Long before the pandemic hit, Ty had already sold his plasma and pawned his laptop; he no longer had internet service at home. Then he lost his contract job doing customer service for one of the country’s biggest banks this past April. He watched as the coronavirus blanketed the United States and the death toll rose and the government botched its response. He grew despondent. His mind began drifting to all the things he had lost over the years — his beloved father, his grandfather, a connection to his estranged family. He was alone now in Salt Lake City, apart from his three cats. He started to drink daily if there was money for it. There was no work. Getting out of bed became hard.
This wasn’t an unfamiliar pattern for the 39-year-old white man, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ty, to protect his identity. He had depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and he’d gone through bouts of heavy alcohol consumption before. But the circumstances created by the pandemic — the job he lost through no fault of his own, the isolation, the bleak national outlook, the mass death — gave Ty little room to catch his breath. Months passed with no income. His prescriptions for anxiety and insomnia were running out, and he began rationing his meds for depression.
Ty is one of tens of thousands of Americans who have already been, or soon will be, evicted from their homes since the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread job and income loss in March. The combined forces of the economic fallout from the pandemic, tenuous contract employment, poor protections for tenants, and lack of access to affordable healthcare have created a miasma of conditions that has pushed those already living in a precarious state over the edge.
“I’ve had days in the past few months where it’s a struggle to muster the energy to want to do anything to keep going,” he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “When it’s just constantly storming over your head, and you can’t seem to find an umbrella … what’s the point of the struggle?”
Ty did eventually work again in July — but by that time, he had already fallen about three months behind on rent. In August, he was evicted for a debt of $3,700, leaving him without a home, medication, or health insurance as the COVID-19 death toll in the US surpassed 170,000.
“Which of the systems am I most disappointed with? And which of the systems is affecting me most in the way it’s failing right now? All of them,” he said from his friends’ nearby home, where he has been staying since he lost his apartment.
The pandemic has forced people who are financially vulnerable to fall back on the generosity of others, which Ty described as “an indictment of the failure of our society.” While these acts go viral on social media as feel-good instances of kindness or charity, they belie larger systemic problems that have led working Americans, living in the world’s largest economy, to struggle for survival, often due to circumstances beyond their control, with little institutional support. There have always been two Americas, but the pandemic has thrown the divide between the haves and have-nots into stark relief. As workers with low incomes bear the brunt of this crisis, those who have been able to keep stable employment during the pandemic, who are able to work from home, whose investments have benefited from a surging stock market, have been relatively untouched.
“Without question, this event has exacerbated really preexisting disparities in our economy that were already troubling,” said Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell in an interview with NPR in September.
A chronic lack of access to affordable healthcare (including mental healthcare), affordable housing, and stable employment already strained millions of Americans before the pandemic. That strain is now ballooning into distress. For those with a mental illness, that distress can seem insurmountable, making the pandemic dangerous in secondary ways aside from catching the virus.
Before COVID-19, 47 million Americans said they had had a mental illness in the last year. According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “it is likely that mental health issues and substance use disorders among people with these conditions will be exacerbated” during the pandemic. It said increased depression, anxiety, distress, and low self-esteem are generally associated with job loss and can also lead to higher rates of substance use disorder and suicide.
By September, 12.6 million people in the US were unemployed, and 6.3 million people were working only part time “for economic reasons.” Despite moratoriums that temporarily ban evictions, the threat of eventual displacement looms for millions who have not been able to pay rent. Since the pandemic was declared, landlords have filed more than 53,000 eviction cases in the 17 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab.
For many like Ty, it is already too late.
Working from home presented one big challenge for Ty — he didn’t have a computer or internet.
After months of unemployment last year, he disconnected his internet and eventually pawned his laptop. This hadn’t been a problem at his new job until April this year, when the pandemic was beginning to spread across the US, and Ty came down with a cough.
By then, Ty had secured the contract job for the bank. It paid $21 an hour, well above the state’s minimum wage, and offered him a way to get back on his feet.
He asked his employer, a third-party agency, to lend him a laptop and set up internet service for him so he could keep working. They said, “Unfortunately, no,” without further explanation and ended the contract. They instructed him to contact his local labor department, but previous denials for unemployment benefits in 2019 discouraged him from applying again. “During my depression, it was planted in the back of my mind that this was just another thing that would go wrong for me,” he said.
