Eviction Crisis Could Trigger Surge in St. Louis Homelessness

Janica Washington is one of potentially thousands of people facing eviction in St. Louis.
Janica Washington is one of potentially thousands of people facing eviction in St. Louis. MIKE FITZGERALD

A storm is gathering over St. Louis, and Janica Washington stands at its edge.

Washington, a resident of the long-troubled Southwest Crossing apartment complex in the Carondolet neighborhood of St. Louis, is unemployed and facing eviction because of missed rent payments.

"They're going to take me to court when the courts open," Washington, 41, tells the Riverfront Times a few weeks ago while talking to friends in the apartment complex's parking lot.

"And I guess the judge will give me some time to move," she says.

As for where she and her four young children — ages seven, ten, eleven and fourteen — would live, Washington is still searching for an answer.

"I just don't know," she says.

Washington is getting ready to join tens of millions of fellow Americans in a housing crisis unprecedented in scope and intensity. Together they are staring into a widening abyss that has cut a jagged line through virtually every town and city in the nation.

A history-shattering tsunami of evictions is expected to strike in the months ahead — a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans and triggered the worst economic crash since the 1930s.

More than 30 million Americans have filed for jobless benefits. Tens of millions more have reported lost income because of pandemic-related business and government shutdowns.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau survey reported that more than 20 percent of American households do not expect to meet their monthly rent or mortgage payment.

That translates into somewhere between 30 million to 40 million Americans who find themselves at risk of losing the roof over their heads before year's end. In contrast, only 10 million Americans lost their homes during the three years of the Great Recession of 2008 to 2010.

The scale of this human catastrophe is about to get worse: The $600 weekly unemployment benefit paid through the federal CARES Act — which kept many financially strapped families in their homes — ended last month.

Meanwhile, Congress' efforts to work out a new relief package remain stalled over partisan roadblocks and deep disagreements over the size and nature of another aid package.

As for President Donald Trump? By all accounts he's sidelined himself, splitting his time between gaslighting America on Twitter, watching countless hours of right-wing TV, issuing meaningless executive orders and taking long weekends to polish his golf game at one of his resorts.

In early August, after it became clear Republicans and Democrats could not reach a deal on an aid package, Trump signed an executive order that bypassed Congress to use money set aside for natural disasters to pay jobless Americans a $400 weekly stipend.

Aside from widespread agreement from legal experts that the move violates the Constitution, it has been denounced as ineffective and unworkable because Trump's maneuver required cash-strapped states to pay $100 of the weekly stipend —- putting them on the hook for billions of dollars their governors say the states don't have. After a week of criticism, Trump's executive order has been roundly condemned as little more than a stunt.

The same goes for his "executive order" ordering a "moratorium" on tenant evictions. Turns out, it's no more than a memorandum that directs the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to look at ways an eviction ban could stop the spread of COVID-19.

The expiration of CARES Act funding coincided with the end of another federal program that kept Americans in their homes: a nationwide moratorium on evictions.

As a result, housing activists across the St. Louis region are bracing for a record-setting upsurge of evictions, which in turn is expected to explode the region's unhoused population with no fallback plan in place if Congress fails to pass a second multi-trillion-dollar relief package.

"We're looking at a level of displacement that's just unprecedented," says Glenn Burleigh, community engagement director for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council. "You can't really put it in terms of normal times. Because in normal times none of these numbers look like this."

How many St. Louis residents will lose their homes?

Of that number, how many possess the financial resources to find new homes?

And how many will wind up on the streets, joining St. Louis' already burgeoning ranks of the unhoused?

No one can answer any of these questions with precision. But the baseline numbers of potential evictions have already set off alarm bells for tenant rights activists such as Burleigh and those who work directly with unhoused people.

In Missouri — which never imposed a statewide moratorium on evictions — nearly 600,000 people face eviction, according to a recent Aspen Institute report.

In St. Louis, U.S. Census figures show nearly 82,000 households consist of rental units. If national trends are applied to St. Louis, then up to 24,000 households are housing insecure. Multiply that number by 2.5 — the size of the average American household in 2019 — and somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 people in St. Louis have reason to fear they are in danger of eviction.

Unless Congress and the White House pass a second COVID-19 bill that pays enough to allow financially strapped tenants to stay in place, thousands of residents in the St. Louis region could find themselves living on the streets by the end of the year — a situation that will only exacerbate the health impacts of the current pandemic, according to Lee Camp, a senior staff attorney who specializes in tenant rights for ArchCity Defenders.

click to enlarge Attorney Lee Camp of ArchCity defenders says an eviction crisis will force people out of their homes and into the streets. - MIKE FITZGERALD
Attorney Lee Camp of ArchCity defenders says an eviction crisis will force people out of their homes and into the streets.

