Our rural and urban Black communities deserve better. Take the stories and biblical connections in Building a City on a Hill and use them to make a difference.
On May 30th, 1921, in Greenwood, Oklahoma, a blood-thirsty mob burned down a wealthy and prosperous Black community because of a false accusation.
Tulsa’s north side was a prosperous community, exclusively Black because Jim Crow law had prohibited Negroes from living in white neighborhoods, where it was said more than 3,000 Klu Klux Klan members resided in the area. At that time, there were countless all-Black communities like Greenwood scattered throughout the US. 60 in Oklahoma territory alone. Greenwood, however, was the jewel of Negro America. Though white Tulsan’s called it Little Africa, Booker T. Washington gave it the name we know today, Black Wall Street. And it was the wealthiest Black community in America where Black men and women came to pursue the American dream. It boasted Black-owned banks, pharmacies, grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, churches, newspaper publishing, law offices, a bus company, its own school district where the average student wore a uniform with a suit and tie, a business college, a hospital with an entire Black staff and an internationally acclaimed surgeon, Black millionaires, which Greenwood was known to have had more millionaires residing there than the entire United States combined.
One of the only two airports in the state of Oklahoma was for the half dozen private airplanes owned by its Black oil tycoons. To top it off, the minimum wage and living standard of a resident of Black Wall Street far exceeded Tulsa’s average white citizen, but on May 30th, 1921, all that changed. Dick Rowland, a shoeshine boy, entered the Drexel building elevator to use only a few colored bathrooms in downtown Tulsa. On the top floor, Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, began operating the elevator when it lurched, causing Rowland to stumble. He bumped into Sarah, and she screamed. Rowland knew what Frederick Douglass had penned as the truth regarding the treatment of Black men in America. To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished.
In this case, when it came to a white woman’s accusations, punishment meant death, and knowing her scream was a likely death sentence, young Rowland ran away. He was later seized and apprehended with the intent of being lynched. Word of a Black man raping a defenseless white girl spread throughout the Tulsa area. Dozens and then hundreds of white men grew to a mob of over 2000 white men gathered at the County courthouse demanding justice. But justice for what? Sarah Page wasn’t assaulted, her clothes weren’t ruffled, and though her story wavered during questioning, she ultimately affirmed she was not harmed.
Moreover, she refused to sign a statement saying that she had been raped. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a false accusation of a Black man who needed to be put in his place — at the end of a rope. The Tulsa Tribune headlines screamed, “A Negro Assaults a White Girl.”
And later, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
With no basis and fact for the allegations of rape, the mob persisted in their demand for justice of a white girl who emphatically stated that no injustice had been done. Walter White of the New York Evening Post wrote, “Chief of police, John A Gustafsson, sheriff McCullough, mayor T.D. Evans and many reputable citizens, among them a prominent oil operator, all declared the girl had not been molested, that no attempt at criminal assault had been made. Victor F. Barnett, the managing editor of The Tribune, stated that his paper had since learned that the original story that the girl’s face was scratched, and her clothes torn was untrue.”
And there you have it, fake news. But the damage had already been done, and the wheels were set in motion. Armed Black World War 1 veterans were among the less than 100 members of the Greenwood community who came to prevent another lynching of a Black man, as thousands had been lynched since the generation of reconstruction. A verbal confrontation led to a shot being fired, triggering what would soon become the bloodiest racial conflict in American history. Some 500 members of the white mob were armed and deputized by city officials, and those who didn’t own weapons looted stores to obtain guns and ammunition along the way. Thousands of angry white men descended upon “Little Africa” as a few white families provided sanctuary to those fleeing from violence.
For 24 hours, the mob looted, murdered, and raised the wealthiest Black city in America to the ground. Eyewitness testimony stated a dozen or more planes circled the Black area, dropping burning turpentine balls over Greenwood’s city and firing bullets at Black residents, young and old, gunning them down in the streets. It was the first and only time Americans used planes to attack and kill their own citizens, as it destroyed an entire city. Authorities engaged in a concerted effort to prevent help from arriving until considerable damage was done by cutting off communication, requesting help, blocking transportation ways of firefighters and ambulances, and even preventing the Red Cross from coming in earlier to help the injured and terrorized community.
“As they passed the city’s most traveled street, they held both hands high above their heads, their hats in one hand, as a token of their submission to the white man’s authority. They will not return to the homes they had on Tuesday afternoon, only the heaps of ashes, the angry white man’s reprisal for the wrong inflicted on them by the inferior race,” reported the Tulsa Tribune.
