The gist: Compassionate policies penned by government officials, utilities and other service providers will keep the lights on and people in their homes so long as social distancing is the law of the land. But people out of work, particularly those already on the economic bubble, are working to make their last paychecks count. While they track upticks in financial anxiety and insecurity, community advocates worry about the other foot dropping when the pandemic is over and compassion measures are lifted.
Quickly after the outbreak, city and state officials mobilized a slate of compassion measures designed to keep people above water. Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an executive order effectively suspending evictions by pausing court proceedings while his stay-at-order is in effect. Utility companies across the state promised not to disconnect residents for lack of payment — in many cases imperiling budgets for local governments — and phone companies and cable companies have followed suit. In Lafayette, LUS waived disconnections for two months, starting March 13.
By and large, bills are deferred, not canceled outright. Some landlords have waived rent altogether, while others are working out payment plans with people hard up for money. But for the most part, bills unpaid will come due eventually. And that’s not as far off as many think. LUS has not yet seen a dip in utility payments, according to a spokesperson, who says it’s too early in the billing cycle to see a decline in revenue on the books.
Around 44% of people in Lafayette Parish are in poverty or financially vulnerable. That’s according to the United Way’s ALICE Report, which studies income constraints across the country. The ALICE report tracks not just people below the poverty — 17% in the case of Lafayette Parish — but people who have meaningful employment but are said to be one disaster away from going broke. Roughly 27% of Lafayette Parish meets that description.
The realities of unemployment haven’t necessarily landed yet. The numbers are climbing fast. As of last week, unemployment claims topped 8,500 for the year so far, outpacing the bottom of the oil crash in 2016. Alzina Dural, who runs the Quiet Town Community Coterie on the Northside, says for now many of her neighbors are able to make do with their most recent paychecks. Neighbors who work in fast food and retail still have income coming through the door, she says. Those who don’t may have gotten their last paycheck before a furlough, meaning they have some income to patch them through to the end of April.
Some people are putting off bills because they can. Waived utility disconnections and a prohibition on evictions could spur some households to push back paying those bills, instead moving their resources to other needs like groceries and medicines. Catholic Charities, which helps people pay their bills through the Monsignor Sigur Center, has seen a rapid drop off in the number of people calling in for financial assistance. During an unprecedented disaster, that’s concerning.
“You’re in the eye of the storm,” Catholic Charities’ Ben Broussard says, describing the calm as a period of false financial security. The Monsignor Sigur Center normally fields about 70 or 80 calls a day. Over the last week, since the eviction order and utility policies came out, they’ve had days where only five or six called in.
“Our fear is it could be too much for families who are already in some form of need,” Broussard says. Some forecasts on the fallout warn that many thousands of people could be out of work. Dire projections eye 30% unemployment rates.
That could cause a wave of housing insecurity even among people who have never experienced it. Broussard says they’re anticipating more calls once deferred bills begin to reach critical mass. Area homeless shelters are already at capacity, meaning they can’t absorb added pressure from those pushed out of housing by sustained unemployment or a mountain of unpaid bills. Catholic Charities and the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness are working to find permanent housing for those already experiencing homelessness, but now with the added urgency of needing to make room for even more people.
Dural and other community advocates have urged their neighbors to keep paying their bills at least partially. To the extent they can, households that keep paying down their bills can forestall a sudden lump of debt landing when compassion measures are no longer in place.
“Bills still exist,” says Tina Shelvin Bingham of Habitat for Humanity and the McComb-Veazey Coterie. So far, food security remains the top concern for the people she serves. She’s worried the economic fallout may catch many by surprise, pulling the rug out from under people who hadn’t before viewed themselves economically vulnerable.
“There are people who didn’t think they were in need,” Bingham says. “They’re borderline, and they don’t know where to go to seek food.”
Nonprofits are working to get ahead of it. For more than two weeks, dozens of nonprofit reps have coordinated responses over Zoom conference calls, breaking into subcommittees to tackle housing, feeding and even language accessibility. Broussard, of Catholic Charities, puts faith in the experience of the cadre of nonprofit leaders at the center of the Acadiana Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), saying many of them are “battle worn” through disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2016 flood. But, he notes, the coronavirus pandemic is a different kind of disaster.
“It’s easy to be kneejerk and say let’s find something to do,” he says. “When you have people who have met regularly for years and have responded to hurricanes and floods and fires … this is just a new face for hurricanes and floods and fires. These are people who are trying to do it right.”