As winter sets in and a pandemic rages on across the country, millions of financially strapped Americans are facing eviction. Experts are calling what is coming a tsunami.

It describes the unprecedented number of individuals and families who will face eviction or foreclosure when the moratorium enacted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in September expires Jan. 31.

In New Jersey, estimates for evictions, which would begin in February when the federal moratorium ends, run from 45,600 to 50,000, said Brenda Rascher, diocesan executive director of Catholic social services, who holds a law degree and has worked for more than 25 years with low-income families focusing on eviction defense, homelessness prevention and consumer rights.

Standing between those who may soon be facing homelessness and this wave of coming evictions are charitable and social service organizations like Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, both of which, in spite of facing their own unique pandemic challenges, continue to do whatever is possible to help the rapidly growing number of those in need.

Their determination and mission is forged in the long tradition of Catholic social teaching and the virtue of solidarity.

Loss of Housing

In conversations with providers in Catholic Charities networks across the country, Marlene Laó-Collins, Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton executive director, acknowledged the very real concern. “We are bracing ourselves. This is going to be a major problem,” Laó-Collins said.

In addition to an extensive array of services for individuals, families and children, CCDOT provides a number of housing and homelessness prevention programs in the counties of Burlington, Mercer, Ocean and Monmouth, including rapid rehousing, transitional housing and temporary sheltering.

The programs may be subsidized by varying federal, state or local funds, Laó-Collins explained, noting, “Even with what we are already doing, we are also faced with problems.”

She cited the example of “gaps in funding” and a slowdown on the federal level in getting out applications for renewal of housing contracts, in some cases waiting months for HUD (Housing and Urban Development) applications while existing contracts lapse.  

This lack of coordinated funding by the public sector is disruptive for local communities, creating unstable conditions. “Even those we have already housed are now at risk of losing their homes,” stressed Laó-Collins, acknowledging that the cascade of problems resulting from ongoing delays and interruptions in housing and employment assistance are “putting a lot of strain on staff, who work in the community daily” while ensuring all varied protocols that need to be followed are met.

“It must be all hands on deck, including the federal and state government, with trying to keep people from losing their current housing, especially this time of year,” stressed  Laó-Collins.

Moving Ahead

The task of assisting those who find themselves in these frightening situations because of COVID-19-related loss of income or illness is a complicated one that requires an understanding of state and federal legislation, legal issues, COVID-19 guidelines and the ability to acknowledge that not everyone can be helped.

To assist in the effort, Rascher recently offered multiple online sessions titled “A Tsunami Called ‘Evictions,’” in which she outlined what St. Vincent de Paul conferences Diocese-wide could expect when the moratorium expires and offered guidelines on how to move forward in helping those who may be facing homelessness.

Under the oversight of the SVDP Trenton Diocesan Council, the 47 SVDP conferences, composed solely of volunteers within the five districts of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth, Northern Monmouth and Ocean, are among those social service organizations that offer limited rental assistance.

In addition, SVDP conferences work to connect clients to additional social services that may lessen their financial burdens, as well as enter in to negotiations with landlords on behalf of tenants, connecting to legal services when necessary.

Rascher explained that the federal moratorium covers evictions and foreclosures, meaning both lockouts and sheriffs taking possession are stayed until the moratorium is lifted. Tax sale certificates, however, are not covered by the moratorium. 

In light of the extraordinary financial need of so many, especially if evictions reach the expected number, Rascher advised volunteers to establish and stick to guidelines, including prioritizing requests and identifying who can actually be helped going forward in an effort to make the best use of limited funds, which come almost exclusively from donations.

It is also essential to recognize that, with rents not being paid, “the next person in line to suffer is the landlord. Landlords have mortgage payments, and taxes and insurance all contingent on rental incomes,” said Joan Olden, president of the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Living Conditions

While many consider the federal moratorium a financial stop-gap, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield signed the declaration because it was determined that evictions could be detrimental to public health control measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to the agency's website.

In fact, new research led by UCLA’s Dr. Kathryn Leifheit indicates that the earlier lifting of eviction moratoriums in 27 states, which likely increased household crowding and decreased the ability for social distance guidelines, resulted in an estimated 433,700 additional cases of coronavirus as well as 10,700 more deaths nationwide.

In addition, many of those still facing eviction are also those who have no, or limited, health insurance.

In spite of limited rental and housing assistance, finding safe, appropriate housing for those in need is becoming more difficult, even when the option is a motel, Olden said.

Many motels have closed, others will not accept new guests, and placing people into congregate living, even if it means moving them in with family or friends, is putting people at risk for contracting COVID-19.

Laó-Collins recalled a time when the only housing options for clients meant placing families in motels, sometimes for as long as a year, everyone in one room, no kitchen, no place for kids to play. “The loss of family income, and the lack of safe and affordable housing are forcing us back to that time,” she said.

Rooted in the Gospel

Reflecting on the work that’s needed – both short and long term – for those in danger of being evicted, Laó-Collins explained that Catholic Charities programs have expectations of their clients. “They meet us halfway, and we journey together toward a path where they gain confidence in being self-sufficient.”

“Our perspective as Catholics means there is dignity in every person, and value in a person working,” she said. “When they work, they are making use of the gifts God has given them. It is part of our journey, also, to help them discover what these gifts are. Our programs are not intended to leave people in the same place they were when they came to us.

“We advocate for our clients to help them realize that potential and move forward.  Even the most marginalized want the same thing – to be able to provide for themselves. They don’t want constant handouts, they want to work and provide for their families.

“It is incumbent upon us to help them move in that direction,” she said.