The coronavirus pandemic pushed the U.S. past another dire milestone Wednesday, the highest daily death toll to date, even while the mortality rate has decreased as health experts learn more about the disease.
The Covid Tracking Project, which tracks state-level coronavirus data, reported 3,054 COVID-19 related deaths — a significant jump from the previous single-day record of 2,769 on May 7.
The spread of the disease has shattered another record with 106,688 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals. And overall, states reported 1.8 million tests and 210,000 cases. According to the group, the spike represents more than a 10% increase in cases over the last 7 days.
Additionally, California nearly topped its single-day case record at 30,851. It is the second highest case count since December 6, the organization reported.
The staggering spike in fatalities and infections has overwhelmed hospitals and intensive care units across the nation, an increase attributed by many experts to people relaxing their precautions at Thanksgiving.
|Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor, believes that 2020 will go down as a signature year in history, alongside years like 1968, 1945 and 1865. “It will long be remembered and studied as a time when more than 1.5 million people globally died during a pandemic, racial unrest gripped the world, and democracy itself faced extraordinary tests,” he writes.|
|Those words come from Dean’s introduction to The Times’s annual Year in Pictures feature. Here, my colleagues on The Morning and I have chosen a dozen of those pictures that we think best summarize 2020. But we obviously have room here for only a fraction of the year’s photographs — so I encourage you to check out the full selection.|
|As you do, ask yourself which pictures you would have selected if you had to pick only 12 to sum up 2020.|
Again, you can find the full Year in Pictures here.
What it’s like to stay alive as the virus charts its fatal course through a home for the elderly in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in the Bronx.
When someone in the building died, a notice was often taped to a window in the lobby: “WE REGRET TO ANNOUNCE THE PASSING OF OUR FRIEND….” The signs did not say how or where the friend had died, and because they were eventually removed, they could be easy to miss. In March, as these names began to appear more frequently at Bronxwood, an assisted living facility in New York, Varahn Chamblee tried to keep track. Varahn, who had lived at Bronxwood for almost a year, was president of its resident council. Her neighbors admired her poise and quiet confidence. She spoke regularly with management, but as the coronavirus swept through the five-story building, they told her as little about its progress as they told anyone else.
Some residents estimated that 25 people had died — that was the number Varahn had heard — but others thought the toll had to be higher. There was talk that a man on the second floor had been the first to go, followed by a beloved housekeeper. An administrator known as Mr. Stern called in sick. Around the same time, Varahn noticed that the woman who fed the pigeons had also disappeared.
The New York State Department of Health advises adult care facilities to inform residents about confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases. But inhabitants of Bronxwood said they were kept in the dark. In the absence of official communication, it was difficult to sort out hearsay from fact. “I was told that it was 42 people,” said Renee Johnson, who lived on the floor above Varahn. “But honestly we don’t know. They are not telling us anything.” When for a couple of weeks Renee herself was bedridden — fatigued and wheezing — there were rumors that she, too, had passed away.
Because so many people were missing, and no one knew where they’d gone, life began to feel like a horror film. The dining room, once an outlet for gossip and intrigue, was shuttered and the theater room padlocked. Staff covered the lobby in tape, as if it were the scene of a crime. The library began filling up with the possessions of those who had vanished: their televisions and computers, their walkers and bags of clothes.
It seemed like a good omen when a few residents came back from the hospital grinning, having faced the ordeal and lived to tell about it. “I wouldn’t even say to them, ‘I thought you were dead,’” Varahn said. “I was just happy to see them.” But then she spotted these survivors in the lobby or going out shopping and worried that the sickness would continue to spread.
The virus was taking the worst toll in the Bronx, and Bronxwood sat within the borough’s hardest-hit ZIP code, although it would be weeks until anyone would know this. But by April, it was clear that elderly Black and brown people with preexisting health conditions, living in crowded housing in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, were among those most susceptible. That many of Bronxwood’s residents belonged to this demographic did not escape anyone there.
When Varahn arrived at Bronxwood in the summer of 2019, she was 65 and still worked at two salons. She hadn’t been planning to move to an assisted living facility, but she was desperate to find an affordable room. She had been sharing a ground-floor apartment with her 28-year-old son in Allerton, a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, before her landlady pushed her out to make space for her grandchildren. Friends told Varahn she should have taken the matter to court, and maybe she could have, but she believed that things happened for a reason.
In the brick vastness of the east Bronx, with its towering apartment blocks and modest duplexes, Bronxwood’s cream-and-beige exterior stood out. The building was just a 20-minute walk up the street from her old apartment, so she didn’t have to worry about missing her clients, her church sisters or the kids she mentored, who called her Mother V. Her benefits covered the $1,270 rent, which included three meals a day and housekeeping. The shared bedrooms — crammed with two twin beds, two stout night tables, two wardrobes and two wooden dressers — were small, but Varahn didn’t think she’d spend much time in hers.
