In pandemic America’s tent cities, a grim future grows darker

By Michelle Conlin

PHOENIX, Ariz. (Reuters) – Nadeen Bender stood outside her home, a tattered two-man tent, surrounded by the re-purposed Amazon Prime boxes she uses to store her life’s belongings. One by one, she checked the cartons to make sure nothing had been stolen in the night.

When asked about her Christmas plans, the rail-thin 43-year-old said through a face mask, “to try to avoid it.” Then she burst into tears.

The tent city that has served as Bender’s neighborhood for the past seven months is in the middle of downtown Phoenix, just down the road from luxury high-rise apartments and expensive restaurants.

To deal with an exploding homeless population and encourage social distancing during the pandemic, Marcipoa County officials turned this pair of asphalt-topped parking lots into the area’s newest homeless shelter. The county has more than 7,500 people on the streets, and nearly 5,000 dead from COVID-19.

Inside the crowded encampment, ringed by security fencing and barbed wire, each family has been allotted a 12-by-12-foot lot, marked by paint, to separate people as much as possible.

Phoenix is just one example of a slow-motion disaster unfolding in many large U.S. cities as homeless numbers, already growing in recent years, spike during the global pandemic.

The virus presents a compounding threat. Not only are these populations some of the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but by destroying millions of jobs, the pandemic threatens a wave of evictions that experts warn could lead to a catastrophic housing displacement and even more people living on the streets.

With cities facing a steep hit to their tax bases due to lockdowns aimed at curbing the virus’s spread, homeless advocates say the federal government must step in, and estimate another $11.5 billion is needed immediately.

New funding for the homeless is not included in a $900-billion pandemic relief package passed by Congress on Monday. The fate of the bill was thrown up in the air the next day after President Donald Trump threatened not to sign it.

Meanwhile, the $4 billion provided earlier this year through the March CARES Act bailout and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is running out, advocates say.

“It’s not just the pandemic, it’s the financial fallout from the pandemic and the complete lack of a comprehensive response to the pandemic from the federal government,” said Diane Yentel, who is the president of the Washington-based National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“Addressing homelessness remains the most pressing health equity challenge of our time. And it’s about to get worse,” said Dr. Howard K. Koh, a professor of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who chairs its new initiative on health and homelessness.


As the coronavirus began to ravage the United States in the spring of 2020, federal, state and local governments issued temporary bans on many evictions, with an eye on the economic and health consequences of increased homelessness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September followed up with a nationwide ban that the stimulus deal would extend to Jan. 31.

Still, since the pandemic began, more than 162,000 evictions have been filed in the 27 cities tracked by the Princeton University Eviction Lab.

So far, Congress has no clear plan to deal with the expiration of the CDC’s ban, when up to 40 million people will be at risk of eviction, according to the Aspen Institute. Overnight, more than $70 billion will be owed in back rent and utilities, said Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated the U.S. homeless population at nearly 600,000 in 2019, before the pandemic hit. The potential health repercussions of a significant increase in that number due to evictions and joblessness are enormous, made exponentially worse by the pandemic, academics and health experts say.

Already, homeless families with babies in New York City shelters live amidst mold, mildew and vermin, according to an audit released on Monday by the city comptroller. Subway closures between 1 and 5 a.m. for COVID cleanings have forced many of the city’s homeless who go there for warmth to burrow deeper into the system’s tunnels or freeze in the tarp encampments and grocery-cart hovels that have become a feature of the city’s sidewalks.

New York City’s homeless die of COVID at a rate 78% higher than the general population, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

In Los Angeles, several members of the city council want the city to use the convention center as a homeless shelter. San Diego already did that – and now its convention center is suffering a COVID-19 outbreak, with 190 residents and staff testing positive.

Another homeless shelter in Chicago is reeling from an outbreak just as freezing temperatures fuel demand.

Twenty-seven states that let local moratoriums on evictions expire over the summer, before the CDC ban, had a 5.4-times higher COVID mortality rate, according to a report released on Nov. 30 by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and other four other universities.


Phoenix’s unshaded tent city is called “The Zone” by its inhabitants.

The Zone’s hundreds of residents are packed together – often not wearing masks, with many living just in sleeping bags or on a tarp. Without running water or plumbing, simple pandemic health protocols, like handwashing, are difficult. Although the city has posted portable toilets and washing stations along the perimeter, feces and garbage litter the property. In some spots, the stench is overwhelming.