"We absolutely have to prepare for an impending flood of evictions that is going to be a flood of people into the streets in a way that we likely have never seen before in this country," Camp says.

What especially concerns him, he says, is not just the sheer number of evictions that are expected, but the accelerated time frame in which they will occur.

"The scariest piece is those are people who face eviction in terms of months, not years like we saw in the foreclosure crisis," Camp says.

The impact of so many people losing their homes in such a short period of time will be felt for decades, according to Camp.

"It's a ripple in the water that actually continues," he says. "It never has to phase out. And we will be trapped in that for years to come, almost certainly."

There is no formula for calculating how many of the estimated St. Louis residents who face housing insecurity will wind up on the streets.

But if only 10 percent of the 50,000 to 60,000 under threat of eviction lose their homes, then that's at least 5,000 people — or between five and ten times the city's maximum capacity for providing emergency beds for the city's unhoused population.

Housing activist Tim Huffman estimates that between 1,000 and 1,200 unhoused people already live in the city. The coming eviction crisis could easily add another 1,000 people to the unhoused population, in his view.

"It's terrifying," says Huffman, who teaches communications at Saint Louis University.

Stephen Conway, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson's chief of staff, says the city has about 1,100 emergency beds.

But John Bonacorsi, a staff attorney for ArchCity, says the true number of beds for the unhoused is about 551.

Normally, there are a total of 516 beds in the various shelter locations across the city. But 169 were lost to accommodate social distancing demands because of COVID-19. This loss was slightly offset by the addition of 204 beds brought online through city contracts with several motels and the former Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home — for a total of 551 beds, according to Bonacorsi, a Skadden Fellow.

Bonacorsi calls the disparity between the city's current shelter capacity versus the expected demand "terrifying."

Which is why, he says, "it's so important that the courts don't start opening up in a way where people are being evicted from their homes, particularly if the rental assistance fund from the federal government isn't reaching those folks yet."

In any event, there are not enough shelter beds available citywide to meet the surging demand caused by the number of evictions that will occur citywide, according to Bishop Michael Robinson, the CEO and founder of City Hope St. Louis.

"We will have a severe shortage if we don't open a couple larger facilities that will be able to accommodate this influx," Robinson wrote in an email. "I believe that we will see a huge number of first-time homeless individuals this winter."

Conway says the city is doing all it can — and far more than most cities — to help residents remain in their homes.

Conway notes the city has already disbursed $5.4 million in federal CARES money to fourteen service providers, including the United Way, which will provide direct housing assistance of up to $3,500 to struggling city residents. So far 3,000 city households have applied for the grants.

And just last week, Krewson announced that she had requested $2 million more had been added to this housing assistance fund.

Conway declined to say how many St. Louis residents he expects to end up homeless.

"But I know one thing: It's not going to be 50,000 people out on the streets," he says. "The bottom line is we do not expect 50,000 people to be put out. There are a number of safeguards that are in place."

City leaders foresaw the eviction crisis months ago and planned accordingly, according to Conway.

"We made all the efforts and all the resources available to us to mitigate the impending housing crisis," he says. "And the reason we did such a good job is that we prepared for it in advance."

For his part, Camp sees a grim picture ahead.

"Shelter beds and temporary housing are not sustainable solutions, even to deal with this housing crisis," he says. "When the evictions occur, we're absolutely going to see people become homeless, street homelessness as a result of this."

Camp chided the city for not doing enough to help the unhoused population even before the pandemic hit.

"With that being the Plan A, I don't even know how you have a Plan B, when your first plan has completely failed," he says. "And now you're looking at a severe shock to the population of unhoused individuals."

click to enlarge Michelle Hanger expects to be evicted from her apartment, and she doesn't know where she'll go. - MIKE FITZGERALD
Michelle Hanger expects to be evicted from her apartment, and she doesn't know where she'll go.

Michelle Hanger, who also lives at Southwest Crossing Apartments, says she has missed two payments of her monthly rent and expects to be evicted. Like fellow tenant Janica Washington, Hanger says she doesn't know where she will live next.

"They're saying you got to move," Hanger, 38, says. "They're sending maintenance men to do it."

Jim Sansone, vice president of the Sansone Group which recently acquired the apartment complex through receivership, did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Hanger acknowledged she is growing desperate.

"At this point I'm not sure where I would go," she says. "It's hard. It makes you want to commit suicide."

The options for St. Louis tenants in Hanger's predicament are, by most accounts, in flux.

In early August, at the request of housing activists and city Sheriff Vernon Betts, St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison agreed to a citywide eviction freeze to last until Sept. 1.

Burlison OK'ed the freeze on the grounds that tenants will have more time to apply for and receive help with rental and mortgage bills through the $5.4 million in city CARES Act funding.

