To the editor:
I fought off a spasm of nausea a couple of mornings ago, listening to a National Public Radio news reporter talk about the lack of federal funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In this latest example, the Trump administration has thus far refused funding for “the Legal Disaster Services Relief” program, which exists to provide assistance to people in danger of being evicted from their homes or apartments because they could no longer afford their rent, due to the pandemic and subsequent loss of employment.
Here’s a brief account of how the program is supposed to work: American Bar Association lawyers from across the U.S. band together to provide free legal assistance over a phone line to various victims of the pandemic. The lines must be requested by the governors of the states. To date, over 39 such requests have been made. Each line costs approximately $5,000. To quote NPR, “The missing funding becomes more pressing every day because unlike most weather disasters, the pandemic is causing long-term economic destruction.”
Thus far, the Trump administration has not approved the requests, responding to questions with a single comment: “The situation is under review.”
What made the issue more impactful for me was a brief interview with a sanitation worker from New Orleans who was, in spite of a law forbidding such actions, evicted from his home because the rent payment was late. NPR quotes Mr. Bobby Parker, who says he went from working 80 hours every two weeks to working 32 hours, and when he was late paying his rent on April 1, his landlord changed the locks on his apartment. Parker is HIV-positive, and his meds were locked inside. “I’m high risk,” he says. “I was scared.”
A case worker already assigned to help Parker connected him to a lawyer at a local legal aid group. After two weeks and the threat of a lawsuit, Parker was finally allowed back into his apartment. While he was locked out, he alternated between sleeping outside and staying with a friend. Mr. Parker says if he hadn’t had a lawyer, “I’d probably be a victim testing positive for COVID-19.”
Without the FEMA funding, most states have not been able to provide legal council to those in similar need. And the Trump administration still claims the matter is “under review.” The White House spokesperson stopped just short of quoting Charles Dickens: “Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?”
The Rev. Fredrick Dennis