As one public health crisis globally unfolds, another is brewing in Virginia: a coming wave of mass homelessness. Currently, nearly 40% of Virginia households can’t afford their rent. That means some 384,000 families in the commonwealth face the risk of eviction. Over the next four months alone, Virginia courts are likely to hear 259,000 new eviction cases.
As a practicing pediatrician, I see and hear everyday how essential housing is to my patients’ good health. Even in the absence of a pandemic, children experiencing homelessness are significantly more likely to experience mental health challenges, toxic stress, food insecurity, slower cognitive development and lower educational attainment than their housed peers. Under normal circumstances, I worry about my patients’ housing status. The COVID-19 pandemic has made my concerns all the more acute.
Since COVID-19 appeared in the United States, my colleagues and I have cautioned patients to stay at home, to shelter in place and to observe physical distancing guidelines. But how can we ask our patients to heed our advice when they have no place to go? When they might be among the unlucky 40% who could be out on the streets in the coming months?
The staggering number of families facing eviction should surprise no one. The pandemic has left many Virginians without a job, without child care and without a safety net. Despite high unemployment numbers, supplemental federal unemployment benefits expired weeks ago. The federal eviction moratorium, which prohibited landlords with federally backed mortgages from evicting tenants for failure to pay rent, also has ended. Virginia’s own eviction moratorium ended in late June. And while the Virginia Supreme Court entered an order attempting to curtail sheriffs from forcing tenants out of their homes, the order does not prohibit the filing of new eviction cases nor judges from issuing final judgments against tenants for their failure to pay rent. The order leaves too many families in the eviction pipeline, living with the unimaginable stress of not knowing when they will lose their home.