Oberlin Residents Face Unemployment, Housing and Food Insecurity

Since federal COVID-19 assistance expired in late July, many unemployed and low-income tenants in Oberlin and Lorain County have experienced food insecurity and the threat of eviction. Although community organizations and social media support networks can temporarily help with basic needs, many residents are unable to find long-term solutions in the present job market. 

The federal CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, established the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which distributed $600 dollars per week to Americans who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. It also placed a nationwide stay on evictions. But since these two protections expired on July 26, landlords have been filing eviction notices and unemployed people have had to depend on state assistance.

On Aug. 8, Trump signed four COVID-19-related executive orders, one of which directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to distribute up to $44 billion in disaster relief funds to states for $300 weekly unemployment payments, with an optional $100 per person to be funded at the state level. Ohio adopted the program but did not agree to contribute the additional $100 per person. 

Kathy Burns, client services coordinator at Oberlin Community Services, said that while many Oberlin residents are still receiving checks, they are reaching out to OCS for utility, rent, and food assistance.

“Around mid-April requests for utility and rent assistance decreased, as people started to get their unemployment,” Burns wrote in an email to the Review. “The last week in July requests for assistance jumped again, with many people saying they had just lost their extra unemployment. This was huge! I’ve talked to people who are now getting $300 or less a week, with one person I spoke with getting less than $200.”

On Sept. 1, the Centers for Disease Control issued a temporary nationwide halt on evictions for renters under a certain income level who have sought government assistance. While this measure offers temporary relief to many Americans, it does not provide any monetary assistance — tenants’ debt will continue to accrue. 

According to Anabel Barrón Sánchez, a caseworker and immigration specialist at El Centro de Servicios Sociales, it has been difficult for many Lorain County residents to become dependent upon government assistance in the wake of the pandemic.

“There’s people that have never used services before — federal services or state services,” Sánchez said. “They worked their whole entire life. So asking for any type of assistance is very difficult for them.”

Sánchez says her organization estimates that around 75 percent of Latinx individuals in Lorain County have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. 

“[The] Latino community, they were working in factories and food services like waitressing. So those jobs were the first ones to get impacted by the pandemic,” Sánchez said. “They were laid off. The ones that stayed working, they were working less hours. The landscapers and construction didn’t stop, they worked late hours. It was very difficult.”

According to Homer Virden, executive director of the Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority, a recent report LMHA approximates that 400 families in Lorain County public housing are currently at risk of eviction.

Sánchez and Deb Kline, director of Cleveland Jobs with Justice, say that many people are making ends meet right now by visiting food pantries and sharing their needs on social media.

“I know a lot of people [have] had to rely on food banks, had to rely on churches and other organizations,” Kline said. “I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook where people in the different neighborhoods just said, ‘I’m out of food, can somebody help?’ And then you watch other people on the Facebook page say, ‘I can drop something off, direct message me.’ … So it’s been kind of heartwarming to see that type of community.” 

Sánchez asserts that mental health needs for many disadvantaged communities are especially dire right now. 

“Even now that I have financial stability during this pandemic, my mental health was all over the place,” Sánchez said. “So imagine for those who lost their job, who couldn’t pay the rent, where they worry what are they going to eat the next day? … Uncertainty, panic attacks were all over the Hispanic community. I would say 90 percent to 100 percent of my participants were dealing with depression and anxiety.”

Sánchez added that the pandemic has been especially difficult for the undocumented immigrant community, who do not have access to the same types of unemployment checks or social programs.  

The lack of federal aid for people who have lost their jobs during COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities by race and ethnicity. In 2018, the white-Black homeownership gap in Ohio was 37.2 percent, and Black Ohioans were almost three times as likely to live in poverty. In the first fiscal quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate for Black Ohioans was almost triple the rate for white Ohioans. While Ohio’s unemployment rate among white workers increased 8.2 percent from the first quarter to the second quarter, it jumped 14.4 percent among Black workers.

Kline sees racial disparities and white privilege as a key issue for affordable housing during COVID-19.

“If you’re already starting the race 10 feet back … how are you ever going to win?” she said. “And especially if more obstacles keep getting put in front of you. And what’s going on now, especially with all of the protests and things that are going on in the country. … It’s become such a polarizing issue and getting people to understand what is at the very heart of all of this.”

Many local organizations have chipped in efforts to help low-income renters and people experiencing unemployment. The Urban League of Lorain County has created the Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Program to assist seniors with overdue rent. Sacred Heart Chapel in Lorain has been providing rent assistance, managing cases, and finding employment for people who are at risk of homelessness. Family Promise Lorain, the homeless shelter in Oberlin, is closed indefinitely.

In Oberlin, where the poverty rate is 23.5 percent, Oberlin Community Services helps low-income residents with utility bill shut-offs, eviction notices, assistance with mortgages, and motel vouchers for people experiencing homelessness.  

According to Burns, the closures of several local businesses and the termination of union jobs at the College have contributed to many town residents losing employment. 

Burns also feels that the online nature of Oberlin City Schools’ classes presents difficulties for  single parents who rely on the public schools for childcare.

“Many single moms, who are sole [providers] for their children, have had to take pay cuts or quit work if they did not get laid off, due to the kids being home from school,” she wrote. “There are already real consequences for them, some having to give up their housing and move in with family members. Unfortunately, not everyone has that to fall back on.”

As the pandemic drags on and colder weather approaches, the future of low-income residents in Oberlin and Lorain County is uncertain. 

Kline argues that there are many interconnected issues at play. Her response is to isolate immediate needs and put pressure on politicians in power — at the federal, state, and local levels.

“You’d have to identify the issue first of all, and then you have to do the power mapping to decide who, who has control over the issue,” Kline said. “And then you put the pressure on … whether it’s through letter-writing campaigns, making phone calls, you just have to put the pressure on any way you can.”