The bank, which Ty asked BuzzFeed News not to name for fear of retribution, went on to report record billions in profit that quarter. Its executives bragged to investors of the ways it provided financial support and equipment to employees during this hugely difficult time. But Ty, who as a contract worker was never granted the benefits of full employment from the bank, was living the flip side of it. “The rich don’t get rich by spending their money,” he said.
As the spring wore on into summer, weeks would pass when Ty barely got off the couch. “I wasn’t actively searching for new employment as hard as I should have. I didn’t get any unemployment. So I was just completely flat out and went back to selling my things and plasma,” Ty said.
He kept up with the news, which was endlessly dismal. Many days, if Ty got out of bed at all it was to take care of his cats — but even then he would go straight back to bed. “No one else wanted to see me. I had nothing else to do,” he said.
“There are emotional resources that sometimes people don’t have,” said David H. Rosmarin, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “There were a number of different factors coming together in the last few months that in isolation would have been extraordinarily challenging, and, in combination, have made it impossible for some people to function.”
But, Rosmarin added, people are generally resilient.
Things started turning around for Ty in July, when he secured full-time employment at the deli of a nearby grocery store for $14 an hour. He wouldn’t be eligible for health benefits to help cover his prescriptions immediately, but he was beginning to feel the “basic niceties” of life were within reach again; maybe he could reconnect his phone and internet soon. But as far as his landlord was concerned, there was no more time for redemption.
On July 27, right after the federal halt on evictions had lifted, Ty’s landlord gave him notice that he had three days to pay or vacate. He wasn’t alone. Eviction cases shot up back to pre-pandemic levels in Utah courts that month.
“I appealed to their humanity. At first I was like, how? How can you? How can you do this? I’ve never caused trouble. I’ve been a good tenant for two years. The second the eviction ban lifts they put the notice on my door. I said: ‘Look, I’m working. I can start to pay this off. Please understand that this is a global pandemic and work with me. Please, please have some compassion,’” Ty said. “They informed me that it was really out of their hands. That their corporate entity told them to move forward with evictions as soon as the ban was lifted, and what corporate says goes.”
Like all evictions in the state, the rest went by quickly. He didn’t respond to the landlord’s notice, which in Utah meant he would not have a court hearing. He had decided it was more important to go to his job at the grocery store and keep earning an income than to try to schedule a hearing. “Am I going to put myself further in the hole by missing another day of work when I desperately need that money to try to get back on my feet?” he said. “I know how it’s gonna go in the court anyway. They’re gonna tell me the same thing that everybody else in power has told me: shrug, tough luck.”
Ty’s last night in his one-bedroom, one-bath apartment, a unit in a cookie-cutter community near the interstate with a tennis court, a clubhouse, and pools, was Aug. 17. On the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 18, two officers from the constable's office and the building’s maintenance worker came to change the locks on his door. They only gave him time to grab a few essentials — and his cats.
“I was like, look, man, just give me the rest of the day. I’m just trying to get my stuff out. Just let me get my stuff, and I’ll be out of your hair. And they were like, ‘No, we can’t. You’re out right now.’”
On Aug. 18, the temperature in Salt Lake City would reach a high of 100 degrees. Ty borrowed a friend’s truck and moved what he was able to salvage from his apartment into a storage unit. He wasn’t able to pack most of his possessions — including his sofa, bed, television, shelves, books, and “a lot of memories,” he said — which he left in the apartment. Some friends who saw what was happening invited him and his cats to stay on the sofa in their one-bedroom apartment. This is where he has been living since.
Ty, who grew up in Wisconsin with parents with alcoholism, said even if he could afford to move home, going back was not an option. “It would have killed me,” he said.
Due to the health crisis, support from neighbors in the absence of a family or other social network to fall back on could become rarer, said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Usually when people get evicted, they pull something together. They either stay with family or someone lets them stay for a while, and then they move on to someplace else. Most commonly, even among low-income people, they do eventually get into housing, in normal times,” she said. But for those who aren’t able to figure something out, “it could be the beginning of a downward spiral that ends in homelessness.”
