Like shelters across the country, the Good Shepherd Center in the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina has been operating in a state of emergency for months. By late March, the challenges of social distancing with 85 residents came to a head, and it wasn’t clear that they would be able to keep taking in new people. They were barely getting by with a drastic shortage of personal protective equipment and volunteers, as well as a modest drop in staff. “Homeless shelters, by and large, were designed to be congregate in nature. We are not designed for any kind of social distancing,” says Katrina Knight, the shelter’s executive director. “I wasn’t honestly sure how to stay open.”
But soon the tides turned in their favor; on March 30th, they worked out a plan to shift women and children to a nearby motel, then ended up securing permanent housing for over a third of the clients. Now, no longer needing the extra capacity of the hotel, they have resumed operating solely out of the main shelter. Yet this may just be the relative calm before a much larger upheaval in the coming months as the hurricane season, a pandemic, and mass evictions all potentially collide.
“There’s a lot in front of us that we’re worried about, but that hasn’t quite hit yet. And we’re holding our breath about that,” says Knight. With North Carolina’s moratorium on evictions lifted and unemployment still staggeringly high, Knight says that she is expecting to see “a lot of new faces” in need of safe shelter by August or September.
On top of that, hurricane season poses an added threat for hurricane-prone towns like Wilmington, which was devastated by Hurricane Florence just two years ago.
Communities across the country could be facing these converging crises. Housing advocates anticipate a wave of evictions after state-wide moratoriums expire, which could lead to ballooning homelessness and housing insecurity. The CARES Act included an eviction moratorium for homes with federally-backed mortgages, which is set to expire on July 25th. Of the 110 million U.S. residents living in rental housing, between 19 to 23 million are at risk of eviction by September, according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. Low-income people of color and undocumented individuals are an an especially high risk. Coinciding with this predicted eviction crisis, there is expected to be a turbulent hurricane season, which typically peaks between August and October. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a very active Atlantic hurricane season with 3-6 major storms, fueled by the warmest oceans on record.
The catastrophic potential of a major hurricane is well-known in Wilmington. After Hurricane Florence made landfall a few miles east of Wilmington, the city was quickly submerged in water to the point where it became cut off from the mainland. Over 450 people were rescued from Wilmington’s floodwaters. Homes were destroyed, including affordable housing units. After temporary shelters closed, thenumber of people seeking housing at Good Shepherd Center remained high for months. “For [Hurricane] Florence, our high was 120 but we worked hard to not maintain that number for very long as we worked to rehouse folks,” says Knight.
If another hurricane were to hit, leading to large-scale displacement compounded by an eviction crisis, homeless shelters will have a much more limited capacity to respond to a rising need because of social distancing restrictions. Knight estimates that this year they can house 50 in the main shelter, the region’s largest, while maintaining a safe distance between everyone.
“I think everybody here is just really uncertain about how things are going to play out,” says Steven Still, the emergency management director for New Hanover County, where Wilmington is located. He notes that cases of the coronavirus are spiking throughout the region. “And then you throw in the hurricane center predictions for this year, and that adds to that uneasiness.”
Still says that they’ve learned through past hurricanes to do more ‘targeted’ evacuations, where only the most vulnerable residents are transported to dryer ground. This way, the roadways are less crowded and the people most in need of shelter are prioritized, a concern that’s uniquely important this year with social distancing restrictions.
A collision of disasters
Hurricanes are never a single crisis. Far-reaching inequalities, like housing insecurity, environmental hazards, and generational poverty, especially harming communities of color, make it that much harder to survive and recover from a storm. But the scale of overlapping crises potentially coming to a head in the coming months could be especially devastating.
Without safe shelter, people will be unable to protect themselves from both the coronavirus pandemic and a natural disaster, like a hurricane. “If people are unable to shelter in place to protect themselves from the pandemic, they are also not going to be able to shelter in place when there’s an encroaching hurricane,” says Khalil Shahyd, who works at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. If there is widespread housing insecurity before a hurricane hits, it will make that disaster much worse. “You’re going to see more people are needing to go to temporary or emergency shelters, which will be a petri dish for the future explosion of the virus,” says Shahyd.
