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Coronavirus makes Calif.’s housing crisis that much scarier for families like mine

Coronavirus makes Calif.’s housing crisis that much scarier for families like mine

Picture of Martha Escudero
Moms 4 Housing activist Misty Cross surveys the fenced-off vacant Oakland home that she and other homeless mothers occupied duri
Moms 4 Housing activist Misty Cross surveys the fenced-off vacant Oakland home that she and other homeless mothers occupied during a months-long protest, which ended in a court ordered eviction at the end of January.
(Photo by Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)

As virtually everyone in the nation endures some form of sheltering-at-home, many homeless people and those without secure housing do not have a place to keep safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of California has been facing a housing crisis for many years. When we have a pandemic, the housing shortage becomes a public health crisis.

I am a mother of two daughters who for the past 18 months has been sleeping on spare beds, couches, or sometimes on the bare floor. Until recently, my family would go from house to house, often using public transportation, toting just our clothing in bags. This instability has led to a lot of anxiety and depression for my two daughters and me. For my daughters, it has undermined their ability to concentrate and learn. 

Three years ago, I was living in Boyle Heights, an immigrant neighborhood of Los Angeles, paying $1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment. I left the country for two years to visit friends in South America and lived in a rural area away from the city. When I returned to Los Angeles, rents at the places I was looking at had doubled. I was unable to afford to live on my own. My daughters were forced to live with friends and family. We made do in crowded spaces, sometimes on a spare bed, other times on the floor or on couches. We lived out of clothing from bags that we moved around with us. It made it really hard to provide the kind of stability we know children need to thrive.

With the arrival of COVID-19, this constant moving around became too dangerous, so finding a stable, safe home where we would be able to self-quarantine became an immediate necessity. I heard about Moms 4 Housing in Oakland and their story inspired me to seek out safer housing for my daughters. A friend of mine told me she knew there were vacant homes owned by the state around El Sereno, another East Los Angeles neighborhood. Many of these homes are in good condition. Some had been sitting vacant for a few weeks and others 30 years. 

How are there so many vacant houses owned by the state? It's a question I asked. There were decades-long plans for an expansion of the 710 freeway and the California Department of Transportation obtained hundreds of homes in preparation. Due to community organizing and a legal battle, the freeway expansion was stopped. Since then, the houses were left in limbo — some were then vacant, others were now rented out with Caltrans as a landlord.

In order to obtain a house, I turned to some of the many organizations working in housing issues in Los Angeles, such as Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. I am part of a movement called Reclaiming Our Homes, a homeless advocacy coalition, where with the help of various organizations, we were eventually able to have a house, self-quarantine and keep ourselves and others safe.

The Reclaiming Our Homes coalition is made up of six organizations as well as home “reclaimers” like myself. These organizations help reclaimers in many different ways, such as setting up utilities, obtaining appliances, and begin negotiations to keep these homes. The broader goal is to put pressure on politicians to increase the supply of affordable housing for the whole state of California.

According to Streets Team, an organization that works directly with homeless, more than 20% of homeless in the nation reside in California. Also, according to Los Angeles Mission, an organization working with homeless residents of Los Angeles County, 22% of the county’s 53,195 homeless fall into older age groups, which we know are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Many families in Los Angeles County live in shelters and can face waits of four or five years before they’re transferred into a stable home. In the midst of a pandemic, we can’t wait that long without putting people’s health at serious risk. It's a scary time to be unhoused.

In my case, I am currently working as a caregiver for an elderly woman, which makes it even more important for me to care for myself. We all need to be responsible human beings and do our best to keep each other safe especially when there is an infectious virus.

Right now, my daughters and I live in a two-bedroom house with both a front and backyard. There is plenty of space for them to move and keep busy. We have all utilities on and working. We have water and plenty of food. I was lucky to be able to find secure housing and do everything in my power to be able to keep my family and others safe.

In the midst of this pandemic, we all should be provided during with a safe place to self-isolate and keep up with our hygiene so we do not spread COVID-19. We are now in a life-or-death situation where we have to be provided with basic human needs. During a public health crisis, what affects one of us will affect us all.

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