On the first floor, which housed the recreation and meeting rooms, there was always something to do. Staff threw holiday parties and monthly birthday celebrations. Visitors came by to help with knitting and coloring and computer lessons. There was Uno, Pokeno and afternoon bingo. On Wednesdays, members of the cooking club prepared Cornish hens, fish and chips, liver with onions. In the afternoon, bands would perform — classical and jazz, calypso and merengue — and some of the singers were quite talented.
Not long after Varahn moved in, she met Glenda King at a Bible study group. Glenda, who is 68 and has lived at Bronxwood for over seven years, wears square transition lenses and tucks her gray hair into a prim, low bun. Dryly self-deprecating, she considers herself an introvert who has the misfortune to live in a building with 270 other people. She makes a point of being friendly, even though she likes to say that she has no true friends.
At first, Glenda found Varahn to be reserved, but she soon realized that what she had mistaken for detachment was simply Varahn’s way of taking in her new surroundings. Varahn knew how to draw people out and listen to their problems. She had worked as a beautician since high school, first at flagship boutiques in the city and later for the disco diva Carol Douglas and on the sets of Spike Lee films. Her clients felt comfortable confiding in her, and before long, so did the residents of Bronxwood. “I can go up and talk to her about anything,” Glenda told me. “Her forte is humility.”
All adult care facilities are legally required to maintain a forum where residents can independently discuss their living conditions, but some resident councils, like Bronxwood’s, are more active than others. Although Varahn was new to the building, people encouraged her to run for president. She would bring an unusual amount of political experience to the council: She had previously served as vice chair of the Allerton Barnes Block Association and as president of both the neighborhood merchant’s group and a charity society at her church. Under her bed, she stored the plaques from various luncheons that had celebrated her civic advocacy.
After Varahn’s victory in the September elections, Glenda, who had worked for many years as a typist, took on the duties of council secretary, and Hurshel Godfrey, another longtime resident, assumed the vice presidency. Every month, the council gathered in the main lobby, which fit about 60 people, some of them perched on their walkers. Varahn, who has a broad, serious face and a sleek bob, dressed for the occasion in crisp two-piece suits with lapels. She worked to cultivate a shared sense of purpose. “I never said I could do something, even if that was true,” she said. “I always emphasized that we could do it together.”
One of the first things Varahn noticed that fall, as the weather grew colder, was how few residents had proper winter clothes. Some explained that they were stuck indoors because they lacked coats. Old men shuffled around in flip-flops in the rain. In the annual grant application for extra state funding, Varahn secured a bigger clothing allowance — $200 per resident — and a double-oven stove for the communal kitchen. She brought in educational speakers for Veterans Day and Black History Month, and planned field trips to go out dancing and to the casino. “Varahn had a lot of connections,” Hurshel said. “I knew a few people, but she knew a lot.”
Some of the local politicians Varahn was acquainted with started asking her if she had ever considered running for higher office: The City Council elections were coming up in 2021. In February, she started riding the subway to midtown Manhattan to take a class for first-time candidates. Former campaign managers shared tips on electoral strategy and the best kind of eye contact to make with large crowds. Maybe, she thought, electoral politics was her calling.
At this point, the virus was said to be on the other side of the world. It hadn’t yet surfaced in a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, or in New Rochelle, just a short drive up the road.
Until the 1980s, elderly Americans with medical needs had limited options: They could age at home with family or aides, or they could “park and die,” as the saying went, at a nursing home. Assisted living facilities emerged as a third way, rejecting the clinical strictures of a medical institution in favor of a more informal, dormlike setting.
In the last four decades, demand for assisted living has soared. The paradigm promises residents the freedom to live autonomously — and operators freedom from regulation. Unlike nursing homes, assisted living facilities are not subject to federal oversight. The standards for care — along with the definition of “assisted living” — vary greatly from state to state (and from facility to facility).
During the pandemic, these freedoms have become liabilities. “If infection control was limited and regulation was already ineffective in nursing homes, it’s almost nonexistent in assisted living,” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who studies long-term care for older adults. “It’s all the problems we are talking about with nursing homes, but even more so. There’s less regulation, far less staffing and many of the residents are just as sick.” The population in assisted living often closely resembles that of nursing homes, yet there are no requirements that the former provide full-time medical staff. In New York, according to government data, half of those in assisted living are over 85, two-thirds need help bathing and a third have Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.
At Bronxwood, the state’s third-largest adult care facility, residents said that employees initially lacked protective gear as they cleaned dozens of rooms. As in other homes in the city at the start of the outbreak, shared bathrooms and group meals made it difficult to isolate. And because it is not a medical institution, residents continued to enter and leave the building as they’d always done. (Neither Bronxwood nor Daniel Stern, an administrator, responded to repeated requests for comment.)
