Homeless advocate: COVID-19 relief insufficient, eviction surge puts families in peril

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Lawrence program struggles with quadrupling of homeless families under its care

TOPEKA — A founder of the Family Promise organization dedicated to working with homeless families with children is alarmed at how COVID-19 and the government’s response to the pandemic undercut vulnerable people in Lawrence.

Joe Reitz, a retired University of Kansas business professor who helped start the interfaith organization in 2008, told the Kansas Reflector podcast that Family Promise was providing emergency shelter and services to nearly two dozen families prior to the coronavirus outbreak. More recently, he said, the nonprofit was struggling to care for more than 85 families.

“At one point, we were serving four times as many people as we served before the pandemic. We went from 21 families in January of 2020 to 87 families a couple of months ago,” he said. “We cannot provide them with the counseling and training that we used to. We’re just keeping them alive. We’re just keeping them in shelter with food.”

The COVID-19 pandemic — now in it’s second tragic year despite availability of vaccines — is exacerbating a housing crisis that took root long ago. In 2020, spread of the deadly coronavirus into every corner of the country sparked economic upheaval that placed more Americans at risk of becoming homeless. Rise of the delta variant of COVID-19 this year triggered a surge in infections, hospitalizations and fatalities.

Kansas no longer has a prohibition on evictions. In May, Republican lawmakers in the state House and Senate rescinded an executive order from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly imposing the eviction ban.

An attempt by the administration of President Joe Biden to extend a federal eviction moratorium was derailed in August by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the legal wrangling delayed the day of reckoning for millions of families.

Resources for the homeless will be increasingly strained as the number of people desperate for assistance grows in Kansas, Reitz said.

Reitz, who taught business ethics at KU, said he sent a letter raising concerns to the state’s congressional delegation and the governor. He said the only reply was a form letter from U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, who offered insights into legislation that didn’t address the homeless crisis.

“Homeless people are unreliable voters … and their kids certainly don’t vote,” Reitz said. “So, homeless families with children are on the bottom of the chart in terms of getting actual relief from, from a political perspective. How difficult it is to say, ‘Oh, we recognize the problem? We’re trying to do something about it.’”

At one point this year, he said, Family Promise of Lawrence was caring for families with 170 children, including infants and students in high school.

“It’s a great stigma to be homeless, whether you’re a child or parent,” Reitz said. “Everybody in the family is going to be traumatized. No parent wants their children to be homeless. I’ll guarantee you that. And, the children certainly don’t want to be homeless. I mean, they’re embarrassed by it.”

Reitz, who serves as a emeritus member of the Family Promise board, said moratoriums on evictions expired before the state distributed a majority of approximately $300 million available to help Kansas tenants with payment of rent. Only $5 billion of the $46 billion earmarked nationally for rental aid had been disbursed by the end of July as bureaucratic delays at state and local levels disrupted payouts.

The application process for rent aid is bewildering and the campaign to inform near-homeless families of available funding has been mediocre, Reitz said.

“The people who designed the application forms were obviously out of touch with the realities of people who are living on the margin,” he said. “I have no idea where we’re going to put more homeless families. We have a looming crisis.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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