They’ve slept on friends’ couches and on the streets. They’ve called extended family asking for a little bit of extra cash so they can make rent. They’ve pawned off family heirlooms, and fallen behind on bills because buying food was more urgent. They’ve turned to mutual aid neighborhood networks and soup kitchens, lining up for hours on end, only to be told there’s nothing left that day.
These are some of the myriad ways New Yorkers whose livelihoods were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic are surviving, with no clear end in sight.
“It’s feast or famine and you just have to be super comfortable with that reality right now,” said Priscilla Grim, a 46-year-old digital strategist who’d made about $70,000 a year before she was laid off at the start of the pandemic. She’s raising a 17-year-old daughter in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and had to start selling off her jewelry she inherited from her mother to make ends meet.
“I sold the last of what I’m willing to sell and so I’m at the bottom of that right now,” she said. “As of right now I’m back to the place where I don’t know how to pay rent November 1st. I’ve started making phone calls to extended family to see if anybody can help me.”
For the month of September, the most recent data available, New York City had an unemployment rate of 14.1 percent, nearly four times what it was last September, according to the state’s Labor Department. Last month was an improvement from June, when a staggering 20 percent of New York City residents were out of work, levels similar to those during the Great Depression. Despite the improvement, the current unemployment rate is still the highest it’s been since the state began tracking them in 1976.
Over six months of the pandemic, New York State has paid out more than $43.7 billion in unemployment benefits, what it usually spends over a 20 year period. Under the federal CARES Act, New Yorkers were getting additional $600 dollar checks each week, but that funding ran out at the end of July and Congress has been unable to agree on a plan to renew it. There was as additional six weeks of funding via $300 checks through an executive order from President Donald Trump, but those payments have ended now too.
Despite the state having extended unemployment benefits for up to 59 weeks, some struggling New Yorkers we interviewed said they had been kicked off prematurely, and tried to no avail to get them restored. Jada McGill, 22, lost her job at a city-subsidized child care center in the Bronx in May, but the state told her she no longer qualified for unemployment in August.
“Honestly the amount of time I spent chasing people on phones, is probably more than I’ve spent worrying about COVID the entire pandemic,” McGill said. After hours and days on the phone getting transferred between different operators, she said she gave up, even though she needed the money to feed herself.
“At that point I was just like, you know what I’m just gonna take this,” she said, adding she’s sunk about $9,000 in debt since the beginning of the year. “I had to do what everyone does when they don’t have money. Borrow, borrow borrow, from friends, from family members.”
And others never qualified for the aid to begin with, either because of their immigration status, or because they’d claimed unemployment before the pandemic.
“We don’t have work. We don’t have money to pay rent. We don’t have money to eat,” said 54-year-old Yoselyn Gomez in Spanish, who lives on Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The devastation is the starkest there of the five boroughs, where the unemployment rate hit 25 percent in July, and remained at 18.8 percent in September, up from historic lows of 4.5 percent the same month last year.
Gomez said she lost her job at the big box store Loews last fall, before the pandemic, and was just about to start work at Home Depot, when COVID-19 hit. She exhausted her state unemployment benefits even before the city’s economy came to a grinding halt. Now she’s three months behind on rent, and fears eviction when the state allows eviction proceedings to start back up. She said she’s survived these past few months the same way a bird does.
“The birds don’t have anything to eat and they have to go find it at different places,” she said, adding that some days she lines up at the crack of dawn to wait in line at a food pantry, only to be turned away when they run out. “That’s what we’ve had to do in this moment.”
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Tenant advocates have been raising alarm bells of an impending wave of evictions, when the state eventually lifts a pause on new cases. Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly pushed back the date new eviction cases can proceed to January 1st, but that hasn’t stopped tenant debts from accruing. And landlords are still allowed to start up new cases, though they won’t be calendered. According to Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, 20,000 new eviction cases have been filed since June.
A $100 million pot of federal funds was supposed to be distributed to landlords to chip away at some of those tenant debts, but the application process was cumbersome and complicated, and the guidelines for who qualified for the relief made it such that many who needed it most weren’t eligible.
Out of 90,000 people who applied, 51,000 people were denied for not meeting the criteria laid out by the state legislature, according to Charni Sochet, a spokeswoman for the State’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal. As of Friday, the state had distributed $19.5 million to 8,400 people, according to Sochet.
The mass unemployment and economic anxiety have fueled the massive street demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism over the past four and a half months since the police killing of George Floyd. While Black Lives Matter demonstrations are ongoing, activists are increasingly staging demonstrations calling for the Cancelation of Rent, or erasing tenant debts that accumulated during COVID-19 for those unable to pay.
“Being out in the streets, and being more around and more aware, you see I’m not the only one going through all these problems. This is literally a crisis,” said 25-year-old Psyco Williams, who lost his job as a $15-an-hour security guard back in the spring and got kicked out of a place he was renting in Crown Heights soon after.
He said he slept on the subways and the streets, then on friends’ couches, before camping out at Abolition Park over the summer, a month-long encampment outside City Hall.
“Almost nobody can concretely and consistently pay their monthly rent,” Williams said.
Emergency food pantries and mutual aid networks have helped New Yorkers eat when all else failed. City Harvest, which distributes food to more than 400 soup kitchens, pantries and local organizations across the five boroughs, delivered 79 percent more food over the last six months than it typically does.
On a recent morning, outside a pop up pantry run by Catholic Charities of New York on 181st Street in Washington Heights, a line for food snaked around the corner and down the block, though those waiting agree it’s much shorter than usual. Volunteers doled out cartons of milk and bags of fruit and dry goods at the front.
“Washington Heights has always had a need, to be honest, but you see it more now,” said Eddie Silverio, who works with Catholic Charities of New York. During six months of the pandemic, the nonprofit that serves Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Westchester and into the southern part of the Hudson Valley, has distributed more than one million meals, 250 percent more than what they usually give out in the same time period.
“You see different folks, now you see a senior, you’ll see a young person, you’ll see a young professional,” he said.
44-year-old Jose, who declined to give his last name, made his way to the front.
“I’m sure New York is going to make it out of this situation. We have to be optimistic. Life always puts challenges in our path,” he said, in Spanish. He said he works as a Lyft driver, but since the pandemic hit, the number of customers requesting rides has plummeted. He started coming to food pantries like this one, to support his wife and two teenage daughters.
“We fall and we get up,” he said.
Gwynne Hogan reports for the Race & Justice Unit at Gothamist/WNYC.
Liz Kim and Sydney Periera contributed reporting.