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How The Federal Coronavirus Relief Bill Will Impact Arizona's Housing Crisis

LAUREN GILGER: The Arizona Department of Health Services is reporting more than 10,000 new coronavirus infections and 42 additional deaths in the state [Dec. 28]. A department spokesman says the especially high tally of new cases is due in part to reporting lags over the long holiday weekend. That means today's count contains multiple days worth of data. The state has now confirmed more than half a million cases of the virus this year, and for the first time, Arizona now has over 1,000 COVID cases occupying ICU beds. Intensive care bed usage sits at 91% capacity. Homeless services in the region are being stretched to their limit as they cope with a perfect storm of increasing COVID rates, a struggling economy and an impending housing crisis as eviction moratoriums are extended incrementally while unpaid back rent is accruing for millions of Americans. But after wavering over the holiday weekend on signing a $900 billion COVID relief bill, the president finally put pen to paper [Dec. 27] — extending unemployment benefits, issuing a $600 check to individuals and releasing rental assistance funds.

Joining us to discuss the impact of this kind of aid and the magnitude of the region's housing crisis is Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus here in Phoenix. Welcome back to The Show, Amy.

AMY SCHWABENLENDER: Thank you. Good morning.

GILGER: Good morning. I want to start just with the numbers. How have intake numbers looked? What is capacity look like at the Human Services Campus in recent weeks? Are you seeing the numbers continue to go up?

SCHWABENLENDER: We've actually seen more of a plateau of the numbers even since March with the response to COVID. It's been really interesting to watch human behavior, and I think people knew that if they stayed in one place, they would be a little more isolated from potential spread of COVID. And so really our numbers have plateaued. What has changed for me is my name and phone number and email address is listed on a HUD website for people to contact for assistance. And the number of inquiries that I receive has been going up, I would say really over the last six weeks. All different kinds of familial living situations with people starting to ask what can they do to keep the housing that they already have.

GILGER: What can you tell them at this point? Is this relief package the president signed good news?

SCHWABENLENDER: Well, I think it's a brief moment of good news, right? It's not for an extended amount of time. I think right now what we're starting to see by this increase of inquiries is that the longer term effects from the global pandemic and what's happening in the economy, people don't fall into homelessness immediately. They're very resourceful. They keep the housing that they have. And I think those of us working in this space knew even back in March and April that when the effects of homelessness would really start would be much farther into the future than that immediate COVID reaction. And so here we are nine, almost 10 months into our COVID response. And we're starting, I think, to see the increase in the demand for help with eviction prevention, foreclosure prevention.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. Let's talk about some of the specifics. The president signed the relief bill [Dec. 27] and extends the nationwide eviction moratorium by just one month — to Jan. 31. That also provides, though, $25 billion in renters' assistance. We mentioned, of course, those one-time payment checks to many Americans of $600. It ups for 11 weeks $300, a weekly unemployment boost. All of these things combined, is this enough to sort of stem the tide, to help stave off this massive crisis of evictions that we're worried is coming?

SCHWABENLENDER: I don't believe so.  Again, I think it's been it's been so many months now of people losing their jobs. Many were already living paycheck to paycheck. And so I was reading a new report last night from Harvard University about housing in America, and $600 doesn't really pay one month's rent in many cities in the country. And it doesn't in Phoenix. So people who haven't been able to pay their rent for months have no relief — when all of that back rent becomes due, there's going to be another challenge for people to face, and I don't believe that the assistance and the relief is there to help people catch up on what they owe.

GILGER: Let me ask you lastly, Amy, in the last 30 or 40 seconds here we have, just about the stories that you're hearing from people. Like, what are some of the common threads that, that you're hearing as you get these calls and inquiries about help?

SCHWABENLENDER: Jjust like homelessness in general — you've heard me talk about homelessness many times. The only thing that's the same is that people don't have safe, affordable housing. And the living circumstances, the personal issues range all over the place. So there's often an underlying cause related to chronic health condition or a mental health condition that's prevented a barrier to maintaining employment and housing. There are people, again, who are really resourceful and families living in doubled and tripled up situations — grandparents caring for their grandchildren, people wanting to stay together. And it's really hard to stay together if you're going to fall into homelessness. Our shelters don't allow for couples. And, you know, we can't allow for a couple to come in with three or four cats. We're not set up for that. So all this wide variety of situations, that's really heartbreaking to hear their real-life situations that they're facing and not having great answers for them.

GILGER: We'll have to leave it there. That is Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus here in Phoenix. Amy, thank you so much for the time today.

SCHWABENLENDER: Thank you very much. Have a great day. 

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.