Ryan Herring in front of his Hazel Park home Saturday, August 8, 2020. Ryan is a resident facing trouble making his rent and paying utility bills during the pandemic and has received help from the Community Housing Network. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

With unemployment at historic highs in Michigan and across the country, economic protections for people impacted by COVID-19 are expiring as the pandemic continues to flare.

Those safeguards, put in place to soften the impact of job losses and other issues related to the coronavirus,  include eviction moratoriums, utility shutoff protections and an extra $600 in federal unemployment aid.

Without new intervention, experts and local service agencies say they worry that thousands of families will be left vulnerable for months to come, as they struggle to afford rent, utilities and food.

President Donald Trump over the weekend signed executive orders that would continue  temporary economic relief, including additional weekly unemployment benefits. But those orders face legal challenges and so may not be available immediately.

“We know that people are going to be having to make really difficult decisions in terms of whether they’re going to be paying for the roof over their heads, or having food on their tables or in some cases even getting the medical attention that they need for preexisting conditions,” said Roshanak Mehdipanah, assistant professor of public health at the University of Michigan.

Mehdipanah said continued unemployment and having to make tough choices may have long term effects on their health — both mental and physical.

According to an article Mehdipanah co-authored in May, a “post-pandemic world” should prioritize occupational, housing and environmental protections: unemployment benefits, health insurance and paid sick time for those unable to return to work; alternative housing for those living in crowded conditions, and access to clean water.

“Unless you have public health embedded in your economic sector, in your education sector, in different sectors, it’s very hard to quickly think on your feet in terms of the next steps.”

Detroiters in particular are feeling the pandemic impact.

Between May 28 and June 11, 44% of Detroiters surveyed about their experiences with COVID-19 said they were concerned about facing one or more hardships — like being evicted, having their utilities shut off or declaring  bankruptcy — in the coming months, according to the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study. About 1,173 Detroiters responded to the online and telephone survey.

Across metro Detroit, local agencies are expecting a spike in economic need.

The Community Housing Network, a nonprofit serving Oakland County, has been receiving a higher volume of calls since the statewide eviction moratorium expired on July 16.

The week of July 27 alone, the agency received 1,200 calls for help. It averaged 83 requests a week last year. The call volume fluctuated throughout the pandemic but increased in the past couple weeks since the moratorium lifted, the agency said.

Residents are reaching out for rental assistance but they’re also having trouble paying utility bills and facing  food insecurity.

“This is nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” said Lisa Chapman, director of community programs and outreach at the Community Housing Network. “There is so much need out there.”

‘Story of survival’

Support from the Community Housing Network kept Ryan Herring of Hazel Park and his son afloat.

Herring, 32, lost his job as a truck driver before the pandemic began and fell behind on four months of rent and utility payments. He struggled to apply for unemployment benefits and started receiving them in late May.

After calling 15 organizations for assistance, he reached the Community Housing Network, which helped him cover about $5,500 in bills and avoid losing his home.

Herring is now working a contract job but he worries about the future.

“I don’t know if things are going to begin to shut back down because these numbers are starting to spike up again … so it’s very scary,” he said. “I’m definitely worried about finances and covering bills.”

Local agencies  say food, rent and utility needs are interconnected.

“There are so many things that are happening at the same time and (residents) have to prioritize,” said Nadeem Siddiqi, director of data strategy at the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. “If you can’t even pay for food, rent is definitely going to be below that. It’s truly a story of survival here.”

More than half of Detroiters in the University of Michigan study said they didn’t know whether they could afford enough food. Of those who weren’t able to make payments, 52% said they were concerned about losing their home through foreclosure or eviction.

While the statewide moratorium on evictions expired on July 16 and a ban on foreclosures  of federally backed home mortgages ended July 24, the 36th District Court in Detroit extended its moratorium through Aug. 15.

The state implemented a $50 million Eviction Diversion Program to help tenants and landlords, but housing advocates worry that funding will be used up quickly.

The state estimated a backlog of 75,000 eviction filings. According to recent data from the courts, statewide filings this year have started to increase but have not reached 2019 levels.

With school beginning soon, families are under added stress.

“We’re entering one of the most expensive seasons — back to school for families is wildly expensive. And there’s no avoiding that. So now you’ve got that coming at you,” said Liz McLachlan, director of fund development at the Community Housing Network.