Less than 1% of Americans reside in long-term care facilities — a category that includes nursing homes and assisted living residences — but these facilities account for around 40% of the country’s COVID-19 deaths. Researchers caution that this figure represents an undercount. Many states do not publish this data, or do so incompletely, and fewer than half of all states report cases in assisted living facilities, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. “As a result,” the analysis said, “it is difficult to know the extent to which residents and staff at assisted living facilities have been affected by COVID-19 or the extent to which interventions are urgently needed.”
The way that New York counts deaths has been controversial from the start. That’s because the state’s Health Department will not attribute a death to a residential health care facility unless the death occurs on the premises. The unusual policy has baffled residents and their family members, along with lawmakers and health care experts. “This is a really big hole in New York state data,” Grabowski said. “If someone lives for a long time in a nursing home, it makes no sense that their death is then attributed to the hospital rather than the nursing home.” Without a proper count of cases and deaths, advocates argue, officials cannot direct scrutiny or resources to afflicted homes.
For more than two hours at a hearing in August, legislators repeatedly pressed the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, for the number of deaths that could be traced back to residential health care facilities. His answers did not satisfy his interrogators. “It seems, sir, that in this case you are choosing to define it differently so you can look better,” said Gustavo Rivera, the state Senate Health Committee chairman, whose district includes part of the Bronx. “And that’s a problem.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has boasted about the relatively low death toll in the state’s nursing homes, despite the fact that no other state counts these deaths as New York does. As of mid-November, there have been more than 6,619 virus-related deaths within the state’s nursing homes and 179 in its adult care facilities, according to official data. Bronxwood, however, has never appeared in that tally.
“The public list is incomplete and misleading,” said Geoff Lieberman, the executive director of the Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled, an organization that advocates on behalf of adult home residents in New York City. “Either everyone at Bronxwood died at the hospital, or the information isn’t being accurately reported.” Before the August hearing, Lieberman and his colleagues at CIAD interviewed residents at 28 adult homes in New York City, including Bronxwood, and tallied around 250 deaths from their accounts — a stark contrast to the 53 deaths that facilities had self-reported to the state. Bronxwood employees likewise sounded the alarm: In April, six staff members told local news that by their count more than a dozen residents had died.
Residents played detective, too. In May, when the U.S. death toll hit 100,000, Renee Johnson tried to match the names she saw in the newspaper to those of her missing neighbors. “We lost a lot of friends,” she said. “And you’re scared — you’re really scared — because you don’t know if you’re next.”
Jonah Bruno, a spokesman for the Department of Health, defended New York’s approach to counting COVID-19 deaths in residential health care settings. “The Department goes to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and consistency in our data reporting,” he wrote in an email. Bruno did not disclose how many residents died in the hospital after falling ill at Bronxwood, but he noted that the facility passed an infection control survey in May. “Since the start of this pandemic,” he added, “we have made protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including those in adult care facilities, our top priority.”
Slowly and then all at once, everything that had made Bronxwood bearable was taken away. Residents were discouraged from seeing one another, going outside or congregating in common areas. Visitors were banned. Whenever people lingered downstairs or smoked out on the patio, staff ushered them back to their rooms.
Varahn hung posters in the lobby to try to boost morale. The first gave the administration and staff five hand-drawn stars and thanked them “for caring during COVID-19.” “WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER,” read the second, on which she had colored an American flag. Some residents thought their president was doing the best she could, given the circumstances. Others were offended. They didn’t want to thank anyone: They were miserable.
Deborah Berger, who lives on the fourth floor, likened the new regime to living in a giant day care center. Glenda said she felt like a puppy in a doghouse. Renee compared it to jail.
The analogies were ready at hand, but what was harder to express was how little trust they had in the institution tasked with protecting them. “Nobody is talking to us,” Renee said. “The staff just say: ‘Go to your room. Go to your room.’ There’s no feelings. There’s no nothing.”
Glenda washed her hands until she felt as if they were going to fall off. She wiped everything down with bleach — door handles, dresser, windowsill. She had a weak left lung, and she was terrified. “If I get one hit of that coronavirus,” she liked to say, “I’m not going to make it.” When her legs got stiff from sitting, she paced up and down her cappuccino-colored hallway, about the length of a city block. Other times, wearing a surgical mask, she wheeled her walker downstairs, though the state of affairs there could be disappointing. A lot of residents didn’t wear masks. They huddled around the TV and crowded in the elevator. People were getting complacent. “Not me,” Glenda said.
The council had suspended its meetings, but toward the end of April, several residents approached Varahn to report that Bronxwood was not giving them their stimulus checks. In fact, complaints about missing or partial stimulus checks were so widespread throughout the city’s facilities that the state issued a guidance: Residents’ money belonged to residents. Varahn convened an impromptu meeting with the council’s leadership in the stairwell — the only somewhat quiet place in the building — to strategize about what to do.
