The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Families on brink of eviction, hunger describe nightmare Christmas as $900 billion relief bill hangs in limbo

About 14 million Americans will lose unemployment aid on Saturday after President Trump and Congress were unable to reach a deal.

People wait in line at the St. Clement's Food Pantry in Manhattan on Dec. 11. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Millions of Americans who are hours away from losing unemployment aid or the small business they have spent years building have a simple plea to President Trump and Congress: Please help us.

The Washington Post has been inundated with messages and phone calls from people on the verge of losing their homes and cars and going hungry this holiday who are stunned that President Trump and Congress cannot agree on another emergency aid package. Several broke down crying in phone interviews.

Some blamed Trump for torpedoing a $900 billion relief package at the last minute. Others agreed with Trump that the proposed $600 checks for over 150 million American households was too little, too late and should be raised to at least $2,000. Others blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for not taking a deal in August.

After passing a record $3 trillion in economic relief this spring, Congress went months without a new aid package even as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. (Video: The Washington Post)

But most told The Post they are “not political people” and are struggling to understand why Congress and the president would be able to celebrate Christmas when 14 million Americans are slated to lose unemployment aid on Saturday, the government is set to shut down on Tuesday, and an eviction moratorium that has prevented millions from losing their homes during a pandemic ends on New Year’s Eve.

House Republicans block Democrats’ effort to advance $2,000 stimulus checks pushed by Trump

Waitress Robyn Saban summed up the sentiment of many: “I’ve worked for 18 years at a diner under very hard conditions. I never called in sick except when my husband died. And now Congress is just leaving town. It makes me furious because they are leaving people hanging.”

Saban, 57, has been out of a job for nearly 10 months. The diner where she worked is up for sale.

Below are 10 voices that represent a cross-section of ages, races, political views and professions of the millions of people who are caught in the crosshairs of the stalled fight in Washington, D.C. over more aid.

Tony Bowens, 31, spent nine days in a hospital in March fighting for his life against the deadly coronavirus. In many ways, he’s just grateful this Christmas to be home with his wife and two kids, even though very little is the same. As his family struggles to pay rent, he can’t believe Congress and Trump haven’t reached an agreement on aid.

“It feels like everybody is playing politics with people’s lives,” said Bowens, who lives in Chicago. “That $600 check wasn’t much, but at least it would have been disbursed just in time.”

Bowens has ongoing complications from covid: Headaches, temperatures that spike for a day, crippling leg pains and trouble breathing. He lost his IT job in March and has not been able to work since. He received $65 a week in unemployment through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that Congress created this year to assist independent contractors and gig workers like him, but it will end the day after Christmas unless a relief bill gets enacted.

His family is barely getting by on his wife’s job as a state government worker in Illinois. They are behind on rent and the electric bill, and they worry about more layoffs for state workers.

Bowens said extending unemployment is “one of the most important things” in the relief package because a $600 one-time check won’t last long, “but unemployment would go for 11 weeks. I was going to be able to get that again.”

Stephanie Lott, 30, has had her rent covered by a friend for the past two months. Lott lives off $100 a week provided through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. She says she’s living “by the good graces of friends at this point.”

Lott lost most of her income as a substitute teacher when the pandemic forced schools online. She managed to cover her bills with $600 in enhanced unemployment insurance under the Cares Act, until that program expired at the end of July.

Lott said the longer she waits for the White House and Congress to agree on a relief package, she’ll be “drawing myself, and unfortunately my friends, further and further into debt.” She agrees with Trump that the bill should include larger stimulus checks. But she worries that in the end, there will be all talk from Washington and no action.

“I wish they would put themselves — the White House and Congress and everybody else making these decisions — in the shoes of us, the normal working people, who need help due to no fault of our own,” Lott said. “I’m asking to be able to keep my apartment. To be able to live, and not live on the street. I’m not asking to be put in a golden apartment or anything. I just want to be able to live.”

Matt Ferencevich lost his temporary job in Las Vegas when the pandemic forced much of the casino and entertainment industry to shut down. He and his girlfriend decided to “ride out covid” in Xalapa, Mexico, where his girlfriend’s family lives, until casino jobs pick up again. He says being in Mexico has given him a very different perspective on the pandemic — and America’s latest aid package.

“Mexico gave no stimulus to its people. Many have mixed feelings about the U.S. stimulus. Many think Americans are greedy,” he said in an email. “The unemployment rate is extremely high here. My family and friends send money to help. There have been times we have not had food, but we survived.”

Ferencevich said coronavirus testing where he is in Mexico can cost as much as $150, which is equivalent to a month’s salary for many workers. Many in the rural areas outside where he is staying can’t afford to go to a hospital.

Samara Crockett, 43, is supposed to get her last unemployment payment on Christmas Eve. She was laid off from her medical assistant job in Orlando in September. A single mom of teenagers, she receives $275 a week from unemployment. She’s behind on the electric bill and had to beg the light company to keep her electricity on for Christmas.

“If I were not a strong woman. If I didn’t have my faith in God, I probably would have jumped off a bridge. That’s how bad it seems some days,” Crockett said in a late-night interview Wednesday.

After months of watching Congress debate more aid, she said she was relieved Monday when the package passed to extend her unemployment and send another round of stimulus checks. She thought it would be enough to tide her over until she could get another job.

But now she’s worried about how much longer she can hold off the bill collectors. “Is Trump trying to help us? I hope so. But are we going to have to suffer longer? You just pray somebody comes to their senses,” she said. “I’m in survival mode. Do I get gas or food? What do I do? That’s what my days are like.”

