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HomeFront panel discussion on COVID-19 impacts

There have always been homeless and hungry families in Mercer County, but the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has brought it more sharply into focus.

HomeFront, which is a Lawrence Township-based nonprofit group, brought together a panel of experts to explore the lingering impact of the pandemic on those families in a virtual panel discussion during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which was held Nov. 13-20.

The panelists at the Nov. 18 forum included Sarah Steward of HomeFront, which helps the homeless and the working poor; Olivia Jin of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab; Emily Gartenberg of No Kid Hungry NYC; and Shellie Skinner of the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.

While state and federal eviction moratoriums and rental assistance programs have kept many families in their homes during the pandemic, hunger or food insecurity has not been so easy to tame.

“Almost immediately” after COVID-19 struck, the line of people seeking food assistance from HomeFront’s food pantry wrapped around the block, said Sarah Steward, HomeFront’s chief operating officer.

There were two to three times as many people seeking food than before the pandemic, Steward said. Before the pandemic, about 500 families sought help for food every month – but that number has not dropped below 1,000 families in months, she said.

Some of those families had been teetering on the economic edge, and COVID-19 pushed them over it, Steward said. Many of those families are seeking help for the first time in their lives. Half of the recipients told HomeFront officials that they had never visited a food pantry, she said.

Emily Gartenberg of No Kid Hungry NYC agreed that hunger and food insecurity has increased. In 2019, about 10% of New Jersey children experienced hunger, but in the COVID-19 pandemic era, it has jumped to about 15%. There are about 300,000 children living in food-insecure households, she said.

“Hunger hides in plain sight,” Gartenberg said.

Income-eligible children and their families had relied on free- and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches provided at school, but closing those buildings also meant closing access to meals, Gartenberg said. Many children received most of their daily calories from those meals.

Gartenberg said the lack of nutrition may have long-lasting effects on children, such as widening the academic achievement gap. Children need to be well-nourished so they can focus in the classroom, she said.

Skinner, of the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, said that with the COVID-19-mandated school closures and switch to remote learning, “we just blew the doors off” the academic achievement gap.

The “old” academic achievement gap is nothing compared to the “new” academic achievement gap, Skinner said.

“We are going to lose an entire generation,” Skinner said.

But it’s not just food insecurity and academic achievement gaps that COVID-19 has left in its wake, the panelists agreed.

The potential for eviction because of unpaid rent also has increased, said Olivia Jin of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which studies the impact of eviction on families.

Jin said rental debt has increased significantly, and it is going to be hard for renters to catch up on overdue rent. Renters facing eviction usually owe one or two months of rent, but many renters are more than six months behind in rental payments, she said.

Jin said that nationwide, about 9 million tenant households are facing eviction for non-payment of rent. In a typical year, there are about 3.5 million eviction filings, she said.

Of the 9 million households facing eviction, only about 5 million tenant are likely to be evicted when the eviction moratoriums are lifted, Jin said. However, informal evictions have been occurring during the pandemic. Landlords turn off the utilities, forcing tenants to move.

An eviction becomes part of one’s record, and it makes it more challenging to find work and to rent another apartment, Jin said. There are negative impacts on physical and mental health, and even on children’s education, she said.

“Losing your home is traumatic,” Jin said.

Acknowledging that landlords are operating a business, Jim urged them to be compassionate. An eviction stays on a tenant’s record, and “that’s why we call eviction the ‘Scarlet E,’ ” she said.

Skinner, of the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, said that with representation by a lawyer or a counselor, a renter facing eviction could negotiate a settlement with the landlord to avoid being “stuck with that (eviction) around your neck for a long time.”

Asked what the community could do to help, Steward said financial contributions to HomeFront and other nonprofit groups are always welcomed. Volunteers are also needed – whether it is filling bags in the food pantry, or other tasks that need to be done.

Steward and Jin encouraged attendees to use their voices to contact policy-makers to “do something.”

Part of HomeFront’s mission is to empower clients to raise their voices, but their voices may not be heard because they are too focused on survival, she said.

“(But) we can be that voice. We need to remind our leaders (of the issues). It takes the voice of privilege to get the message across. Don’t minimize your voice. I am asking you to care about the issues,” she said.

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