Ty’s possessions stayed locked in his former apartment. To retrieve his things, he would have to call the property’s landlord and eviction lawyers, he was told on the day he was evicted. When he reached them a few days later, they demanded $1,100 to get back into his apartment — money he didn’t have. He had just been paid at work and had only $700 in his bank account. “If I had $1,100, I would have paid for another month’s rent and had a roof over my head for another 30 days,” he said.
Without any other outlet for his anger, he tweeted about his eviction, which caught the attention of a few people whom he had coached in high school football long ago. They reached out to Ty and some other former players and quickly collected the $1,100 he needed to retrieve the rest of his belongings.
“What a gesture. Some of them I haven’t seen or spoken to in years,” Ty said. “To have a group of individuals decide I impacted their lives that much when they were teenagers, that they would want to do something like that because I was in a tough spot, I just cried for days about it. It’s so special.” Such instances of generosity aren’t heartwarming, though, he said, “they’re heartbreaking.”
A couple of weeks after the eviction, Ty gave the attorneys the money. It bought him two hours to gather what remained in his apartment. He hired the cheapest moving company he could find: $215. It was worth it, he tried to tell himself, because this furniture was worth more than $1,100. In a few days, Ty had spent more than he had, and he was still left without a stable place to live. As it has been proven over and over again, it is expensive to be poor in the US.
Marty Blaustein, managing attorney of the Salt Lake office of Utah Legal Services, said landlords often make egregious demands of evicted tenants. While landlords are entitled to charge an evicted tenant for the storage of their belongings, they often unlawfully use their possessions “as ransom” to extract a higher payment from a tenant who needs their things. “It’s routine,” he said, “and 95% of the time they get away with it.” Some of that $1,100 Ty paid should at least be deducted from the balance owed to the landlord should they pursue the collection of his debt, Blaustein said.
The number of cases at Utah Legal Services is hitting previously unseen highs since eviction moratoriums were lifted. While Blaustein’s office typically gets 150 cases per month, in July the number exceeded 200 cases, and in August it had nearly 250.
And as evictions rise and people living in poverty squeeze in together into tighter quarters, affluent Americans are taking advantage of low interest rates to buy up residences and second homes at record-high prices.
The property manager and the attorney Ty paid did not respond to requests for comment.
Ty later read a tweet that captured his exact emotional reality: that life now feels like you’re canoeing through mayonnaise.
“It’s been hard. When the pandemic first hit, and every day is Saturday, and you’re sad about losing your opportunity, and you’re sad about losing your family, you start thinking about everything else that you’re going to lose,” he said. “Everything just feels so insurmountable.”
Most days, he works at the deli from about 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., unloading inventory, serving customers, slicing meats, smoking meats, making batches of salads, and doing massive amounts of cleaning before closing. He has no passion for deli work, he admitted, but he does like having someone depending on him to show up and do a job well. It helps keep his mind off things: the fact that he is trying so hard, the fact that there’s no end in sight for the pandemic, the fact that he still doesn’t have health insurance so he can’t buy medications yet, the fact that the government is offering little support to people who just aren’t making enough at their full-time jobs to land on their feet again.
“It’s not like people aren’t trying out here. Our government gave us $1,200 for, what, six months, and said, ‘here, deal with it,’” Ty said. He hopes people struggling now remember, “You’re not alone and you’re not a burden.”
As an indefinite guest in his friends’ home, Ty does what he can, given the circumstances — he stays outdoors as long as possible to give them privacy, helps care for their puppy, tidies up, buys toilet paper — but, he said, “I’m afraid I will wear out my welcome before I am able to get back on my feet.”
He hasn’t been able to save much and will soon have to start paying rent to his roommates, who recently asked for $500 per month for the sofa and utilities. He is also paying $110 a month for the storage unit. Combined, it’s about one-third of his monthly take-home pay. At that rate, he likely won’t be able to move out until after the winter, he said, adding, “I want to be out as soon as I can.”
“There are a lot of people trapped in their own prison, with no way out, for an indefinite amount of time. How many lives will the pandemic claim? How much collateral damage will be made to lives?” Ty said.
After a long day at work, he comes back to his friends’ apartment, eager to see his cats. More people would benefit from caring for animals during this difficult time, he said. Especially now, he added, since “you can give an animal desperate for a home a nice life.” •