Agencies helping the poor fear a dreadful new year

Two lines of cars wait for food assistance at the All People's Fresh Market in Columbus. Officials say covid-related food insecurity is growing in Ohio. Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.

The Nov. 3 general election has garnered most of the public attention lately, but officials on Monday warned that the coronavirus pandemic continues to squeeze the growing ranks of low-income Ohioans.

They’re particularly concerned about what the new year will hold. That’s because a new wave of pandemic-related closures would render even more Ohioans jobless as federal coronavirus-relief dollars and and an eviction moratorium expire in December.

“Philanthropy can’t answer the moment — certainly not on its own,” said Joree Novotny, spokeswoman for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “We’re going to do the best we can, but we’re really worried about what January looks like.”

In addition to the imminent loss of federal covid-relief funds, Ohio’s food banks also face the loss next month of the Ohio National Guard, which has been praised as an invaluable help at facilities facing unprecedented demand for their services. Also, the latest round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program is slated to end on Dec. 31.

Novotney said that thanks to assistance from the Guard, the USDA and from the federal CARES Act that was passed in March, Ohio food banks have weathered the storm so far.

“In many ways we’re in the same shape we were at the beginning of the pandemic,” she said. “But we’re facing a cliff.”

Research indicates that legions of individual Ohioans are facing cliffs of their own.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey estimates that during the period of Oct. 14-26, 833,000 Ohioans were sometimes of often not getting enough to eat over the past seven days. The same survey estimated that 431,000 Ohio renters had no or slight confidence that they could pay next month’s rent.

On Monday, as he urged Congress to pass further relief, President Elect Joe Biden said it’s not just renters who are worried about keeping roofs over their heads.

“Twenty million people are on the verge of losing their homes because they can’t make their mortgage payments,” he said. “They’re on the verge of being kicked out on the streets.”

Marcus Roth, spokesman for the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio, said that Congress needs to act quickly on additional covid relief to head off a wave of evictions in January. That’s especially true because a moratorium against evictions by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires Dec. 31.

“Unless the Senate stops blocking any meaningful relief, we’re really worried about what’s going to happen in 2021,” he said.

Unfortunately, homelessness can be a powerful predictor of future poverty. One reason is that evictions follow a person.

“If a person gets evicted, it destroys their chance of getting housing in the future,” Roth said, explaining that few landlords are willing to rent to people with histories of eviction.

Both members of Ohio’s U.S. Senate delegation have said they’re in favor of additional coronavirus relief. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, has been in favor of a $2 trillion package that was being negotiated between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House.

On Friday, Brown tweeted in favor of renewing the $600-a-week unemployment supplement that was part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that was passed in March.

What his Republican colleague, Sen. Rob Portman, will support is more ambiguous. On Sunday he tweeted in support of some form of relief.

But his office last last month wouldn’t say whether Portman would support the $2 trillion package proposed by Pelosi or the $500 million package outlined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Portman’s tweet included a clip of a 10-minute floor speech he made that criticized the Democratic package as a being too expensive. Portman said he wanted tax breaks and grants to businesses as well as funds for testing, tracing and vaccines. He didn’t however, say anything about hunger, homelessness or supplementing unemployment benefits.

Roth said Congress needs to act now to avoid lasting damage to the most vulnerable Ohioans — and to the fight against the pandemic.

“There’s so many people that are out of work and whole industries that have been stalled,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a raging pandemic where people are supposed to stay at home. We should be doing everything we possibly can to make sure people can follow that public health advice and stay home.”

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