This catastrophe in the making reflects a deeper problem, which Shahyd describes as an “overall failure of our housing system to cope with any shock or disaster, whether it be a pandemic or hurricane.” This precarious housing system could also face other climate-related shocks in the coming months, like wildfire season in the western United States and more extreme heat over the summer.
Perhaps the worst consequence of these potentially converging crises is even wider-spread homelessness. “If we have a status quo in which so many people are precariously at risk of homelessness, and then an unforeseen public health crisis or an extreme weather event occurs, that can be enough to tip the scales and push even more people into the ranks of homeless Americans,” says Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless.
There are many ways that hurricanes can cause displacement and homelessness, such as if more expensive homes are built after the disaster, gentrifying the region and permanently displacing the most vulnerable hurricane survivors. Displacement can also happen when landlords evict renters from a hurricane-damaged apartment or when tenants fall behind on rent after surviving a hurricane.
In Texas, parts of which are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, an eviction crisis has already started to emerge as the coronavirus has surged throughout the state. As people lose their homes, they’ll be more vulnerable to the coronavirus and a potential hurricane. In Harris County, where Houston is located, there have been 8,000 eviction cases filed since the beginning of March and over 1,000 people have applied for legal services regarding landlord-tenant issues with Lone Star Legal Aid, according to Amanda Bosley, an attorney in the disaster relief unit at Lone Star Legal Aid.
If a major hurricane were to barrel into Texas again, she envisions that this eviction crisis could also deepen. “So, following a hurricane or other disaster, people can lose their jobs too because the place that they work was destroyed or for other reasons, so a disaster would just cause a whole new wave of eviction filings due to the nonpayment of rent,” says Bosley.
In New York City, where homelessness is already at a historic high, mass evictions also loom and could push even more people into precarious living situations The state-wide moratorium has lifted, replaced with the Tenant Safe Harbor Ac, which temporarily protects renters from being evicted, though still allows for money judgements for the nonpayment of rent, until New York reopens. At that yet unknown date, there is anticipated to be a wave of evictions due to the accumulation of debt in a time of mass unemployment.
Rachel Rivera, a survivor of Hurricane Sandy and climate activist living in New York City, describes the strain of the looming crisis of debt. “I’m a single parent. I have two kids at home and I can’t afford to choose to either feed my kid or pay the rent,” says Rivera, who lost her job due the pandemic. “So, the banks need to understand that the homeowners can’t pay because the tenants can’t pay.”
A preventable disaster
To stem the anticipated flood of evictions, Rivera sees the cancelation of rent as the most immediate solution. This way, renters will be prevented from owing thousands of dollars of rent, which could push many people into a deeper crisis.
There has been some proposed legislation to this end; Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) introduced the Emergency Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which would suspend rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic in the United States. “It would do so by creating a fund for landlords to recoup rent, but that would also require them to abide by just cause eviction and rent control,” says John Washington, an organizer with People’s Action, which is pushing for the bill. “If you take this money from the government, you’re agreeing that you’re not going to extract any more out of tenants in the future.” In New York state, similar legislation has already been introduced.
“There are so many variables as to why people are unable to afford rent right now, and all of those variables are beyond people’s control. So by canceling rent, effectively you are eliminating that insecurity for folks,” says Jen Chantrtanapichate, a climate justice and community organizer in New York City.
There are also rent and economic relief bills working their way through Congress: in late June, the House passed the Emergency Protection and Housing Relief Act of 2020, introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Cal), which wouldn’t cancel rent but would allocate $100 billion in rental assistance and extend the federal eviction moratorium instated by the CARES Act through March. In an attempt to expedite relief, this Act pulls from the provisions of the HEROES Act, the second stimulus bill that passed in the House in May, yet has remained stalled in the Senate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma) also introduced a bill that would impose a national moratorium on evictions, going beyond the CARES Act to include almost all renters, through March.
Without comprehensive policy, homeless shelters will continue to be many people’s only option for weathering the pandemic or a disaster. The Good Shepherd Center could be operating in a state of emergency for months on end. In the aftermath of a hurricane, Katrina Knight says there’s a feeling that every day will get better and the worst has passed, but there is no longer that assurance.. “We can’t look too far out because there’s no point to it,” says Knight. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel.”