Daniel Maris owns the Spin Nightclub in San Diego. When Congress passed the $900 billion relief package on Monday, Maris said he stayed up until 2 a.m. reading the bill. He said he “was tearing up” when he learned that the bill designated $15 billion for the entertainment industry.

The last five years were some of the nightclub’s most successful until the pandemic hit and the calendar was wiped clean. He managed to get about $53,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program that Congress authorized in the Cares Act to help small businesses. But that money is long gone. To avoid shuttering for good, he’s spent his own money to pay bills.

The stalled relief package included more than $300 billion in additional help for small businesses and $15 billion for the arts and entertainment industry. Maris hoped he could get funding to bring his 32-member staff back to work.

For movie theaters, the coronavirus stimulus bill is a tale of two industries

He said he was left in “a stressful situation in limbo” when Trump said he would not sign the legislation without major changes. Maris said he agrees with Trump that $600 stimulus checks are a tiny amount, calling the sum “a joke.”

Still, he worries that if Congress makes room for larger payments by eliminating other parts of the bill, relief for small businesses, especially those in entertainment, may get the short shrift.

“We only have so much runway left,” Maris said. “If this bill doesn’t go through, it’s going to be a very rough road ahead. … We’ve been banking on potential relief.”

Ary Reich says he has lost 15 pounds since March and his mother keeps remarking how thin he looks when they talk on FaceTime. Reich said if a stimulus isn’t enacted soon, he will run out of money by February.

“I often go a day on one or two packets of ramen. I am sleeping much less than before because I can no longer afford my insomnia medication,” he said. “If it weren’t for my roommate, who is similarly on [Unemployment Insurance], splitting rent and utilities with me, I would be destitute right now without a place to live.”

Reich graduated from New York University in May 2019 and was working for minimum wage at a nonprofit in New York City before the pandemic hit. He was briefly allowed to work from his apartment, but he was laid off in April as his nonprofit struggled for survival. His application for unemployment was finally approved in June, providing a much-needed lifeline that he has tried to stretch as long as possible.

“If a stimulus deal goes through with $600 checks, $300 unemployment insurance plus-up, and 11 weeks of extended UI, I will last until May,” he wrote in an email.

Veronica Wolkow, 47, of Redondo Beach, Calif., is a yoga teacher who was used to “juggling gigs across the city from the YMCA to corporate settings and studios,” but everything came to a halt in March. The company she worked for, YogaWorks, filed for bankruptcy in October, making her worry it will be difficult to ever return to her prior life.

Wolkow has struggled on just $150 a week on unemployment, but she said the hardest part is feeling a loss of purpose now that she can no longer teach. Former students, especially those in their 60s, begged her to run classes online or in an outdoor space. She began offering free classes in a park. People “pay” her by giving her food and other basics.

“I just want to go back and work like I did before. I only made $16,000 a year, but I was happy. I had great purpose. I’m really at a loss for purpose right now,” she said, adding that she is currently pregnant and is deeply concerned about the impact of all this stress on her baby.

Like many, she said she could really use additional financial help, but she has learned not to rely on politicians.

“If it’s $600, great. If it’s $0, that’s what I was counting on,” she said, adding, “Anything would be great.”

Lee Daugherty owns Alexandre’s, a bar and live music venue in Dallas. His last day open was March 17.

The bar received $55,000 from PPP, plus another chunk from the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program. Even when bars were allowed to open in Texas, Daugherty chose to keep Alexandre’s shut to protect people.

Daugherty hoped that another relief package would help carry his bar until the spring, when he’ll be able to serve customers outside and vaccine distribution will be further along. When Congress passed the bill Monday, he sent messages to his staff saying help was on the way. Now he’s had to walk that back.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen again, and this could go on forever,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty said he would embrace a package with $2,000 checks, so long as Congress mobilizes to pass it soon.

Amanda Drinnin, a mom of two in Polk City, Iowa, is trying to be strong for her kids, but her unemployment is slated to run out on Saturday. She choked up as she described hearing the news that her $400 a week aid would probably stop.

Drinnin, 40, lost her longtime job at a recruiting firm in March. Her boss said the earliest they are likely to reopen is April. She’s tried to apply for other jobs, but her kids are in “hybrid” schooling where they are at home several days a week, making it hard to find employment.

“We’ve already cut back on so much. I don’t know what we’re going to do. This isn’t a game. People’s lives are really at stake,” Drinnin said, fighting back tears. “I won’t have any kind of income after this week.”

Tyler McConnell, 23, graduated from college in the spring of 2019 and went to work at a radio station in Tampa. He doesn’t make much and is glad to still have a job, but he and many of his peers were frustrated to learn that they would not receive stimulus checks because they were “adult dependents” on their parents’ tax returns in 2019. The Internal Revenue Service used 2019 tax data to determine eligibility for the checks.

Congress nearly allowed millions of adult dependents — which include many high school seniors, college students and disabled adults — to be eligible for a $600 stimulus checks this time, but the measure did not make it into the final bill. McConnell hopes Trump and Congress will rectify this if they renegotiate the bill.

“It makes absolutely no sense that adult dependents would be left out of another payment. I now live on my own and work and pay bills, but my job is one that doesn’t pay a lot, so it’s been hard to make ends meet during the pandemic,” he said. “Adult dependents, and all Americans for that matter, should be included in any stimulus payments going forward.”