Pain, pride and Pelosi: three things that have weighed heavily on the mind of writer, editor, disability advocate and Indian-Appalachian mom Neera Doss Burner.
At the end of August, her two children started third and fourth grade in Huntington, West Virginia’s Cabell County School District. That was the same time her family was evicted because lawmakers failed to renew legislative protection against displacement.
And, within the first two weeks of classes, her daughter has transitioned back to quarantined-learning after exposure to a COVID+ peer.
The Burner family’s story raises quite the question for elected leaders: how can parents be expected to provide quality homeschooling for their children while being evicted from their homes?
Doss Burner sat down with Black By God to discuss what navigating such turmoil has meant for their family— and why pushing back against the stigma and shame of eviction is critical.
“I’m proud of the people that we are and I have the audacity to say something. We’re all so much closer to losing any sense of security than we know and I truly think pushing back against the stigma that this is any bit shameful, or that it should be secretive, gives it a face to give it a little less power.”
-Neera Doss Burner
But her faith in government infrastructure aiding families during the pandemic has plummeted, Doss Burner shared. “These representatives who say they care but don’t show up for the people impacted the most? It really shows their true colors. They don’t care about my children. They care about getting elected.”
As the time to renew stable housing policy passed in D.C., the expiration of protective eviction legislation meant displacement for families across the U.S. at the exact time children reenter school rooms, some for the very first time in 18 months, and the Delta variant surges.
Enacted on March 27, 2020, as part of the CARES Act, the moratorium was initially set to end on July 24, 2020, but was extended through January 31, 2021– and further protection continued per CDC direction through March 31 and later June 30.
That very same day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted her white flag of surrender. “In an act of pure cruelty, Republicans blocked this measure— leaving children and families out on the streets,” she posted at 10:20 p.m.
No, the pandemic hadn’t improved, and no, the need for stable housing hadn’t lessened; naturally, the best course of action was to place the responsibility of humane housing to landlords— who already routinely benefit from the inhumane hoarding of shelter for profit.
One freshman member of the House wasn’t as easily dissuaded by Democratic leaders’ lack of imagination past Republican roadblocks: Missouri’s Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter organizer since the movement’s inception and former unhoused mother herself.
“Today, as a Congresswoman, I remember what it was like for us to live out of my car when I’m thinking about how to legislate on behalf of my district,” she wrote in a TIME article on July 31. “I think about how society wanted me to believe that being unhoused was my fault. We have a deeply rooted misconception in our country that unhoused people have done something to deserve their conditions ─ when the reality is that unhoused people are living the consequences of our government’s failure to secure the basic necessities people need to survive.”
Bush slept outside of the Capitol for three nights, leading the call for government intervention. And it worked, for now. Biden secured protection for 60 days, leaving the clock ticking down to October 3.
“With the virus’s delta variant quickly spreading throughout the United States, renters in about 90 percent of the country qualify for the new moratorium,” the Washington Post reported sourcing a statement from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Though public scrutiny did spark presidential intervention, the change coming after the moratorium’s official expiration left families across America with eviction notices on their doors.
It was too late for too many– one of those families, from Huntington, West Virginia, is Neera Doss Burner, her husband Greg Burner and their two children.
“It was the most stressful time of my life, honestly,” Doss Burner said, referring to the overlap between school starting, seeking safety and shelter and enduring the eviction process in court.
“Not knowing where we were going to live if the new house didn’t close in time was traumatic. I’d homeschooled the children for the past year, so I was already nervous about them going to in-person school… Then I was trying to manage the eviction, too.”
The notice to vacate the home they’ve shared for four years came after 18 months of bare-minimum maintenance done to the property by their landlord, creating below-standard living conditions: a cookie sheet covering a hole in the ceiling, fallen trees and storm debris untouched, water damage shown on multiple walls and mold covered by paint (to name a few).
The Burners’ landlord began the eviction process due to two missed rent payments in July and August of this year.
Withholding payment, according to the family, was one last effort to provide their children– one who has a respiratory condition already– with a house that didn’t threaten their health in addition to COVID’s spread.
The Burners said that the magistrate did not consider well-documented proof of their decrepit rental. “It’s incredible that he didn’t even look at our evidence showing the home was unsanitary. He really didn’t care if our children were at risk,” Doss Burner said. “All he cared about was getting us out of his courtroom in under 15 minutes and that in itself is an issue because it isn’t justice. It’s laziness. If our magistrates look at these ‘small’ court cases without care, what else do they not care about?”
Before their new house closed on August 25, they had to decide whether to live out of a hotel or split up at family and friends’ houses– using public wifi along the way and keeping as much as they could in a UHaul. Still, the couple says they’re fortunate to have already been pursuing homeownership by the time eviction protection ran out.
“If we had been renting again, with an eviction on our record, it would be so hard to secure a home,” she said. “We’re buying a house during a pandemic, so there are delays in the bank and with eviction protection, this would not be the situation that we’re in. It’s very stressful. It’s very sad. I’m having to take time off from work because I’m trying to secure where my family is going within a week.”
The eviction process takes a physical and mental toll, worsened further by comorbidities the family navigates. Doss Burner is chronically ill, and the progress she had made maintaining weight hasn’t recovered since before the notice to leave their home.
Her daughter also has a preexisting condition and has transitioned back to homeschooling for two weeks after being exposed to a peer who tested positive for COVID. The potential quarantine periods from school transmission are more expected with three people who frequent classrooms– the two primary-school-aged children and Greg Burner teaching middle school in Wayne County.
“Homeschooling was fun and rewarding, but when I started working again it was very hard to balance my workload and also ensure the children were getting all the necessary lessons they needed,” Doss Burner said. “My mother and I made our own syllabus. I loved teaching by using video games and I stand by that as an educational aid. Even though I was worried, I was excited for them to go back to school. Now that she’s home again on quarantine, I’ve realized that this is going to be the way it is for a while. It makes it hard for parents to plan.”
Eviction protection would have a direct impact on healthcare. According to a new study from MIT, ‘Ending an eviction moratorium increases Covid-19 hazard,’ comorbidities like the Burners live with are exacerbating the severity of the pandemic. “On average, when a state lifted its moratorium and let evictions resume, the hazard of contracting Covid-19 was 1.39 times greater after five weeks and 1.83 times greater after 12 weeks, rather than if the moratorium had continued.”
“When people had three or more comorbidities, that likelihood increased by 2.37 times within 12 weeks. The hazard of contracting Covid-19 in non-affluent areas, and in areas of high rent burden, were 2.14 times and 2.31 times higher, respectively, within 12 weeks in states that lifted eviction moratoriums, as opposed to maintaining them,” MIT reported.
Sebastian Sandoval-Olascoaga, currently a Ph.D. student and co-author of the report, found that community wellbeing devolves as individuals and families are unhoused. “Not having access to a stable way of sheltering yourself from the pandemic can be very impactful for how the pandemic spreads, not just for you but for your community. There are spillover effects, and there is a transmission process created by evictions within a community,” he said.
Though Doss Burner feels failed by public resources threefold– from Congress’ inability to secure eviction protection to a legal system ignoring inhumane living conditions, and the Board of Education’s responsibility if a child dies from COVID– she believes being open about their displacement will help the mounting number of families facing eviction. “I’m not the only person. If you’re going through eviction, you will feel like you’re worthless. You will feel like the court just told you you’re nothing, that you don’t even deserve a home. Don’t listen to it. You are not what they say and they do not determine your worth or value,” she said.
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