Hurshel, the vice president, was planning to ask about his check. “Don’t ask,” Varahn coached him. “Say, ‘I came here to get my money and I’ll cash it myself.’” Glenda noted that people with dementia might not remember the existence of the checks in the first place, so she knocked on doors to remind them.
Part of Varahn’s role as president was to relay these and other concerns to Mr. Stern. They had an easy, playful rapport. Sometimes, he asked what an intelligent woman like her was doing living in a place like this. The question flattered her, but it also unsettled her, as if she wasn’t wanted or didn’t belong.
People talked about leaving Bronxwood almost as soon as they arrived, but the truth was that they were there because they had nowhere else to go. The elderly are typically steered to places like Bronxwood after a stay in the hospital. They have taken a fall or needed a surgery, and while they’re recovering, lose their apartment. Others, like Glenda, are recommended by a caseworker at a shelter. It’s not uncommon for such homes to hire recruiters to help fill their beds.
While many assisted living facilities cater to a wealthy clientele, who pay out of pocket, Bronxwood primarily serves low-income seniors. (It is, technically speaking, an adult home with an assisted living program.) Most residents sign over their supplemental security income to pay for the room and board — and out of that sum the facility gives them a $207 “personal needs allowance” each month. The money runs out quickly, since it often goes toward phone bills, toiletries, transportation and more nutritious food.
Out of Bronxwood’s 270 or so residents, more than half are enrolled in its assisted living program, whose costs are covered by Medicaid. In theory, the program offers an extra level of care to those who need it. In practice, it functions as a “huge financial boon” to the adult home industry, said Tanya Kessler, a senior staff attorney with Mobilization for Justice, a legal services organization. Bronxwood can charge Medicaid between $78 and $154 per enrolled resident each day, depending on his or her needs. But Kessler said there’s little oversight into whether this additional funding results in additional care. Bruno, the spokesman, said that the Health Department conducts regular inspections of assisted living programs “to ensure all applicable laws, regulations and guidelines are being followed.”
Healthier residents at Bronxwood told me that they seemed to be roomed with those who were more infirm, effectively placing them in the role of an extra aide. “One of the big complaints we hear is, ‘I’m not well myself, but they put this person in here that they expect me to look after,’” said Sherletta McCaskill, who, as the training director of CIAD, helps adult home residents organize councils and independent living classes. “It speaks to the lack of services that these homes are providing.” The most recent audit by New York’s Office of the Medicaid Inspector General found that Bronxwood had overbilled Medicaid by $4.4 million in 2006 and 2007. (Bronxwood requested an administrative hearing to challenge the findings, according to an OMIG spokesperson; the date is pending.)
In the pandemic, everyone’s escape plans, loudly discussed yet endlessly deferred, took on a new urgency. Residents told Varahn that they were joining the city’s long wait list for subsidized senior housing, or that a son or daughter was coming to rescue them. Faye Washington, who was 68 and lived down the hall from Glenda, tried to compile a list of senior housing options in the Bronx. “You know why I want to get out?” Faye said. “Because when all those people passed away, it killed me.”
Faye told Glenda, “I’m taking you with me.” But Glenda was not in any hurry. It was safer, she felt, to be where an aide could hear if she called for help. She had heart problems, anxiety, memory loss and chronic fatigue. Her family had asked her to stay with them, but she did not want to babysit relatives. As she saw it, if God had wished her to have more children, he would have let her keep getting her period.
Varahn’s family urged her to leave as soon as possible, even if it meant losing a month of rent. But where would she go? Varahn wondered. And then what would she do? The lady who lived across the hall had gone to see her daughter in Georgia, and now she was stuck there while all her things were here.
As the lockdown dragged on, Varahn felt herself sliding into a depression. Before March, she was always out with a client or at some community meeting. Now she was eating three meals a day on a rectangular folding table at the edge of her bed. She was gaining weight from staying inside. Her feet were swollen. Her back hurt.
She started taking walks, sometimes just a few blocks, to relieve the pain. The soccer field across the street, where kids played on Saturdays, was empty. Many of the stores on White Plains Road, Boston Road and Allerton Avenue, including the salons, were closed until further notice, and some days it felt like the entire world was at a standstill.
It wasn’t just the forced isolation that discouraged her. Everything was happening on some sort of screen, and the tedious video engagements and text messages often left her frustrated. In her class for first-time campaigners, which had migrated to Zoom, the connection was always faltering, making it difficult to understand what anyone was trying to say.https://962141ce54c31f8481855073e433ab60.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
At other times, she wasn’t isolated enough. Her roommate rose at dawn and sold loose cigarettes throughout the day. People were always stopping by. Whenever Varahn was on a call or at a virtual meeting, the roommate muttered under her breath or cursed sarcastically. Once, the noise was so disruptive to the class that the instructor told Varahn to mute herself, which she found humiliating. What would have been merely an inconvenient pairing in normal times had under quarantine become an oppressively intimate arrangement. There was also the problem of Varahn’s older sister, Childris, whose heart was starting to fail. The grief put a constant pressure on her days. All this made it hard to concentrate, and she soon fell behind on her studies. So many things about her path to the City Council were uncertain now anyway. Was a person of her age expected to knock on doors? Would she have to campaign through a computer screen?
