Shelves of canned foods sit partially empty. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
Many Ohioans were already trapped in poverty before the coronavirus forced hundreds of thousands more out of jobs.
Now, with federal action on further coronavirus relief appearing unlikely until next year, those who work to keep Ohioans from going hungry or homeless fear that even more will fall into an economic pit that can be difficult or impossible to climb out of.
“Those who continue to be unemployed through no fault of their own or experienced a serious reduction of (work) hours, food is the one thing that they’re coming to us for, but what they need is replacement income,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said Monday. “If they can’t make their rent or mortgage, they’re going to end up homeless, so we see a mounting crisis coming.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the federal government passed a $2 trillion relief package that provided funds for employers that had been forced to close, a $1,200 one-time payment to Americans and a $600-a-week federal supplement to unemployment checks.
The unemployment supplement expired on July 31. It was followed by a short-term, $300-a-week federal supplement, but Ohio’s share of that money is likely gone or close to it.
In the absence of further relief, what already were dire problems for many Ohioans are poised to get much worse. The U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey estimates that from Sept. 16-28, 859,000 Ohioans often or sometimes didn’t have enough to eat over the previous seven days.
The number was similar to the estimate from Sept. 2-14 — 867,000. But the number of Ohioans who often didn’t have enough to eat nearly doubled between early and late September — from 118,000 to 229,000.
Hamler-Fugitt said there are several factors stressing the nation’s food supply and making it more expensive: Grocery-store supply chains remain fragile as people shift to them instead of eating at restaurants, and crops have been damaged by extreme weather events such as the derecho storms that ripped through the Midwest, the wildfires that incinerated much of the West Coast, and the hurricanes that continue to pound the Gulf Coast and the Southeast.
Even with those challenges, Hamler-Fugitt said, Ohio’s food banks have secured supplies for at least the next six weeks. She said congressional action is what’s needed.
“We need money in the economy. We need money in people’s pockets,” she said. “The fact that the U.S. Senate has failed to act on a covid relief package is unconscionable. Unconscionable.”
Unconscionable or not, inaction until after the Nov. 3 election or even into early 2021 appears increasingly likely.
The Democratically controlled House in May passed a $3 trillion coronavirus-relief bill that the GOP-controlled Senate didn’t take up. House leaders shrank their package by a third and were negotiating with the White House last week when President Donald Trump left the hospital during his own bout with coronavirus and abruptly broke off relief negotiations.
Trump quickly reversed himself, making a $1.8 trillion offer to Democrats. But on Saturday Senate Republicans angrily rejected the deal, saying it’s too expensive.
The inaction comes as a huge number of Ohioans are increasingly desperate to keep their homes. The Household Pulse survey estimated that at the end of last month almost 400,000 residents had slight or no confidence that they would be able to pay the next month’s rent.
When mass evictions could start is uncertain.
Ohio’s local moratoriums against evictions have expired and it’s unclear whether landlords and courts will follow a rule by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blocking them until Dec. 31, said Marcus Roth, a spokesman with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.
To add insult to injury, the disease that made many Ohioans newly vulnerable to homelessness is roaring back in Ohio and across the Midwest. That would make it impossible for many to shelter at home to avoid catching and spreading the disease.
“It’s a terrible idea to be evicting people in the middle of a pandemic,” Roth said. “If there isn’t any federal assistance coming, it’s just going to get worse.”
That assistance also is important, Roth said, to keep landlords afloat and to stave off foreclosures.
He explained that it’s cheaper to address the problem now than it will be later on.
“It’s a lot easier to prevent someone from becoming homeless than it is to dig them out once they’ve been living on the streets,” Roth said. “And the more time that people spend in homelessness, the harder it is for them to get their life together and regain stability.”
Like Hamler-Fugitt, Roth put the blame on Capitol Hill.
“It’s totally irresponsible for Congress to leave people twisting in the wind.”
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