in so many caveats that most won’t see any of it.
Relief in a Crisis
At the start of the pandemic, Crisis Assistance Ministry immediately shifted its priorities to assist those like Williams who live in hotels and motels, putting $800,000 toward that effort alone, Humphrey said. The organization then returned to helping families who live in apartments and need help with rent and utilities. But as the volume of cases increased, so did the amount of money each individual needed.
“What we’ve seen with the families that we’ve assisted is that the amount of money it takes to resolve their financial crisis has doubled and, in some cases, tripled,” Humphrey said. “Prior to COVID-19, on average, it would take $400 to solve someone’s financial crisis. Oftentimes, they would bring some money to the table and be able to put some money toward their rent and utility bills and then $400 is what it would take to ensure they remained stably housed. That number has significantly increased.”
Through the end of June, Crisis Assistance Ministry provided more than $1 million in rent and utility assistance for 781 families in Mecklenburg County.
Charlotte’s unemployment rate hit 13.6% as we entered August, and many families are once again scrambling to pay rent, reaching out to organizations like Matthews HELP Center and Crisis Assistance Ministry, and with eviction proceedings moving forward in Mecklenburg County, many of those families are in more urgent situations than they’ve ever been in.
Hannah Guerrier, supervising attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s (LANC) housing unit, has been working with clients on the ground, trying to negotiate settlements between tenants and landlords so as not to leave people to fend for themselves in what for many is a first-time ordeal.
“We have a lot of tenants currently facing eviction or who will be facing eviction who this is a brand-new experience for them because this has thrown the economy into a tailspin and limited people’s incomes across socioeconomic levels,” she said.
Gurrier and the LANC team give legal advice, connect tenants with organizations like Crisis Assistance Ministry and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, and help mediate negotiations between tenants and landlords in or out of court if that’s needed.
A New Wave of Evictions in Mecklenburg County
Tenants in Mecklenburg County got a bit of a buffer period, as eviction courts in Mecklenburg County didn’t open until July 20, and cases resulting from COVID-19 didn’t hit the docket until the first week of August. That’s when Gurrier began to see courtrooms fill up, with landlords and tenants there to exercise their due-process rights made to wait in the hallway to comply with social-distancing protocols.
It’s unclear just how many local residents are currently facing eviction in Mecklenburg County, but at one point in the crisis the courts were looking at a backlog of nearly 2,000 cases.
Gurrier and her team have seen success in working out settlements, including payment plans and the like, for many of their clients, but due to limited funding, LANC can only help so many people. She estimates that the need is about 10 times the workload they’re currently able to take on.
“It is overwhelming to see the number of people at court fighting for their homes in these already uncertain times,” Gurrier says. “The eviction process is a stressful and frustrating and looming process and that stress is only exacerbated by the fact that you can’t stay at home unless you have a home to stay at.
“In the cases that have reached out to LANC, I do feel hopeful,” she continues, “We’ve had great success in obtaining beneficial outcomes for our clients. On the grand scale, it’s still scary for renters in our community, because these renters often represent very vulnerable populations, and our community at large is as vulnerable as its most vulnerable member.”
What LANC and their clients are fighting for is bigger than just what happens in the coming months. A single eviction on your record can make it far more difficult to find follow-up housing, Gurrier points out.
“One eviction can lend itself to irreparable consequences and housing instability for individuals and families, and I think a lot of people know that maybe intuitively but don’t recognize the extent of those consequences until they are there themselves,” she says.
For her part, Williams, never put much thought into the issue until it happened to her. She spent more than a year applying for apartments every chance she got, spending untold thousands of dollars on application fees over time until someone suggested that the eviction on her record was making her efforts moot.
She said she called an affordable housing complex that she heard had openings in Ashley Park in west Charlotte only to be told that the waiting list was so backed up they were just getting to people who had signed up in 2013. Williams recently landed a part-time job as a 2020 Census worker, canvassing for people who haven’t filled out the census by the Aug. 14 deadline.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced it will cut canvassing efforts short, running them through Sept. 30 rather than Oct. 31 as originally planned. Williams began put all of her unemployment money toward up-front payment for her motel room back in April, paying through Aug. 14. Now she’s not getting unemployment checks anymore, and things are becoming urgent again.
“I still haven’t heard back from the Census Bureau to start work, and my [rent] bill is due tomorrow,” she tells me on Aug. 13. “It’s frustrating and infuriating that during a time like this companies are protected and families simply are not.”
‘A Fair Chance’
While we talk in a McDonald’s next to the InTown Suites where she’s been living for nearly 30 months, Ethiopia looks down at her bubbly daughter Haleigha. The single mother tears up as she discusses how this experience has turned her into an activist of sorts.
Williams remembers when she was ashamed to let even close friends know about her living situation. Since COVID-19 hit, however, she wants people to know what folks like her are going through.
“I’m ready to talk about it. I love my baby, she needs to be able to run, have fun, be able to expand her mind, that’s not going to happen here. I’m not asking for lavish conditions, I’m not asking for nothing, I’m just asking for a shot, a fair chance, just to break even,” she says, holding back tears as she speaks, gradually growing more emotional.
“What happens now affects her in the future … You don’t want to have a whole generation of kids that have dealt with stuff that didn’t need to happen. Can it build character? Maybe. Will it hurt anyone? Maybe not. But does it actually need to be like that? Not when I’m going to work every day, not when I’m paying my taxes, not when I’m trying my hardest.”
She gathers herself and continues.
“There’s more than one reason a person can find themselves in that situation. It can be anyone. COVID, if nothing else came out of that issue, it taught people that it can end for anyone,” she says. “You think you have it made, or you think everything is cool, and then something like this happens. People panicked and bought toilet paper like crazy, but imagine if you had to worry about the roof over your head. People started getting a taste of it a little bit and got nervous. They’re like, ‘What’s going on, why is this happening?’ But this is life for some people all the time, every day. We’re surviving.”
And soon, she hopes to start living.