Following the massacre, insurance companies refused to compensate the residents though the city and its officials were found negligent in preventing it. Decades of silence about the terror, violence, and theft passed. There were no convictions for any of the charges related to the murders or violence. Not one white person was ever held responsible for these crimes, though dozens of Black men were indicted for inciting a riot. Government and city officials not only failed to invest and rebuild the once thriving Greenwood community but blocked efforts to do so and even actively sought to appropriate their land. The crime wasn’t acknowledged by the city or the state of Oklahoma for over 70 years, rarely mentioning it in the history books, classrooms, or even in private. Most residents grew into middle age, completely unaware of what had taken place. Even a report detailing Tulsa’s fire department’s history from 1897 to 2017 made no mention of the massacre.
And on that Memorial Day weekend, June 1st, 1921, Greenwood, Oklahoma, was brought to an abrupt end. Black wall street was wiped off the map. 300 African Americans murdered, possibly more. Thousands injured. More than 10,000 left homeless. Forty city blocks burned to the ground. And the few homes left were completely looted. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated property losses amounting to the equivalent of more than $32 million in today’s money. Unbeknownst to most, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street wasn’t the only Black town to be ethnically cleansed in America. It wasn’t the only city forgotten, nor was it the only Black town no one was ever arrested, prosecuted, or where victims were never compensated. Time has passed, memories have faded, and survivors have died, taking the knowledge of not only how the cities were destroyed but arguably even more tragic, the knowledge of how these countless all-Black towns were built. Can a biblical blueprint be extrapolated from what we found? That is indeed our challenge, to cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate to turn our desolate neighborhoods into thriving communities and build them up by utilizing the keys to economic and societal development. Let us rediscover, let us reunite, and let us rebuild a new Black Wall Street.
Faith leaders are ramping up their support for an Oklahoma death row inmate as his clemency hearing nears.
Julius Jones, 40, was sentenced to death in 2002, but his advocates say a different person committed the crime in which a prominent Edmond, Oklahoma, businessman was killed during a carjacking. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is expected to consider Jones’ case at a March 8 commutation hearing.
On Monday (March 1), Jones’ lawyers released a video in which a man imprisoned in Arkansas said that a former fellow inmate told him he was responsible for the killing instead of Jones. His comments follow the signing of sworn affidavits by two other people who support Jones’ claim of innocence.
Jones’ family has said he was home with them when the killing occurred.
In an online event held the day after the video was released, Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas megachurch The Potter’s House urged that the new information about Jones’ case be considered.
“We’re not even asking for mercy; we’re just asking for justice,” Jakes said in the video conference call hosted by Values Partnerships that also included reality TV star Kim Kardashian West speaking in support of Jones. “We as people of faith have a responsibility to make sure that we have done everything we could. If Jesus acquitted the guilty, then surely he would advocate for the innocent.”
The Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, founder of the Justice for Julius Coalition in Oklahoma, helped lead a Feb. 25 march and prayer rally in which a crowd of more than 100 gathered outside a United Methodist church in Oklahoma City to sing, advocate and deliver boxes containing more than 6.2 million signatures on a petition to the parole board’s office in support of Jones.
At the prayer rally, a friend of Jones played a taped message from the inmate expressing gratitude for his supporters, The Oklahoman reported. “God has not forgotten me,” he said.
Jones-Davis said in a statement she believes Jones’ innocence is clear.
“Julius Jones did not murder Paul Howell,” she said. “It is unthinkable to proceed with this execution knowing that the real killer is out there and has confessed, on multiple occasions, to his crime.”
During the summer, Jakes wrote a letter to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and members of the state’s parole board expressing his concern “that the perpetrator of the crime is still at large.”
Sojourners founder Jim Wallis expressed his concern that “the risk of false testimony, the evidence of racism, and the finality of a death sentence” are reasons for a commutation for Jones, a Black man convicted in the death of a white man.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater urged the board to deny Jones’ application for commutation and said the prisoner is “fueling a media circus with outright lies,” The Associated Press reported.
In his 2019 commutation application, Jones declared his innocence.
“(A)s God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Paul Howell being shot and killed on July 28, 1999,” he wrote. “I have spent the past twenty years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness, and was not at.”
Depending on the outcome of the first commutation hearing, Jones’ case could advance to another stage that could lead to his sentence being commuted. If his application for commutation is denied, he is expected to receive a date of execution.
So another Black History Month is here, and for artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types that hail from the Black community, it’s an opportunity that comes with a burden.