COVID is a constant worry. Those who test positive for the virus can check into a 136-bed hotel provided by a nonprofit — if they can get a spot. If they prefer to remain on the streets, there’s a “shelter-in-place duffle” that contains food, water, hygienic supplies, masks and a tent.

Bender, a former foster mom with the leathered tan of someone who lives outside, said the homeless population has become more varied since the pandemic hit – she’s met a former doctor, paralegal and even an opera singer.

“A lot of us want to work, we want to get off the streets,” she said.

But the pandemic has made that seem even more impossible, she said.

“I can’t even get online” to apply for jobs, she said, “because the libraries are closed.” Her congressional stimulus check? “How would I even sign up for that or get that without a computer, or an address?”

“I didn’t think my life could get any worse,” said Bender. “But it did.”

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Sonya Hepinstall)

New Orleans renters face toxic mix of crumbling homes, weak rights, eviction worries

By Kathleen Flynn and Makini Brice

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and triggered a mass exodus, the Crescent City is bracing for new storms as it faces an entirely different crisis – the beginning of a possible wave of evictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The final eviction protections from the coronavirus relief bill, dubbed the CARES Act, expire nationwide on Aug. 24. Millions of renters around the country are worried, and evictions typically hit Black communities hardest. But those in New Orleans face a particularly toxic combination of steep housing costs, low incomes, weak tenant rights, and housing stock that is crumbling and decrepit.

New Orleans was battered early by the coronavirus, and as tourism shut, nearly one in five residents were put out of work in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the city slowly tries to reopen, that dropped to 12.9% in June, but many people are still trying to catch up to lost coronavirus income, advocates say. Up to 56% of Louisiana’s renters are now at risk of eviction, the Aspen Institute calculates, the second-highest percentage of at-risk renters in the country after Mississippi.

Potentially making matters worse, Tropical Storm Marco and Tropical Storm Laura are bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico, and threaten to flood the city again.


After flooding from Hurricane Katrina damaged 70% of the city’s housing stock in August 15 years ago, tens of thousands of New Orleans buildings stood blighted for years. Large public housing buildings were demolished, over residents’ protests, and replaced with mixed-income housing that pushed many apartment units out of reach for the city’s poor.

According to the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a housing rights organization, New Orleans rents have increased by 50% since 2000, while wages have only risen by 2%.

More than half of the city’s 390,000 residents are renters, and of those 61% are considered cost-burdened, paying more than a third of their income on rent, Jane Place calculates.

“People are paying more rent now than they’ve ever paid in their lives,” said Frank Southall, lead organizer at Jane Place. “It’s not uncommon to never see a one-bedroom apartment that’s in good condition for less than $1,200 in a city where the area median income for a single mother with a child (is) $25,000.”


Amid the pandemic, housing advocates say some landlords are taking advantage of renters’ vulnerable position.

“We are seeing landlords, that if you owe them money right now, they’re refusing to make necessary repairs that they’re legally required to do,” said Amanda Golob, a housing lawyer for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

De Borah Wells, a 49-year-old chef who worked at the landmark Creole restaurant Commander’s Palace before being furloughed in March, said her landlord threatened to evict her after she spoke up about her landlord’s treatment of tenants and complained about the repairs her home needed, including the collapse of her kitchen ceiling in June.

“I just wanted something decent. I don’t feel like a ceiling is that unreasonable!” said Wells, who negotiated with her landlord over the August rent because of the needed repairs but the deal fell through, according to correspondence between her and her lawyer. “I can see outside from my kitchen, inside.”

Wells took her landlord to court. On Friday, the landlord let her out of her lease, she said. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

In Louisiana, landlords only need to give five days’ notice before filing eviction notices, which they can do if payment is even one day late.

And, though landlords are supposed to make repairs to keep homes inhabitable, renters cannot withhold rent until they are made, leaving them with little recourse.

“The hard thing is, especially with low-income folks, it is difficult to move,” Golob said, citing unreturned deposits or first month’s rent and particularly COVID-19’s impact on rental searches. “Some people are staying in pretty terrible conditions because it is better than sleeping in their car.”

Brandie Barrow, a 25-year-old cook and mother of two, said she was able to stay current on her rent despite the restaurant where she works cutting her hours during the pandemic.