And what will happen beyond Sept. 1?

Conway, the mayor's chief of staff, says he's "comfortable that for the next 45 or 60 days I'll have enough funds to help people who haven't been able to pay their rent."

By that point Conway expects Congress to work out a deal on a second pandemic relief package.

"There's too much pressure on both parties not to come up with a deal," Conway says. "I'm confident they'll come up with a different style of unemployment, because no one, Democrat or Republican, can allow that to go."

But what if no deal happens over the next two months?

"Now if I get 60 days out, and they haven't accomplished anything, then we'll have to re-evaluate," Conway says. "But if we don't have the resources, we don't have the resources."

Earlier this spring, the city broke up four encampments for the unhoused near the city's center. Many of the camps' residents were sent to three motels and a former nursing home for Catholic nuns.

The city has extended its contracts with those facilities, but according to people who work with the unhoused — and willing to speak on background — these facilities are not taking in new residents.

What's more, many of the people sent there had a hard time adhering to the rules and left on their own, finding shelter either in abandoned buildings or near the St. Louis riverfront.

click to enlarge Stephen Conway speaks St. Louis police Capt. Renee Kriesmann at a homeless encampment that was later removed from downtown. - DOYLE MURPHY
Stephen Conway speaks St. Louis police Capt. Renee Kriesmann at a homeless encampment that was later removed from downtown.

But even if the motels and the former nursing home had worked perfectly, it would represent a temporary fix at best, according to housing activist Kennard Williams.

"We're at the point where people don't have anywhere to go," Williams says. "You see a coordinated push to remove the population from people's eyes. That doesn't address the problem."

Williams' group, MORE — Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment — is calling for a new eviction moratorium of at least 120 days.

"What are people supposed to do?" Williams says. "There are no jobs to go back to. Places are closed."

Williams notes the federal government has the funds to send a cadre of federal law enforcement agents to St. Louis for Operation Legend.

"But we don't have the money to get people off the street," he says. "Things are not adding up here with where all the money is going."

Williams praised Burlison's decision to freeze evictions until Sept. 1 but says it does not go far enough.

"There's no clear way for people to plan their lives," he says. "Or go about their lives, because so much about this is disrupting people's lives."

In large part, the housing emergency the city and the nation are both facing are unnecessary, according to Williams.

"We do not have to have a mass eviction crisis," he says. "Like, we do not have to do this. It doesn't need to happen."

In a typical year, about 3.7 million evictions are filed in America.

But, because of the looming housing crisis, up to 28 million Americans face eviction between now and the end of September, according to the Princeton University Eviction Lab.

The consequences of even one eviction filing — even if filed wrongfully — could haunt a family and set back its members for generations.

Housing experts cite research that shows that eviction is not just a result of poverty — it is a major driver of it.

People kicked out of their homes lose their communities and suffer traumatic psychological and physical health effects. Research shows they move to cheaper neighborhoods with less access to fresh food and regular health care, and poorer-quality schools. People who are evicted suffer higher rates of divorce, mental health problems and are more likely to wind up homeless.

Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, who cofounded the Eviction Lab, calls an eviction the "Scarlet E" because it follows tenants the rest of their lives, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to get loans for cars and homes and to obtain leases for new apartments, forcing them to pay overpriced rents to slumlords.

Evictions disproportionately affect women and children and people of color, penalizing society's most vulnerable populations. And evictions — especially a massive wave of them — will worsen the effects of the region's already chronic racial segregation, according to EHOC's Burleigh.

"It means it's going to limit African American housing choices in our region going forward," Burleigh says.

The pandemic and the job losses caused by it have the potential "to further segregate us, because you will have a disproportionate number of African Americans who will have these evictions on their records, limiting their choices, and frankly, pushing people to pay too much for substandard housing," Burleigh says.

The coming eviction crisis is causing area leaders to face the reality that they never really devised a long-term, sustainable solution for serving unhoused people, according to Camp, of ArchCity.

What's more, even though no St. Louis residents are being forced out of their homes, thanks to Judge Burlison's eviction freeze, eviction judgments are still being issued, Camp notes.

"There are more judgments stacking up, more families facing the threat of displacement," he says. "When the evictions resume, we're going to see another shock on our community as those things start to happen in another couple months down the road."

Modern America has never faced the scale of the housing crisis about to hit in the next few months — a catastrophe that's guaranteed to happen unless lawmakers in Washington end their deadlock and cut a deal robust and ambitious enough to allow tens of millions of Americans to keep a roof over their heads in the months ahead.

"I think we're kind of at the crest of a waterfall," Camp says. "We're very much teetering on the edge. And I'm surprised we haven't fallen off yet."

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