Local residents facing loss of unemployment, eviction worries and financial uncertainty

María Cecilia Laden
María Cecilia Laden, a Spanish teacher at Whittier International Elementary, has spent time this summer listening to the stories of families that have experienced job losses or are undocumented. A GoFundMe, set up in May by parents in the community, raised about $45,000 and has distributed the money to almost 60 families in need. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

When Andi Lennartson was laid off from her dream job in the beauty industry on July 31, her anxiety was over the top. As someone who always had a job and felt financially secure, Lennartson never anticipated being let go, especially so suddenly and during a pandemic.

Due to her severance package, Lennartson hasn’t qualified for unemployment until this month. The aid she received won’t be enough to pay her rent and utilities. By the end of October, she’ll be forced to leave her apartment in Lowry Hill East and stay with her sister in White Bear Lake to make ends meet while she applies for other jobs.

Losing the independence of living alone on top of the friendships she cultivated during her last eight years at her old job is tough and navigating the resources available has added an additional challenge.

“I’ve sat on the phone for hours waiting for assistance with unemployment,” she said. “I don’t even know what to do or where to look. I’m on these sites but I have no clue about all these programs available.”

The loss of a job or reduction in hours has pushed many people in Southwest into financial uncertainty, forcing some to move, rely on community aid or simply hope that they won’t get sick. In many cases it’s a tale of two economies, with some residents returning to work and making financial recoveries and others struggling to put food on the table.

One undocumented Whittier woman, let go from her job at a Downtown sports stadium, said she feels like she has no rights as an immigrant and has lost sleep over her fears of getting sick and what it would mean for her young children. Another Whittier family stopped spending on non-essentials, including swimming lessons for their 11-year-old daughter, when her father’s hours were cut at work.

About 54% of the state’s Black workers, 43% of Indigenous workers, 34% of Latino workers and 24% of white workers have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, according to state data, and when the $600 federal unemployment supplement expired on July 31, many people were left without a lifeline. Because of work or legal status, others never qualified for unemployment in the first place.

Changing regulations

Since mid-March over 900,000 Minnesotans have applied for unemployment benefits and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of Minnesotans have lost some level of income. A federal aid program will give an extra $300 a week to most Minnesotans out of work, but state officials estimate those payments could only last through September.

A recent statewide survey by HousingLink found that while 91% of respondents kept up with their rent before the pandemic, only 72% are staying current today. Metro data from the Minnesota Multi Housing Association is less dire but still shows that in Class C apartments,

the metro’s most common building class, late and non-payments increased from 6% to 12% between August 2019 and August 2020. That figure is down from 15% in April.

An eviction moratorium has been in place since March, though as of Aug. 4 landlords can terminate leases if they need to move themselves or family members into the property. The Trump administration announced on Sept. 1 that the evictions would be suspended for most renters through the end of the year.

Eric Hauge, the executive director of HOME Line, said his nonprofit has been receiving a similar number of calls from renters seeking advice as in previous years. But some key differences, he said, are the length of time people are on the phone and the complicated batch of questions they ask as they try to navigate rapidly changing legal regulations. Because state regulations are changing on an almost a day-to-day basis, he said, many people are anxious and uncertain about where they stand.

As of Aug. 24, the state’s housing department is accepting applications for its COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program, a $100 million program funded through the federal CARES Act. Hauge said it’s still unclear if people will be able to get funds from the program before evictions are filed or if the amount of rental assistance being offered is enough to address the need.

“The economic fallout from the pandemic is now entering a seventh month,” he said. “It’s possible some people have been unable to pay all of their rent for a substantial amount of this period.”

Community support

Several neighborhood organizations and schools in Southwest have stepped up to provide aid for those impacted by the pandemic, offering one-time grants or donations as short-term relief. “Any little bit helps,” said Tori, an artist who received a $250 grant from the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association in early August. (She asked her last name not be printed.)

In March, with the cancelation of many gigs and conventions she relied on to sell her art, Tori estimates she lost around $4,000, which equates to four months of living expenses. Because she is self-employed and relies on gigs or commissions for her income, she doesn’t qualify for the same unemployment benefits as those who work salaried jobs.

Although she feels privileged to have health insurance and access to COVID testing, Tori has had to shift her business model to make ends meet, taking on more commission work.

“If I were to get sick with COVID, I don’t have paid leave,” she said. “Now I feel pretty financially settled. Six months later [however], I might be in a different boat.”

María Cecilia Laden, a Spanish teacher at Whittier International Elementary, said many families in Whittier are struggling right now, especially those who experienced job losses or are undocumented. Some teachers like her have donated their time and money to help families pay for rent, food and supplies.

A GoFundMe, set up in May by parents in the community, has raised about $45,000 and has distributed the money to almost 60 families in need.

A Whittier resident with two young daughters — one a 4th-grader at the Whittier school — received $1,200 from the GoFundMe. Because he is undocumented, he requested he be referred to as “el Oaxaco”; he is originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

As someone with asthma and other health issues, el Oaxaco hasn’t felt comfortable going back to work since he stopped working in March, when he was hospitalized with COVID-19. Even if he did go back, he said, no job will let him take time off to visit a cardiologist every two weeks. Because of his undocumented status, he also cannot apply for unemployment or federal aid and now cannot send money to support his sister back in Mexico.

El Oaxaco said since he has been unable to work, the weight of providing for his family financially has put strain on his wife, who now works 40 hours a week at a restaurant in St. Paul and often comes home exhausted. Although he said he’d like to go back to work, he worries about his wife getting sick and not being able to work as many hours.

Although he knows if his family were evicted, they would be able to find a small place somewhere to live, el Oaxaco said it’s heartbreaking to think about the impact on his two daughters, aged 14 and 8.

“For my daughters to experience an eviction, for my daughters to see that we are not able to pay rent — that is where the sadness comes from,” he said.