Still, after she complained last week of mold, maggots and mildew she found in her daughters’ closet, she said her apartment complex gave her 30 days to move out. Her landlord did not respond to requests for comment left by voicemail.

“How inhumane. Why should I have to pay for somewhere that I’m not happy?” Barrow said.

Tammy Esponge, the executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, an association of rental housing owners, said she thought worries about mass evictions were overblown.

The group had been encouraging landlords to work with residents to develop payment plans. So far, in Louisiana, the eviction rate was 5%, she said, though she acknowledged it was higher for some individual properties.

“Landlords don’t want to evict. They lose money,” said Esponge.

Nonetheless, Wells, who moved into her house last September, said she is thinking about leaving the city altogether. “Worse case I can go back home to Chicago where my parents and boyfriend are,” she said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington and Kathleen Flynn in New Orleans; Editing by Heather Timmons and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump signs coronavirus relief orders after talks with Congress break down

By Jeff Mason

BEDMINSTER, N.J. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump signed executive orders on Saturday partly restoring enhanced unemployment payments to the tens of millions of Americans who lost jobs in the coronavirus pandemic, as the United States marked a grim milestone of 5 million cases.

Negotiations broke down this week between the White House and top Democrats in Congress over how best to help Americans cope with the heavy human and economic toll of the crisis, which has killed more than 160,000 people across the country.

Trump said the orders would provide an extra $400 per week in unemployment payments, less than the $600 per week passed earlier in the crisis. Some of the measures were likely to face legal challenges, as the U.S. Constitution gives Congress authority over federal spending.

“This is the money they need, this is the money they want, this gives them an incentive to go back to work,” the Republican president said of the lower payments. He said 25% of it would be paid by states, whose budgets have been hard hit by the crisis.

Republicans have argued that higher payments were a disincentive for unemployed Americans to try to return to work, though economists, including Federal Reserve officials, disputed that assertion.

Trump’s move to take relief measures out of the hands of Congress drew immediate criticism from some Democrats.

“Donald Trump is trying to distract from his failure to extend the $600 federal boost for 30 million unemployed workers by issuing illegal executive orders,” said Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “This scheme is a classic Donald Trump con: playacting at leadership while robbing people of the support they desperately need.”

The Democratic-majority House of Representatives passed a coronavirus support package in May which the Republican-led Senate ignored.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called the orders a “series of half-baked measures” and accused Trump of putting Social Security “at grave risk” by delaying the collection of payroll taxes that pay for the program.

Trump also said he was suspending collection of payroll taxes, which pay for Social Security and other federal programs, an idea that he has repeatedly raised but has been rejected by both parties in Congress. He said the suspension would apply to people making less than $100,000 per year.

His orders would also stop evictions from rental housing that has federal financial backing and extend zero percent interest on federally financed student loans.

Trump initially played down the disease’s threat and has drawn criticism for inconsistent messages on public health steps such as social distancing and masks.

He spoke to reporters on Saturday at his New Jersey golf club, in a room that featured a crowd of cheering supporters.


Nearly two weeks of talks between White House officials and congressional Democrats ended on Friday with the two sides still about $2 trillion apart.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pushed to extend the enhanced unemployment payments, which expired at the end of July, at the previous rate of $600 as well as to provide more financial support for city and state governments battered by the crisis.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday offered to reduce the $3.4 trillion coronavirus aid package that the House passed in May by nearly a third if Republicans would agree to more than double their $1 trillion counteroffer.

White House negotiators Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows rejected the offer.

The $1 trillion package that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled late last month ran into immediate opposition from his own party, with as many as 20 of the Senate’s 53 Republicans expected to oppose it.

Trump did not rule out a return to negotiations with Congress.

“I’m not saying they’re not going to come back and negotiate,” he said on Saturday. “Hopefully, we can do something with them at a later date.”

Democrats have already warned that such executive orders are legally dubious and would likely be challenged in court, but a court fight could take months.

Trump has managed to sidestep Congress on spending before, declaring a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border to shift billions of dollars from the defense budget to pay for a wall he promised during his 2016 election campaign.

Congress passed legislation to stop him, but there were too few votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to override his veto – a scenario that would likely play out again with less than 90 days to go before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, additional reporting by Raphael Satter, Brad Brooks, and Rich McKay; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Diane Craft, Daniel Wallis, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Congressional Democrats, White House set new round of coronavirus aid talks

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top White House officials and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress will try again on Tuesday to narrow gaping differences over a fifth major coronavirus relief bill to help stimulate the economy and possibly provide new aid to the unemployed.