February is a time when your workplace, school, or church might be more open to forms of artistic expression that highlights the achievements of Black people, particularly for those of you who live and/or work in a predominantly White community. And while it’s obviously a great opportunity to highlight the best of our tradition as a community, it also means that from an exposure standpoint, it’s an opening to get your songs, poems, plays, or paintings seen and heard by people who might be able to support you financially.
But the burden is the challenge of successfully executing your art without being swallowed whole by the bitterness of the struggle. I mean, let’s just be honest: struggle might be the catalyst that serves to incubate powerful works of art, but it’s terrible as a sales technique. No one can alienate their audience through their art and simultaneously persuade them to become financial supporters.
The truth is, we’ve come a long way as African Americans. No longer are we restricted to the kinds of gigs and roles that kept us docile and subservient in the minds of the majority. In recent years, there has been a greater level of visibility to the everyday struggle that Black Americans endure, and it’s also helped place a premium on authentic Black art that helps to articulate that struggle.
Still, if we’re not careful, we’ll fall into a false dichotomy, where we feel like either we must keep it fully 100 at all times with our art, or we’re selling out for the money.
But there’s a middle ground.
Discerning the Difference
Ten years ago, I was in a hip-hop duo traveling to a Christian camp to do a concert for a bunch of youth from the inner city. When I arrived onto the campus, I headed to the most logical place for music performance—the chapel.
As I walked into the chapel, I walked up to the sound booth, and told the guy that I was with the hip-hop group that was supposed to perform. He gave me this blank stare, so I thought, “Hey, it’s loud in here, so maybe he can’t hear me that well.” I tried again, a bit louder.
“I’m with the Iccsters… y’know, the hip-hop group.”
Again, he gives me this confused stare. And then he says, “This is Christian camp.”
Right then and there, I almost lost it. I could tell that he didn’t really mean to say anything offensive to me, but it was like all the years of being stereotyped as a young Black man, overlooked and misunderstood as a rap artist, all the times hip-hop had been blamed for all of society’s problems—by other Christians, no less!—almost overwhelmed me. I wanted to set him straight and tell him that there are Christians who perform hip-hop, and his assumption was shortsighted, racist, and insulting.
But I had somewhere to go, so I swallowed that rage, walked out of the room, called my contact, and located my actual destination (a different building with a smaller setup).
Often, when I’m invited to share hip-hop as a form of worship music and find myself in spaces that remind me of that day, I’m tempted to go back to that moment, tap into that rage, and give the audience a piece of my pain.
The wisdom and maturity of age helped me learn how to posture myself, not as someone with an axe to grind, but as someone with something of value to share. And when I share my pain, I do it with an eye toward giving others an opportunity to join me in my struggle, instead of guilting them for not already being onboard.
Sometimes God calls us to stand up and fight; other times, He simply gives as an opportunity to share who we are and how we got here. As an artist, my prayer is for us to flip the script and learn to discern the difference.
The constant drumbeat of negative news stories about violence, from the rioters who stormed the Capitol to the latest neighborhood or school shooting, is all so unnerving. Some people find that they’ve become numb to most of it, except the most shocking of stories. As people of faith, many of us find ways to peacefully address issues of violence that plague our communities. Dr. Melvin E. Banks, the founder of UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), has biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover injustice, gang violence, drug dealers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program called Daily Direction, which covers a variety of topics.
We are seeing an outpouring of donations from individuals, corporations and foundations that began to grow as soon as protests and other activities in support of racial and social justice started to spread across the country.
Floyd’s GoFundMe memorial campaign has garnered more donations than any other campaign in the online platform’s history, raising over $14 million with 500,000 individual donors from 140 countries worldwide. Many of these gifts to the impacted families of police violence were for $5 and few were for $50,000 or more.
For example, when protests erupted, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which advocates for a more equitable system of cash bail, turned its attention to bailing out arrested protesters. Once the fund reached a total of $20 million in donations, its organizers urged donors to support Black-led organizations.
Other grassroots organizations and networks also received support, such as the National Bail Fund Network, which received $80 million in donations in late spring.
Even before the protests erupted, the Movement for Black Lives had received $5 million in the first five months of 2020 to support Black communities affected by the pandemic and to address broader issues of racial equity. This was nearly double the $2.7 million the group, founded in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, raised in all of 2019, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
The Libra Foundation announced that a dozen grant-making organizations were joining together to give a total of $36 million to Black-led organizations and social movements like The Black Youth Project and the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.