As the extra federal unemployment benefit ends, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said it expects to see an increase in applications for food assistance.

The department last week announced it would extend increased food stamp benefits through August.

On the utilities front, DTE Energy’s voluntary moratorium on utility shuoffs for low income residents and seniors ended July 29, after four months.

Nonpayment disconnects have since resumed for commercial and residential customers, said a DTE spokesperson.

Throughout the moratorium, DTE provided up to $40 million in summer bill relief for its electric customers and worked with MDHHS to issue debt forgiveness for about 21,000 customers.

DTE is providing one-time balance reductions for those who don’t qualify for debt forgiveness and is enrolling customers in energy efficiency programs to lower bills and offering custom payment plans.

Dan Scripps, chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates public utilities, said that complaints filed to the commission continue to be historically low but that may change.

“I think it is a reflection that people aren’t being disconnected in large numbers and my sense is that as disconnections resume, we’ll see sort of a growth in complaints.”

Extra unemployment benefits will be missed

The expiration of the weekly $600 federal unemployment benefit at the end of July, or on July 25 in Michigan, , has impacted  Michigan families who now wonder what comes next.

The extra weekly benefits were a part of the CARES Act, a $2-trillion-plus package Congress approved to help the country weather the economic storm of the outbreak.

Congress is negotiating an extension of the unemployment aid but it’s unclear whether it’ll amount to the full $600. Trump on Saturday signed a series of executive orders enacting an additional $400 per week in unemployment benefits, student loan payment suspensions, eviction protections and payroll tax cuts, but it faces legal challenges.

In Michigan, those continuing to receive  unemployment benefits and new filers will collect money only from the state, up to $362 a week.

Economists say the extra $600 provided a lifeline for Michigan residents out of work.

The money cushioned economic fallout, said H. Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.

“We didn’t totally go off the cliff in April …  because the federal government acted in a way honestly it never acted before and frankly, our state has done a really good job, too. But things are still bad for a lot of Americans,” he said.

Michigan acted fast, he said, pointing to it being first in the country to participate in a federal program helping children and their families access free or reduced meals they otherwise would have had access to while in school.

But the future is “an incredible question mark,” he said, unless income supports like another stimulus check and extra unemployment insurance benefits are passed and jobs return.

More than 17,000 Michigan residents filed new unemployment claims in Michigan the week ending Aug. 1, dropping from 23,219 the previous week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This time last year, there were about 4,400 new claims.

Shamika Moore, 45, left her job as a nursing assistant at a nursing home in mid-March after contracting COVID-19.

As she fell behind on three months of rent — about $1,800 — and car insurance payments, she worried about putting food on the table.

“One minute, you have a job and you get certified and you get a degree … and you think you have something … and then all of a sudden there’s a pandemic and you catch COVID and can’t work anymore. Everything just stopped.”

Help from a local agency, Matrix Human Services, helped shave off some of her bills said Moore, who lives in downtown Detroit. But she worries about the future.

The weekly $600 was a lifeline and now it’s gone.

“For this month, I don’t know what I’m going to do again. It’s like you catch up, you get behind, then you catch up and then you get behind again, because the help that you were receiving is not there anymore.”

Still, Moore remains optimistic about finding another job.

“The hope that I have is for me to keep being employed, to be able to provide for me and my family.”

How to get help

Where do I go if I need food assistance

For emergency food assistance, call 211 or Michigan’s statewide toll-free number: 844-875-9211

Find a food pantry near you (it’s recommended to call ahead for hours of operation and eligibility requirements): 

If your children are part of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, distributors can be found here.

If you are 60 years old or above, you may qualify for home delivered meals through a local area agency on aging. Sign up here

Where do I go if I need housing assistance?

Where do I go if I need help paying my utilities? 

Call DTE at 800-477-4747 to discuss setting up a Personalized Service Protection plan. For more information, go to: dteenergy.com/covid19

Residential customers of Consumers Energy can call 800-477-5050 or go to ConsumersEnergy.com/coronavirus for payment plan options. 

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Contact Nushrat: nrahman@freepress.com; 313-348-7558. Follow her on Twitter: @NushratR 

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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