Varahn began searching for a way to reclaim her freedom. She asked Mr. Stern for a room of her own. As far as she could tell, there was plenty of space in the building. A private accommodation could double as a little office for the council, she reasoned — somewhere that residents could feel comfortable speaking to her. But management never acted on her request. Victoria Kelley, a former jazz singer who had lived at Bronxwood for three years, suspected that Varahn’s battle for the clothing allowance had turned administrators against her. Such retaliation is not unheard of, according to advocates who work with residents at adult care facilities. “If you don’t have someone on the council to fight for you, nothing gets done, but Varahn did fight,” Victoria told me. “Some of the naysayers got jealous.”
With the arrival of spring, a different approach revealed itself to Varahn. First she rented a car, so she could get around more easily. Bright flowers fringed the patio, and slender trees cast ragged patches of shade on the sidewalk. Her errands had been piling up, too. She needed to buy cases of bottled water, pick up her son’s stimulus check from her ex-landlord, haul her sheets to the laundromat after her roommate got bedbugs.
Then she started driving for the pleasure of it, humming along to power ballads on Christian radio and chatting on the phone with friends. She found herself going through the boxes in her U-Haul storage unit, making a mental inventory of all the things she didn’t have space for at Bronxwood, like her slow cooker, her turkey roaster, her Ashley Stewart outfits, her dance costumes. One weekend, a few FOR SALE signs caught her attention. That was when she realized what was happening: She wanted out.
It was a complicated undertaking. Most apartments were too expensive, which is why she hadn’t been able to get one in time last year. And even if she was lucky enough to find something affordable, she would have to keep working — perhaps, if salons weren’t allowed to reopen, somewhere that wasn’t a salon. Then again, she didn’t want any of the residents to feel that she was leaving them behind.
One morning toward the end of July, Glenda’s cellphone rang. The sound surprised her, because she had stopped paying the bill. When Glenda called the number back from the room’s landline, it turned out to be Varahn, who announced that she was moving out the next day and promised to stop by in September “to pass the torch.” Glenda told Varahn she was happy for her, and she was. But she wished her friend had let her know sooner. Hurshel, the vice president, was unable to step in, because he, too, had just left. After five years on the city waitlist for affordable housing, he’d finally landed a new spot. It was less than a block away from Bronxwood. “You have to get out of there,” he warned his old friends.
That same week, Bronxwood laid off employees without warning, apparently because of the declining number of residents. There was no longer an aide for the fourth floor, according to three people who lived there, and there was no one to speak up about it. “I feel stripped naked, like we’re getting ready for the slaughterhouse,” Glenda said the next day. We were sitting down the street, and as staff trailed out of the building at the end of the afternoon shift — a long procession of teal and navy scrubs — some of them were wiping away tears. “Right now, the administration can say anything goes.”
Glenda knew she did not want to serve as president, even in an interim capacity, and asked Renee, a former president, what to do. Renee was telling everyone who had asked her this question the same thing: She didn’t have a clue. “We’re so lost right now,” Renee said to me in August. Her bingo crew had dwindled from more than 15 players to fewer than 10. She was pessimistic about the prospects for a socially distanced election: “We don’t even know who is dead or alive.”
Varahn had implied to Glenda that she was staying in the Bronx. In reality, she was moving to suburban Maryland. She had signed the lease for a one-bedroom apartment in a senior living community just a short drive away from her daughter’s house. It was everything that Bronxwood was not: serene and quiet, lush with greenery.
She had told Glenda only half of the story because she couldn’t quite believe her good fortune. “I feel so sorry because some of them are waiting there thinking that they will someday get an apartment,” Varahn said. “If it wasn’t for my associations” — the support from her family, her earnings from the salon — “I would be stuck there, too.”
Her family was relieved about her departure, but Varahn remained uneasy. With a room of her own, she thought, or even a different roommate, she probably would have stayed. As it was, the likely return of the virus in the winter frightened her.
When she packed up her belongings, she felt as if she were packing up the future she had once imagined for herself. “By now, I would have been running for City Council, if this virus didn’t happen,” she said. “So I’m saying to myself, well, you know, that wasn’t in God’s plan.” Though she kept her move a secret, one resident spotted her carrying boxes in the hallway and asked her, “Are you just going to leave us like that?” It was the same question she had been asking herself for months.
In a handwritten letter Varahn gave to Bronxwood’s administrators before she left, she expressed her desire to remain president from afar until it was safe to hold an election. She had planned to retire there, the letter said, yet it was impossible to do so under the current circumstances. She expected Mr. Stern, or at least his secretary, to call to offer his regrets, but she never got a response. It made her feel as though nothing she had done at Bronxwood mattered — as though she had never lived there at all.