These numbers provide only a partial estimate of total giving to these causes, and it will take at least until mid-2021 for the IRS to begin to release the official records and statistics needed for a fuller picture of giving to these groups. Based on data from Candid, a research group, institutional funders and large donors have contributed $5.9 billion for organizations primarily engaged in in racial equity work to date.
3. Shoring up HBCUs
Historically Black colleges and universities, often called HBCUs, and related groups that fund scholarships for the students who attend them, are getting more donations in 2020.
All told, the roughly 100 HBCUs have a total of only $2 billion in their endowments. By comparison, 54 predominantly white colleges and universities have $2 billion or more in their own endowment.
In 2018, for example, there were seven of these major gifts totaling $48 million. In contrast, there were at least 33 of these donations by mid-September of 2020, totaling $347 million, according a list of these donations of $1 million or more compiled by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and tracking by statistician Xiao Han of additional news reports and public information disclosed by donors and the schools.
Donors from all backgrounds have turned their attention to increasing calls for racial equity. While new donors are turning their giving to racial equity issues, wealthy African Americans have contributed to causes that support racial justice and equity.
Along with other colleagues at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and in partnership with the Bank of America, we are conducting a long-term research project regarding affluent donors. Based on our findings in our 2018 report, at least half of all wealthy Black donors supported African American causes, compared to 6.5% overall of all surveyed donors.
Additionally, 43.8% of the wealthy Black donors surveyed indicated that they made giving to groups that aim to improve race relations a high priority, as opposed to an average of 5.7% all donors.
In mid-September, philanthropist Susan Sandler announced that she was giving a total of $200 million to an array of racial justice groups. Sandler’s disclosure echoed Scott’s announcement, in July 2020, that she was giving $587 million to HBCUs and racial justice organizations.
That means established civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League, and newer racial justice groups like the Equal Justice Initiative, which aims to end mass incarceration and advance racial equity, and the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank focused on improving racial equity within police departments, are all getting a boost.
Kim Williams-Pulfer, Postdoctoral Research Appointee-Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, IUPUI and Una Osili, Professor, Economics and Philanthropic Studies; Associate Dean for Research and International Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI
Robert Pettigrew has a mass on his lung that makes him more suscpetible to contracting COVID-19, so he had to give up his job at Motel 6 when the pandemic struck. The loss in income meant that his family had trouble paying the $600-a-month rent on their two-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee, and were served an eviction notice by their landlord after a statewide eviction moratorium expired in May. (Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch)
In August, Robert Pettigrew was working a series of odd jobs. While washing the windows of a cellphone store he saw a sign, one that he believes the “good Lord” placed there for him.
“Facing eviction?” the sign read. “You could be eligible for up to $3,000 in rent assistance. Apply today.”
It seemed a hopeful omen after a series of financial and health blows. In March, Pettigrew, 52, learned he has an invasive mass on his lung that restricts his breathing. His doctor told him his condition puts him at high risk of developing deadly complications from COVID-19 and advised him to stop working as a night auditor at a Motel 6, where he manned the front desk. Reluctantly, he had to leave that job and start piecing together other work.
With pay coming in less steadily, Pettigrew and his wife, Stephanie, fell behind on the rent. Eventually, they were many months late, and the couple’s landlord filed to evict them.
Then Pettigrew saw the rental assistance sign.
“There were nights I would lay in bed and my wife would be asleep, and all I could do was say, ‘God, you need to help me. We need you,’” Pettigrew said. “And here he came. He showed himself to us.”
As many as 40 million Americans faced a looming eviction risk in August, according to a report authored by 10 national housing and eviction experts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited that estimate in early September when it ordered an unprecedented, nationwide eviction moratorium through the end of 2020.
That move — a moratorium from the country’s top public health agency — spotlights a message experts have preached for years without prompting much policy action: Housing stability and health are intertwined.
The CDC is now citing stable housing as a vital tool to control the coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans. Home is where people isolate themselves to avoid transmitting the virus or becoming infected. When local governments issue stay-at-home orders in the name of public health, they presume that residents have a home. For people who have the virus, home is often where they recover from COVID-19’s fever, chills and dry cough — in lieu of, or after, a hospital stay.
But the moratorium is not automatic. Renters have to submit a declaration form to their landlord, agreeing to a series of statements under threat of perjury, including “my housing provider may require payment in full for all payments not made prior to and during the temporary halt, and failure to pay may make me subject to eviction pursuant to state and local laws.”
