Local agencies, organizations work to keep residents homed amid looming eviction crisis

Published 9:52 am Thursday, December 31, 2020

BERRIEN COUNTY — The need for housing assistance is at a high in the city of Niles.

“We are literally facing a massive eviction pandemic on the tails of this coronavirus pandemic,” said Community Development Director Sanya Vitale. “We are on the brink of a crisis.”

According to Vitale, Niles has received additional funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Of the allotment for Berrien County, which was about half a million dollars, $147,000 went to aid for the homeless. The rest is used for housing assistance, which has reached a critical need as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Eviction diversion in Niles

“The city is combatting [evictions] as well,” Vitale said. “We have been giving out grants for eviction diversion, helping people with rapid rehousing dollars. Those grants are ranging from $500 to $2,000 each. Those funds are almost depleted as well.”

Earlier in December, Vitale said the CARES Act funding was almost depleted through the county.

Director of Ferry Street Resource Center in Niles Ric Pawloski agreed there is a growing issue of evictions and staying in housing in the Niles area.

“Our goal is to work with landlords, get status updates on who has been paid, see who are waiting for information and to try and help Emergency Shelter Services,” Pawloski said.

Emergency Shelter Services, based in Benton Harbor, is the official agency for the county to process housing assistance, as the county’s hub for the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency with state and federal aid not granted to cities and municipalities.

Pawloski said there were more than 500 applications in Berrien County for the Eviction Diversion program, which helps mitigate evictions by offering a lower assistance payment to landlords to keep tenants in homes and landlords financially afloat.

As of early December, Pawloski said FSRC had more than 90 applications in his building for the eviction diversion program, with a total of 139 applications from the Niles area.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its federal notice on its eviction moratorium from Jan. 1 to the end of January. Still, Pawloski said the moratorium is only for issues surrounding nonpayment, not other challenges between tenant and landlord.

“We work fairly closely to do this,” Pawloski said. “Some landlords are owed tens of thousands of dollars. It could be an average in the $2,000 to $3,000 range.”

Pawloski said eviction diversion is not the only issue the FSRC addresses. Instead, he diversion work  has been added on top of the center’s normal services, which include helping people struggling find a place to live. Pawloski said the eviction diversion program can be a waiting game as the center awaits funding from agencies and governmental bodies further up the line.

“We are just trying to figure out where the help is going to come from,” Pawloski said. “We are waiting on funding. We work with all landlords, private and commercial. We try to matchmake. We try to facilitate each step to get people housed. It takes a lot of time. We get people asking for updates on their cases.”

Mary LeSata Spiegel, of Niles, is the managing attorney at the St. Joseph office of Legal Aid of Western Michigan.

Legal Aid of Western Michigan is a nonprofit law firm that works with 17 counties in west Michigan, including Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties. The firm offers free legal services for people in or near poverty, for civil cases. A case load she has seen increase this year significantly is the landlord-tenant suits, where tenants are trying to avoid eviction.

“What we do in a normal year – we have doubled in six months,” Spiegel said. “It’s pretty intense.”


Stabilizing housing, impact on families

This year, Spiegel has seen quite a bit of sorting through the CARES act funding through MSHDA, the local HARA, ESS, and further landlord-tenant issues.

“The goal is to stabilize housing,” Spiegel said. “First, to try and avoid homelessness. Secondarily, because in a pandemic, for health reasons, keeping people in houses conceivably makes them less susceptible to COVID-19, and third, which is particularly important to me, we are seeing schools doing combinations of eLearning and in-person learning. Some schools have been doing hybrids. So, having housing stability for children as they try to learn from home is critical.”

Spiegel referend Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid model from psychologist Abraham Maslow showing needs like shelter, sleep and clothing at the bottom of the pyramid, safety at the next step, and other steps leading to the peak of self-actualizing needs.

“If the top of the pyramid is who you were meant to be, the bottom is housing and food,” Spiegel said.

The way of considering addressing community members’ needs is not just for the adults. When Spiegel is working on a case for a client, she considers the impact a stable housing situation will have on everyone.

“I always think of the kids. If a kid is going to school and how critical it is for that kid to get off the bus at the same place and have a home where they can go and study and know it’s safe, where they know that mom and dad are not upset about what’s going on,” Spiegel said. “For kids to really learn and achieve their potential, they need to be in a stable environment.”

Spiegel said the financial insecurities leading to housing insecurity are wide ranging.

“We are not seeing trends that jump out in front of me,” Spiegel said. “I do see, however, a lot of people are underemployed.”

Spiegel said her office has not done a study, but in her observations, she has seen families who were previously full-time workers have their hours scaled backed through the year. This is compounded by the need to isolate if exposed, if their children need to isolate, if a daycare closes down for a period due to COVID-19 or if remote learning goes into effect with their schools.

“One of the partners has to be home to monitor kids for eLearning or take care of the kids if daycares are closed,” Spiegel said. “If a person does not report for work, they can easily lose their employment.”

She said people in the service industry, including restaurant staff, are especially struggling.

“They don’t have the same kind of opportunity to earn that they used to,” she said. “They might have some money, but not enough to make full commitments they had to make before. Of course, there are people that were just terminated completely. This has happened to many, many families.”

Though “now hiring” signs are speckled throughout communities, Spiegel said it is not enough to bring some individuals back to their feet.

“There aren’t a lot of choices,” she said. “In a pandemic circumstance, there aren’t the same options.”

Spiegel said when people are in survival mode, keeping a roof over their head, they do not have the time or resources to further themselves in careers or find opportunities.

“When you are worried about preserving your housing and how to feed your family, you’re not able to think about how to achieve your dreams or better your family’s position by finishing an associate’s degree or even getting a GED,” Spiegel said. “You’re focused on the here and now. That concern takes the forefront of your mind. By not satisfying those base requirements of shelter, food, basic necessities, people are not willing to achieve more like we would like them to.”

The cascading impact of the continued housing instability Spiegel expects to continue through the beginning of 2021 will have further impacts on families and individuals.

“As an organization, we do fear greater spikes in evictions, and spikes in domestic disputes and child abuse and consumer debt,” Spiegel said. “It impacts our whole county when our neighbors experience crisis and fall into poverty. We will keep working hard for those people and partnering with those people.”