Millions of Americans are in danger of losing their homes when federal and local limits on evictions expire at the end of the year, a growing body of research shows.
A report issued this month from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the University of Arizona estimates that 6.7 million households could be evicted in the coming months. That amounts to 19 million people potentially losing their homes, rivaling the dislocation that foreclosures caused after the subprime housing bust.
Apart from being a humanitarian disaster, the crisis threatens to exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic, according to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Urban Health.
“Our concern is we’re going to see a huge increase in evictions after the CDC moratorium is lifted,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the NLIHC and a co-author of the report.
The number of Americans struggling to pay rent has steadily risen since this summer, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. In the latest survey, from early November, 11.6 million people indicated they wouldn’t be able to pay the rent or mortgage next month.
Meanwhile, some renters who are still paying rent are relying on “unsustainable” income to make ends meet. Among those who report trouble making rent, “More than half are borrowing from family and friends to meet their spending needs, one-third are using credit cards, and one-third are spending down savings,” the NLIHC report found.
Approaching a “payment cliff”
In early September, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barred evictions through year-end, describing the move as a public health measure to reduce spread of the coronavirus. The CDC order protects renters earning less than $99,000 if they have lost income during the pandemic and are likely to become homeless if they’re evicted.
Many states and cities also imposed renter protections during the spring and summer, and others established rental assistance programs to help tenants make ends meet. However, both types of programs are quickly expiring.
Once the CDC moratorium expires,Aurand said, “We expect to see a jump in [eviction] filings, and we know that even now, filings are already occurring. Come January, sadly, for a number of tenants, the next step is the landlord will evict them.”
The situation could reach crisis levels in the new year. With Congress yet to pass another coronavirus relief package, about 12 million Americans are set to lose their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas, a sharp fall in income that would make it harder for many people to pay rent. An abrupt cutoff would slash income by about $19 billion per month, Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics, said in a research note.
Although the Trump Administration has restricted evictions for most households through the end of the year, it did not relieve renters of the need to pay rent. That means many renters may face a “payment cliff” at year’s end, when they must pay several months’ worth of back rent or face eviction.
“If renters are required to quickly repay past due rent or face eviction, the hardship will fall predominantly on lower-income families who have already been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis,” Vanden Houten wrote.
Said Aurand, “If you were a low-income renter before the pandemic and you were hit financially, even if your income starts to recover, you’re going to have a very hard time paying back that rental debt.”
“What we really need is rental assistance,” he noted. “The underlying problem is renters struggling to pay their rent because we’re in an economic crisis, and the moratorium doesn’t address that.”
Academics have also pushed for direct aid to renters and homeowners, citing the extreme economic fallout from the coronavirus and related shutdowns. In Los Angeles, where 1 in 5 renters were late on rent at some point this summer, residents are facing “an income crisis layered atop of a housing crisis,” researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles have said.
“Delivering assistance to renters now can not just stave off looming evictions, but also prevent quieter and longer-term problems that are no less serious, such as renters struggling to pay back credit card or other debt, struggling to manage a repayment plan, or emerging from the pandemic with little savings left,” they wrote in August report. “Renter assistance can also help the smaller landlords who are disproportionately seeing tenants unable to pay.”
A groundswell of evictions would cause enormous financial hardship. Losing a home is one of the most traumatic events a family can experience, with research showing that people who have experienced eviction are more likely to lose their jobs, fall ill or suffer from mental-health consequences. Children whose families are evicted are more likely to drop out of school, while evictions also contribute to the spread of COVID-19, according to a forthcoming study from UCLA viewed by “60 Minutes.“
“We’ve got a country that’s about to witness evictions like they’ve never witnessed before,” Laura Tucker, a social worker for Florida’s Hillsborough County School District, told “60 Minutes.”
“An eviction can impact a family’s ability to re-house for more than 10 years,” she said.
For that reason, housing and public health experts have said that rental aid now
“Now is the time for action to provide emergency rental assistance. A failure to do so will result in millions of renters spiraling deeper into debt and housing poverty, while public costs and public health risks of eviction-related homelessness increase,” the NLIHC report says. “These outcomes are preventable.”
26 million now say they don’t have enough to eat, as the pandemic worsens and holidays near.
It was 5 a.m., not a hint of sun in the Houston sky, as Randy Young and his mom pulled into the line for a free Thanksgiving meal. They were three hours early. Hundreds of cars and trucks already idled in front of them outside NRG Stadium. This was where Young worked before the pandemic. He was a stadium cook. Now, after losing his job and struggling to get by, he and his 80-year-old mother hoped to get enough food for a holiday meal.
