When A Pandemic Exacerbates An Already Difficult Situation

Sep 10, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is having an impact on Wisconsinites in just about every way possible. That includes people at risk of homelessness. Some of them have turned to Impact 211 for help.

Theresa just moved into her new apartment after a yearlong struggle. She says her troubles began in August 2019, when her husband passed from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. After her husband’s death, Theresa remained in their apartment for a time, eventually moving out and putting their possessions in storage.

She says she continued to pay rent until she moved. Yet she says after she moved, she learned her landlord filed for eviction against her. And that made it difficult for her to find housing.

Many landlords in Milwaukee don’t accept tenants that have had recent evictions on their records.

To make matters worse, the pandemic slowed the court system and other governmental services, leaving Theresa unable to contest the eviction and get it off her record.

In addition, Theresa has sarcoidosis, a disease that primarily attacks the lungs and tends to get progressively worse as time goes on. That put an end to her work in the medical field, limiting her income.

“The lung diseases is a restrictive disease to where I was a liability in the medical field as far as the emergency rooms and things like that,” Theresa explains.

Theresa had a hard time finding another job that paid as well. She went from earning $2,800 a month to  about $1,000. Though her disability payments enabled her to pay rent.

“As it’s progressed, I got better and am doing a little bit more than I used to do. So now, I can work at a facility or volunteer or part time for elderly where I give medication or something like that. But I cannot lift patients. I cannot do what I've done as I graduated from college,” says Theresa.

And her diagnosis still complicated her housing search. At times people were afraid that they could catch sarcoidosis from her. Though it's not contagious.

She also faced prospective landlords that questioned her income and her illness.

“Because of my illness, I was judged because I look good on the outside but the inside you know, it was a, ‘You don't look like you disabled.' But I mean I can, I want to work. I do volunteer and different things like that, but the housing was the problem,” says Theresa.

And if landlords were willing to take her income, there are still other hurdles.

“As I appeared to look for these different addresses, people will charge me three months’ worth of security. And I become homeless in a way because I end up moving in with friends and family,” Theresa says.

Without a permanent address of her own, Theresa was considered homeless. Although her situation didn’t meet the typical image of living on the streets.

She says she felt lucky to have friends and family that supported her. Yet living with friends and family meant putting everyone at risk of catching COVID-19.

With her lung condition, the coronavirus could be fatal for her. She also worried that if she caught it, she could spread it to children and other vulnerable people in the household.

Theresa didn’t want to take the risk of infecting anyone and says staying at shelters only increased her odds of catching the coronavirus herself. So she was eager for a place of her own.

“But at the time, I was asking people to help me. And something hit me one day, I was reading and the 211 number came up,” Theresa recalls.

211 is a number people can call for help with social services.

After Theresa dialed it, she was connected with assistance to overcome some of the obstacles in her way, like finding a non-discriminating landlord she could rent with and even movers when the time came.

“And I think out of the whole conversation, I got between 20 and 30 text messages from 211 letting me know where the places I could go to protect myself because of the COVID-19 pandemic. ... It was so interesting because I needed the food pantry for myself and shelter and for the homeless and I just was passing that information around,” Theresa shares.

John Hyatt, CEO of Impact 211, says the number of people calling for help went up dramatically earlier this year after the coronavirus hit. Hyatt says calls can be about substance abuse, domestic disputes, or in cases like Theresa’s – a housing crisis. Situations that are not always easy to mitigate.

With help from Impact 211, Theresa now has a place to call home.

“I am now in a beautiful apartment. It's so beautiful, it's remodeled. And I am beginning to cry and just shout for joy,” Theresa says.

Theresa says she’s still facing some challenges, such as getting access to her belongings, which remain in storage. Though a good Samaritan has helped her get the ashes of her father-in-law Al Ballard – aka Dr. Bop, a former Milwaukee radio jockey on WAWA — out of storage.

A few late payments to the storage facility and now she has additional fees that’s making it harder to get the rest of her stuff. Though 211 and family are trying to help with that too.