A sign inside a Boost Mobile store in Milwaukee prompted Robert Pettigrew to call Community Advocates to ask for help paying rent on the apartment he shares with his wife, daughter and grandson. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said stable housing is vital to controlling the coronavirus pandemic.(COBURN DUKEHART/WISCONSIN WATCH)
Princeton University is tracking eviction filings in 17 U.S. cities during the pandemic. As of Sept. 19, landlords in those cities have filed for more than 50,000 evictions since March 15. The tally includes about 11,900 in Houston, 10,900 in Phoenix and 4,100 in Milwaukee.
It’s an incomplete snapshot that excludes some major American cities such as Indianapolis, where local housing advocates said court cases are difficult to track, but landlords have sought to evict thousands of renters.
Children raised in unstable housing are more prone to hospitalization than those with stable housing. Homelessness is associated with delayed childhood development, and mothers in families that lose homes to eviction show higher rates of depression and other health challenges.
Mountingresearch illustrates that even the threat of eviction can exact a physical and mental toll from tenants.
Nicole MacMillan, 38, lost her job managing vacation rentals in Fort Myers, Florida, in March when the pandemic shut down businesses. Later, she also lost the apartment where she had been living with her two children.
“I actually contacted a doctor, because I thought, mentally, I can’t handle this anymore,” MacMillan said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go. And maybe some medication can help me for a little bit.”
But the doctor she reached out to wasn’t accepting new patients.
With few options, MacMillan moved north to live with her grandparents in Grayslake, Illinois. Her children are staying with their fathers while she gets back on her feet. She recently started driving for Uber Eats in the Chicagoland area.
“I need a home for my kids again,” MacMillan said, fighting back tears. The pandemic “has ripped my whole life apart.”
Searching for Assistance to Stay at Home
That store window sign? It directed Pettigrew to Community Advocates, a Milwaukee nonprofit that received $7 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds to help administer a local rental aid program. More than 3,800 applications for assistance have flooded the agency, said Deborah Heffner, its housing strategy director, while tens of thousands more applications have flowed to a separate agency administering the state’s rental relief program in Milwaukee.
Persistence helped the Pettigrews break through the backlog.
“I blew their phone up,” said Stephanie Pettigrew, with a smile.
She qualifies for federal Social Security Disability Insurance, which sends her $400 to $900 in monthly assistance. That income has become increasingly vital since March when Robert left his motel job.
He has since pursued a host of odd jobs to keep food on the table — such as the window-washing he was doing when he saw the rental assistance sign — work where he can limit his exposure to the virus. He brings home $40 on a good day, he said, $10 on a bad one. Before they qualified for rent assistance, February had been the last time the Pettigrews could fully pay their $600 monthly rent bill.
Robert and Stephanie Pettigrew embrace outside their two-bedroom rental apartment in Milwaukee on Sept. 4. In August, local group Community Advocates covered more than $4,700 in the Pettigrews’ rental payments, late charges, utility bills and court fees, and is now helping them look for a more affordable place to live.(COBURN DUKEHART/WISCONSIN WATCH)
Just as their finances tightened and their housing situation became less stable, the couple welcomed more family members. Heavenly, Robert’s adult daughter, arrived in May from St. Louis after the child care center where she worked shut down because of concerns over the coronavirus. She brought along her 3-year-old son.
Through its order, the CDC hopes to curtail evictions, which can add family members and friends to already stressed households. The federal order notes that “household contacts are estimated to be 6 times more likely to become infected by [a person with] COVID-19 than other close contacts.”
“That’s where that couch surfing issue comes up — people going from place to place every few nights, not trying to burden anybody in particular, but possibly at risk of spreading around the risk of coronavirus,” said Andrew Bradley of Prosperity Indiana, a nonprofit focusing on community development.
The Pettigrews’ Milwaukee apartment — a kitchen, a front room, two bedrooms and one bathroom — is tight for the three generations now sharing it.
“But it’s our home,” Robert said. “We’ve got a roof over our head. I can’t complain.”
Housing Loss Hits Black and Latino Communities
A U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted before the federal eviction moratorium was announced found that 5.5 million of American adults feared they were either somewhat or very likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months.
State and local governments nationwide are offering a patchwork of help for those people.
In Massachusetts, the governor extended the state’s pause on evictions and foreclosures until Oct. 17. Landlords are challenging that move both in state and federal court, but both courts have let the ban stand while the lawsuits proceed.
“Access to stable housing is a crucial component of containing COVID-19 for every citizen of Massachusetts,” Judge Paul Wilson wrote in a state court ruling. “The balance of harms and the public interest favor upholding the law to protect the public health and economic well-being of tenants and the public in general during this health and economic emergency.”