The two sides have reported some progress in recent days. But they remain far apart on a range of issues including unemployment benefits for workers made jobless by the epidemic, as well as liability protections for businesses and funding for schools, state and local governments and election security.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows were due to meet with Senate Republicans at a midday policy lunch, before resuming negotiations with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer at 3:30 p.m. EDT (1930 GMT).

Federal Reserve officials are urging Congress and the White House to help the struggling U.S. economy. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs during the crisis.

Congress passed more than $3 trillion in relief legislation early in the epidemic. But lawmakers missed a deadline last week to extend the $600 per week in enhanced unemployment payments that have played a key role in propping up the U.S. economy.

Democrats are pressing for another $3 trillion that would retain the $600 benefit and add nearly $1 trillion in assistance for state and local governments.

Senate Republicans, who have not taken part in the White House talks with Democrats, have proposed a $1 trillion package that would slash the unemployment payment to $200 a week and eventually move to 70% of wages.

Republicans say the $600 benefit – which is on top of state unemployment payments – discourages people from taking lower-paying jobs. A Fed official on Monday said there was little evidence to support that view.

Differences also remain on whether to extend a moratorium on housing evictions and Democrats’ demand for around $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments suffering revenue shortfalls as a result of the epidemic.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Writing by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Sam Holmes and Paul Simao)

Unaffordable rental housing may be ‘new normal’ in the United States

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A growing number of Americans cannot afford to pay their rent as rental property prices hit a record high, researchers said on Friday, amid an outcry over rising evictions and homelessness.

The number of U.S. households living in rentals also surged to 43.7 million in 2018 – up 21% from 2004 – a study by Harvard University found, as a growing share of older, larger families can no longer afford to buy their own homes.

“This is like nothing that we’ve seen,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, the study’s lead author, pointing to the rising number of households who are cost-burdened – or spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Some 21 million U.S. renters are cost-burdened, according to the report – accounting for almost half of all renters – in both urban and rural areas across the country, with minorities disproportionately affected.

“When we talk about cost burden, this could be the new normal,” Airgood-Obrycki, a researcher with Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The problem of unaffordable rental housing is a global one, according to World Bank, which found that the only affordable rentals in most fast-growing developing countries were insecure, in the informal sector and with poor living conditions.

About 65% of the U.S. population are homeowners, according to federal statistics, with most of the rest in rentals.

Since the 2008 recession, caused in part by a wave of homeowners unable to repay their mortgages, the number of cost-burdened renters has risen by 2.8 million, according to Apartment List, an online rental platform.

These people are forced to make difficult trade-offs.

“You might cut back on health care to pay for rent, or you might miss a rent payment, which could trigger eviction or homelessness,” Airgood-Obrycki said.

High-income renters have flooded the U.S. market, having either lost their homes or unable to afford to buy, leading to higher rents, the lowest vacancy rates since the mid-1980s and a spurt of rental construction tailored to them.

Households earning at least $75,000 per year accounted for three-quarters of the growth in renters since 2010 – up by 3.2 million – the Harvard study found.

In turn, the property prices for rental apartments have reached record highs, rising 150% between 2010 and late 2019.

“In the past decade, the lowest-income renters have seen a loss of more than 2 million apartments affordable to them and experienced increased evictions,” said Diane Yentel, chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The report makes clear that the housing crisis is most acute for the lowest-income renters, particularly low-income black and Latino renters,” she said in emailed comments.

Millions of poor people who are eligible for housing subsidies have not received help as federal rental assistance programmes have grown by only about 1.5% annually in recent years, the Harvard report said.

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

Israel forces evict Israeli settlers in West Bank land dispute case

A protestor prays before Israeli security forces come to evacuate 15 Jewish settler families from the illegal outpost of Netiv Ha'avot in the Israeli occupied West Bank. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Dedi Hayun

NETIV HA’AVOT, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli security forces on Tuesday began evicting Jewish settlers from 15 homes which Israel’s highest court ruled were built illegally on privately-owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

Under a Supreme Court order, the 15 dwellings are to be demolished within the next few days. Hundreds of young pro-settlement activists gathered on Tuesday in several of the homes slated for demolition. Some of the protesters climbed onto the roof of one dwelling and hoisted Israeli flags.

