June 3, 2020 / 5:19 PM / a month ago

'One paycheck away' from homelessness: housing inequality fuels U.S. protests

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Activist Winsome Pendergrass has an explanation for why the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting African Americans and fuelling the anger that has exploded onto U.S. streets - housing.

“The ones who feel it most are the black and brown people. That’s why COVID runs so prevalent in our area - you have eight people in a one-bedroom apartment,” said Pendergrass, a leader with the activist group New York Communities for Change.

“COVID has blown the lid off to show that we’re all living one paycheck away from the side of the street,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Pendergrass is among a number of activists and residents warning that the protests over race and policing that have roiled the United States for more than a week are driven in part by housing inequalities exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

They argue the pandemic inordinately affects both the health and paychecks of African Americans, who have suffered record job losses in recent months, according to new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute think tank.

Those who have kept their jobs are often in positions that make them vulnerable to the virus, it found.

“Understand the housing crisis that we’re going through and the homelessness we face daily,” said Donnette Leftord, a mother of three in New York who has been unemployed since March due to the pandemic.

“Here we are, trying to deal with financial difficulty during this period, and then we’re still being murdered on the street,” she said, pointing to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis.

On Monday, Leftord and Pendergrass helped coordinate a demonstration in Brooklyn where organizers said a few hundred protesters urged the federal government to cancel rent and extend bans on evictions.

Leftord and others said the protests over Floyd’s death, which have spread to hundreds of U.S. cities, were spurring fresh focus on housing inequality.

More than 640,000 households have refused to pay their rent or mortgages since late March, according to a tracker called We Strike Together.

Many cities have halted evictions during the pandemic. But such provisions are scheduled to wind down in the coming months, and Pendergrass and others warned that police implementation of evictions could exacerbate tensions.

Similar protests took place on Sunday in California’s San Francisco Bay area. Carroll Fife, director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment in Oakland, a city in the Bay area, said housing was key to the crisis.

“The violence that is taking the lives of black people ... is the same violence that is evicting us, locking us out of shelter, strangling us with rent,” she said in a statement.

“This moment is also about housing. Because housing is health. Housing is life.”

THE SPARK AND THE KINDLING

For decades, African Americans have been significantly less likely to own their homes than white counterparts, according to the Center for American Progress.

In 2017, black households lagged white households in home ownership by 41% to 73%, the think tank said, in part the legacy of overtly racist government policies.

“A direct line connects America’s history of racist housing policies to today’s over-policing and disinvestment in black and brown communities,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The same line connects to racial inequities in housing and to people of color being disproportionately harmed by disasters,” she said in emailed comments.

Structural racism leaves minority communities with a legacy of disproportionately low incomes and high levels of homelessness, she said.

Minneapolis is still dealing with the aftermath of racist housing policies, officials have said.

Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, an advocacy group, said the city was “stuck in a government-created system of separate and unequal neighborhoods, communities and schools, and patterns of gross inequality.

“These are key factors underlying both police oppression and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on the African American community,” he added.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who will lead the prosecution in the Floyd case, said that made for a combustible dynamic.

While policing was the spark that prompted the current protests, Ellison said in an interview with the Nation magazine, “the kindling that made the house burn down was joblessness, unemployment, poor housing.”

Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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