“It’s a lot of people out here,” said Young, 58. “I was just telling my mom, ‘You look at people pulling up in Mercedes and stuff, come on.’ If a person driving a Mercedes is in need of food, you know it’s bad.”
More Americans are going hungry now than at any point during the deadly coronavirus pandemic, according to a Post analysis of new federal data — a problem created by an economic downturn that has tightened its grip on millions of Americans and compounded by government relief programs that expired or will terminate at the end of the year. Experts say it is likely that there’s more hunger in the United States today than at any point since 1998, when the Census Bureau began collecting comparable data about households’ ability to get enough food.
One in 8 Americans reported they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat in the past week, hitting nearly 26 million American adults, an increase several times greater than the most comparable pre-pandemic figure, according to Census Bureau survey data collected in late October and early November. That number climbed to more than 1 in 6 adults in households with children.
“It’s been driven by the virus and the unpredictable government response,” said Jeremy K. Everett, executive director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty in Waco, Tex.
Nowhere has there been a hunger surge worse than in Houston, with a metro-area population of 7 million people. Houston was pulverized in summer when the coronavirus overwhelmed hospitals, and the local economy was been particularly hard hit by weak oil prices, making matters worse.
More than 1 in 5 adults in Houston reported going hungry recently, including 3 in 10 adults in households with children. The growth in hunger rates has hit Hispanic and Black households harder than White ones, a devastating consequence of a weak economy that has left so many people trying to secure food even during dangerous conditions.
On Saturday, these statistics manifested themselves in the thousands of cars waiting in multiple lines outside NRG Stadium. The people in these cars represented much of the country. Old. Young. Black. White. Asian. Hispanic. Families. Neighbors. People all alone.
Inside a maroon Hyundai Santa Fe was Neicie Chatman, 68, who had been waiting since 6:20 a.m., listening to recordings of a minister’s sermon piped into large earphones.
“I’ve been feeding my spirit,” she said.
Her hours at her job as an administrator have been unsteady since the pandemic began. Her sister was laid off. They both live with their mother, who has been sick for the past year. She planned to take the food home to feed her family and share with her older neighbors.
“It’s been hard to survive. Money is low. No jobs. Hard to find work.”
— Randy Young
“I lost my business and I lost my dream.”
— Adriana Contreras
Now, a new wave of coronavirus infections threatens more economic pain.
Yet the hunger crisis seems to have escaped widespread notice in a nation where millions of households have weathered the pandemic relatively untouched. The stock market fell sharply in March before roaring back and has recovered all of its losses. This gave the White House and some lawmakers optimism about the economy’s condition. Congress left for its Thanksgiving break without making any progress on a new pandemic aid deal even as food banks across the country report a crush of demand heading into the holidays.
“The hardship is incredibly widespread. Large parts of America are saying, ‘I couldn’t afford food for my family,’ ” said Stacy Dean, who focuses on food-assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It’s disappointing this hasn’t broken through.”
No place has been spared. In one of the nation’s richest counties, not far from Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, Loudoun Hunger Relief provided food to a record 887 households in a single week recently. That’s three times the Leesburg, Va.-based group’s pre-pandemic normal.
“We are continuing to see people who have never used our services before,” said Jennifer Montgomery, the group’s executive director.
Hunger rates spiked nationwide after shutdowns in late March closed large chunks of the U.S. economy. The situation improved somewhat as businesses reopened and the benefits from a $2.2 trillion federal pandemic aid package flowed into people’s pockets, with beefed-up unemployment benefits, support for food programs and incentives for companies to keep workers on the payroll.
But those effects were short-lived. The bulk of the federal aid had faded by September. And more than 12 million workers stand to lose unemployment benefits before year’s end if Congress doesn’t extend key programs.
“Everything is a disaster,” said Northwestern University economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a leading expert on the economics of food insecurity. “I’m usually a pleasant person, but this is just crazy.”
Economic conditions are the main driver behind rising rates of hunger, but other factors play a role, Schanzenbach said. In the Great Recession that began in 2008, people received almost two years of unemployment aid — which helped reduce hunger rates. Some long-term unemployed workers qualified for even more help.
But the less-generous benefits from the pandemic unemployment assistance programs passed by Congress in March have already disappeared or soon will for millions of Americans.
Even programs that Congress agreed to extend have stumbled. A program giving families additional cash assistance to replace school meals missed by students learning at home was renewed for a year on Oct. 1. But the payments were delayed because many states still needed to get the U.S. Agriculture Department’s approval for their plans. The benefit works out to only about $6 per student for each missed school day. But experts say the program has been a lifeline for struggling families.
One program that has continued to provide expanded emergency benefits is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The Agriculture Department issued an emergency order allowing states to provide more families the maximum benefit and to suspend the time limit on benefits for younger unemployed adults without children.
The sharpest rise in hunger was reported by groups who have long experienced the highest levels of it, particularly Black Americans. Twenty-two percent of Black U.S. households reported going hungry in the past week, nearly twice the rate faced by all American adults and more than two-and-a-half times the rate for White Americans.