A few scuffles ensued with police but for the most part, demonstrators offered passive resistance and were carried away by officers who grabbed hold of their arms and legs. In one home, an Israeli policeman hugged a weeping man as he escorted him out.

Most countries consider all Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and other land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal. Israel disputes this, and there are now about 500,000 Israeli settlers living among some 2.6 million Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The entire Netiv Ha’avot settlement was built without official Israeli authorization, but the government has retroactively agreed to allow the rest of the community to stay once the 15 homes built on private Palestinian land come down.

“People are being torn from their houses and families are sad,” said Elazar Herz Van Spiegel, 45, a Netiv Ha’avot settler, whose home was not one of those due to be demolished. “But … we are very optimistic about the future.”

Palestinians dismissed the dismantling of a small number of homes as an empty gesture.

Wassel Abu Youssef, a Palestine Liberation Organization official said: “All settlement is illegal and must be removed. Israel is trying to fool world public opinion by removing some homes here and there while it continues to build settlements.”

The Israeli government has announced a plan to pay compensation to the families whose homes are to be razed and rehouse them on adjacent tracts not owned by individual Palestinians.

The remainder of Netiv Ha’avot, where some 20 houses stand on land not covered by the court ruling, is to be granted legal status and designated a neighborhood of an Israeli government-recognized settlement, Elazar, the cabinet decided in February.

Israeli authorities have carried out similar evictions in the past under court order. In February 2017, some 300 settlers were removed from the unauthorized outpost of Amona in the West Bank.

But settlement expansion, which has drawn Palestinian and international condemnation, has continued, with little objection from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in contrast to criticism voiced by his predecessor Barack Obama.

Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say Israeli settlements are intended to deny them a viable and contiguous country. Israel’s refusal to halt settlement expansion was one of the reasons peace talks collapsed in 2014.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)

Mass killings, forced evictions threaten indigenous, minority groups to point of “eradication”: rights group

By Lin Taylor

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Mass killings, forced evictions and conflicts over land put indigenous and minority groups at risk of being eradicated from their ancestral lands, a human rights group said on Tuesday.

From Ethiopia, China and Iraq, the combination of armed conflicts and land dispossession has led to the persecution of minority groups and the erosion of cultural heritage, according to a report by the Minority Rights Group (MRG).

Carl Soderbergh, MRG director of policy and communications, said while discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities is not new, the level of targeted abuse is getting worse.

“The conflict that’s happening in Syria and Iraq right now is leading to the massive displacement of smaller and very ancient religious minorities like the Yazidis and the Sabean Mandeans,” said Soderbergh, lead author of the ‘State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016’ report.

“They are essentially at risk of being totally eradicated in their traditional areas of origin.”

Civil conflicts and sectarian tensions have engulfed Iraq since 2003 when a U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein. In 2014, Islamic State militants declared a caliphate after capturing swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Minorities including the Yazidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Christians and Kaka’i have been disproportionately affected by the recent violence in Iraq.

According to U.N. officials, Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS, has shown particular cruelty to the Yazidis, whom they regard as devil-worshippers, killing, capturing and enslaving thousands.

The persecution of Yazidis was recognized as genocide by the United Nations in June.

“It is getting worse. Whether it’s armed groups like ISIS or (Nigerian Islamist group) Boko Haram or it’s governments, there’s this targeting of heritage that we’re seeing, which is extremely worrisome,” Soderbergh said.

He said many minorities and indigenous peoples also face forced resettlement or evictions from their ancestral lands to make way for large-scale infrastructure or agricultural businesses, which further threatens their cultural heritage and identity.

For example, in parts of East Africa, governments are pushing for pastoralist communities to switch to settled farming with supporters saying such a move will create better food security, curb conflict between herders and farmers and free up land.

But Maasai herdsmen say the privatization and subdivision of their ancestral lands threatens ancient pastoralist practices, endangering livestock on which they depend and eroding communal rights to land and natural resources.

“Once a community is removed from the land, they really struggle to  maintain their cultures and convey their cultures to the next generation,” Soderbergh said.

By 2115, it is estimated that at least half of the approximately 7,000 indigenous languages worldwide will die out, the report said.

Although some governments see these groups as a threat to the state, Soderbergh said minorities and indigenous peoples must be included in decisions that affect their communities.

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women’s rights, and climate change. Visit to see more stories)