The cases from Massachusetts may offer a glimpse of how federal challenges to the CDC order could play out.
By contrast, in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers was one of the first governors to lift a state moratorium on evictions during the pandemic — thereby enabling about 8,000 eviction filings from late May to early September, according to a search of an online database of Wisconsin circuit courts.
In other states, housing advocates note similar disparities.
“Poor neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color, have higher rates of asthma and blood pressure — which, of course, are all health issues that the COVID pandemic is then being impacted by,” said Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana.
“This deadly virus is killing people disproportionately in Black and brown communities at alarming rates,” said Dee Ross, founder of the Indianapolis Tenants Rights Union. “And disproportionately, Black and brown people are the ones being evicted at the highest rate in Indiana.”
Across the country, officials at various levels of government have set aside millions in federal pandemic aid for housing assistance for struggling renters and homeowners. That includes $240 million earmarked in Florida, between state and county governments, $100 million in Los Angeles County and $18 million in Mississippi.
In Wisconsin, residents report that a range of barriers — from application backlogs to onerous paperwork requirements — have limited their access to aid.
In Indiana, more than 36,000 people applied for that state’s $40 million rental assistance program before the application deadline. Marion County, home to Indianapolis, had a separate $25 million program, but it cut off applications after just three days because of overwhelming demand. About 25,000 people sat on the county’s waiting list in late August.
Of that massive need, Bradley, who works in economic development in Indiana, said: “We’re not confident that the people who need the help most even know about the program — that there’s been enough proactive outreach to get to the households that are most impacted.”
After Milwaukeean Robert Pettigrew saw that sign in the store window and reached out to the nonprofit Community Advocates, the group covered more than $4,700 of the Pettigrews’ rental payments, late charges, utility bills and court fees. The nonprofit also referred the couple to a pro-bono lawyer, who helped seal their eviction case — that means it can’t hurt the Pettigrews’ ability to rent in the future, and ensures the family will have housing at least through September. The CDC moratorium has added to that security.
Heavenly Pettigrew and her 3-year-old son moved in with her parents in May after the St. Louis child care center where she’d been working closed because of the pandemic. The two-bedroom, one-bath apartment is tight for three generations, said Heavenly’s father, Robert, “but it’s our home.”(COBURN DUKEHART/WISCONSIN WATCH)
“It’s protecting 30 to 40 million adults and children from eviction and the downward spiral that it causes in long-term, poor health outcomes,” she said.
Doctor: Evictions Akin to ‘Toxic Exposure’
Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, said at least a third of the 14,000 families with children that seek treatment at her medical center have fallen behind on their rent, a figure mirrored in national reports.
Hospital officials worry that evictions during the pandemic will trigger a surge of homeless patients — and patients who lack homes are more challenging and expensive to treat. One study from 2016 found that stable housing reduced Medicaid spending by 12% — and not because members stopped going to the doctor. Primary care use increased 20%, while more expensive emergency room visits dropped by 18%.
A year ago, Boston Medical Center and two area hospitals collaborated to invest $3 million in emergency housing assistance as community organizing focused on affordable housing policies and development. Now the hospitals are looking for additional emergency funds, trying to boost legal resources to prevent evictions and work more closely with public housing authorities and state rental assistance programs.
“We are a safety-net hospital. We don’t have unlimited resources,” Sandel said. “But being able to avert an eviction is like avoiding a toxic exposure.”
Sandel said the real remedy for avoiding an eviction crisis is to offer Americans substantially more emergency rental assistance, along the lines of the $100 billion included in a package proposed by House Democrats in May and dubbed the Heroes Act. Boston Medical Center is among the 26 health care associations and systems that signed a letter urging congressional leaders to agree on rental and homeless assistance as well as a national moratorium on evictions for the entire pandemic.
“Without action from Congress, we are going to see a tsunami of evictions,” the letter stated, “and its fallout will directly impact the health care system and harm the health of families and individuals for years to come.”
Groups representing landlords urge passage of rental assistance, too, although some oppose the CDC order. They point out that property owners must pay bills as well and may lose apartments where renters can’t or won’t pay.
In Milwaukee, Community Advocates is helping the Pettigrews look for a more affordable apartment. Robert Pettigrew continues attending doctors’ appointments for his lungs, searching for safe work. He looks to the future with a sense of resolve — and a request that no one pity his family.
“Life just kicks you in the butt sometimes,” he said. “But I’m the type of person — I’m gonna kick life’s ass back.”