The Houston area was posting some of its lowest hunger rates before the pandemic, thanks to a booming economy and a strong energy sector, Everett said. Then, the pandemic hit. Hunger surged, concentrated among the city’s sizable low-income population, in a state that still allows for the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Houston’s hunger rates — like those nationwide — fell significantly after the $1,200 stimulus checks were mailed out in April and other pandemic aid plans took effect, Everett said.
But most of the effects of that aid are gone.
“Without sustained aid at the federal level, we’ll be hard pressed to keep up,” said Celia Call, chief executive of Feeding Texas, which advocates for 21 food banks in the state. “We’re just bracing for the worst.”
Schools are one of the most important sources of food for low-income families in Houston. The Houston Independent School District has 210,000 students — many of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. But the pandemic closed schools in the spring. They reopened in the fall with less than half of the students choosing a hybrid model of in-school and at-home instruction. That has made feeding these children a difficult task.
“We’ve made an all-out effort to capture these kids and feed them,” said Betti Wiggins, the school district’s nutrition services officer.
The district provided curbside meal pickups outside schools. Anyone could come, not just schoolchildren. School staffers set up neighborhood distribution sites in the areas with the highest need. They started a program to serve meals to children living in apartment buildings. Sometimes the meal program required police escorts.
“I’m doing everything but serving in the gas station when they’re pumping the gas,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins said the normal school meals program she ran before the pandemic has been transformed into providing food for entire families far beyond a school’s walls. She has noticed unfamiliar faces in her meal lines. The “new poor,” she calls them, parents who might have worked in the airline or energy industries crushed by the pandemic.
“I’m seeing folks who don’t know how to handle the poverty thing,” she said, adding that it became her mission to make sure they had food.
The Houston Food Bank is the nation’s largest, serving 18 counties in Southeast Texas with help from 1,500 partner agencies. Last month, the food bank distributed 20.6 million pounds of food — down from the 27.8 million pounds handed out in May, but still 45 percent more than what it distributed in October 2019, with no end in sight.
The biggest worry for food banks right now is finding enough food, said Brian Greene, president of the Houston Food Bank. Food banks buy bulk food with donations. They take in donated food items, too. Food banks also benefited from an Agriculture Department program that purchased excess food from U.S. farmers hurt by the ongoing trade war with China, typically apples, milk and pork products. But funding for that program ended in September. Other federal pandemic programs are still buying hundreds of millions of dollars in food and donating it to food banks. But Greene said he worries about facing “a commodity cliff” even as demand grows.
Teresa Croft, who volunteers at a food distribution site at a church in the Houston suburb of Manvel, said the need is still overwhelming. She handles the paperwork for people visiting the food bank for the first time. They’re often embarrassed, she said. They never expected to be there. Sometimes, Croft tries to make them feel better by telling her own story — how she started at the food bank as a client, but got back on her feet financially more than a decade ago and is now a food bank volunteer.
“They feel so bad they’re having to ask for help. I tell them they shouldn’t feel bad. We’re all in this together,” Croft said. “If you need it, you need it.”
The pandemic changed how the Houston Food Bank runs. Everything is drive-through and walk-up. Items are preselected and bagged. The food bank has held several food distribution events in the parking lots outside NRG Stadium — a $325 million, retractable-roof temple to sports and home to the National Football League’s Houston Texans.
Last weekend, instead of holding the 71st annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in Houston, the city and H-E-B supermarkets decided to sponsor the food bank’s distribution event at NRG Stadium. The plan was to feed 5,000 families.
The first cars arrived at the stadium around 1 a.m. Saturday, long before the gates opened for the 8 a.m. event. By the time Young and his mother drove up, the line of vehicles stretched into the distance. Organizers opened the gates early. The cars and trucks began to slowly snake through the stadium’s parking lot toward a series of white tents, where the food was loaded into trunks by volunteers. The boxes contained enough food for multiple meals during the holiday week, with canned vegetables such as corn and sweet potatoes, a package of rolls, cranberry sauce and a box of masks. People picking up food were also given a bag of cereal and some resealable bags, a ham, a gallon of milk, and finally a turkey and pumpkin pie.
The food for 5,000 families ran out. The Houston Food Bank — knowing that would not be enough — was able to assemble more.
It provided food to 7,160 vehicles and 261 people who walked up to the event.
Troy Coakley, 56, came to the event looking for food to feed his family for the week. He still had his job breaking apart molds at a plant that makes parts for oil field and water companies. But his hours were cut when the economy took a hit in March. Coakley went from working overtime to three days a week.
He was struggling. Behind on rent. Unsure what was to come.
But for the moment, his trunk filled with food, he had one less thing to worry about.
“Other than [the pandemic], we were doing just fine,” Coakley said. “But now it’s getting worse and worse.”