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Without Aid, Some Women In St. Louis Face Eviction And Homelessness

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David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
Latisha Birthwright lost her job in spring 2020 and is behind about 16 months in rent. She applied for assistance through state and local rental programs but is worried that she won't receive the aid in time.

About a year and a half ago, Latisha Birthwright lost her job as a dispatcher for OATS Transit. The north St. Louis County transportation company laid off some of its employees because it was losing money during the coronavirus pandemic.

After she lost her job, the 39-year-old, Black mother of two began to incessantly worry about how she would pay her $1,000 monthly rent, utilities, car note, insurance and other bills.

Birthwright received about 14 months of unemployment a few weeks after she lost her job. She tried to pay what she could, but her landlord did not accept partial rent payments.

Birthwright is one of nearly 6,000 people in St. Louis and St. Louis County whom landlords are trying to evict from their homes. Many are at risk of losing them now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority in issuing a national moratorium on renter evictions. The ban would have protected people until Oct. 3.

St. Louis and St. Louis County judges also lifted local bans. Now housing advocates expect a wave of evictions. Many people who face evictions are women in low-paying industries. Some say if rental aid is not distributed soon they could become homeless.

As the months went on, Birthwright started to have panic attacks. She feared that she would lose her home, so she began to search for a new one and find assistance with rent. Earlier this year she applied for rental aid through the county to receive up to a year's worth of rent. Her application is still being processed.

“We count on the people who say we’re going to make sure you get help,” Birthwright said. “It sounds good. But when you apply in April ... and nothing happens, you kind of start looking at things a little crazy.”

On April 6, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office served her an eviction notice, which ordered Birthwright to vacate the property by April 14.

"It worried me to death, actually, I had started having those attacks again back to back to back,” Birthwright said. “I had no clue what I was going to do, where I was going to go.”

That same month her legal aid attorney went to court to buy her more time, citing an eviction moratorium by the CDC. The filed declaration kept her in her home.

Birthwright applied for Missouri’s rental aid program last month and received $12,000 in back rent. But it’s not enough to bring her current.

Housing advocates in the region say officials could help more people if they would more quickly distribute the rental aid so people would not end up in shelters or on the streets.

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Theo R. Welling
In August, St. Louis officials opened rental aid clinics around the city to help speed up rental assistance applications for people who are facing immediate evictions.

St. Louis officials have distributed about $2.2 million of $8 million in federal relief funds. St. Louis County has distributed about $8.4 million of $26.6 million in federal emergency rental assistance funds. The money will be returned if officials don’t distribute it by Sept. 30.

St. Louis County and St. Louis officials said the process is slow because they needed to hire more employees and some applicants needed to provide the necessary documentation. Now that they have more employees, officials are ramping up rental relief efforts, though some renters are still experiencing long wait times for payments to reach their landlords.

Many Black women and low-income women are among those who are still waiting for rental relief from local or state officials. Most evictions are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods in the region, said Elad Gross, an outreach coordinator for St. Louis Mediation Project, a housing agency.

“We're seeing a lot of women, oftentimes single women with children, and I've seen it oftentimes folks who are working in the health care space, like home health care,” Gross said.

Many Black women who are at risk of losing their homes were laid off from low-paying jobs in the service and health care industries during the pandemic, Gross said.

“We've got a lot of disadvantaged groups, unfortunately, already in our region. And this is just going to further create that gap,” Gross said. “And it's unfortunately going to throw more people into those categories of folks who need help and aren't getting it.”

Sheila Martinez lost her job as a home health care attendant in spring 2020. She feared that she would become homeless because she did not know where her next paycheck would come from.

The 58-year-old lives in an apartment in south St. Louis. For months she could only pay part of the $600 rent. As the months went on, she could not make any payments. Instead of looking for more work, Martinez applied for Social Security and disability benefits, which were disbursed two months ago.

It’s been six years since Martinez moved into her home. She said not being about to pay her rent caused her to become depressed.

“My anxiety kicked in, and I haven't been sleeping. I literally don't eat for days at a time because it will make me sick,” Martinez said.

After her benefits kicked in, she paid some rent to her landlord but is still behind $3,220.

In December, Martinez applied for rental aid through St. Louis, but she is still waiting to hear back from officials about her application. Martinez also applied through another housing organization, but she was denied assistance because she did not have a checking or savings account.

State officials recently informed her that they would pay her rent soon.

“I’m blessed, very blessed and just relieved that I don't have this on me now,” Martinez said. “I have been physically ill over this, waiting and praying that I would get this because I'm almost 60 years old, and they're telling me if I don't pay $3,000, they're going to start the eviction process.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

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