The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ten bucks left, no place to go: How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives

Daniel Vought on the porch of a group house he was forced to vacate in July because he couldn’t pay the $800-a-month rent. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

He had five days to move out of the house in Brightwood Park, and now Daniel Vought stood looking at the plastic crates stacked in the living room holding his things. T-shirts. Power cords. Pokémon cards and stuffed animals. His beloved guitar — a Gibson Explorer electric — still hung on the wall. He figured it would be safer staying behind.

A new housemate was coming, one who could actually pay $800 a month for the room Vought, 30, had lived in rent-free since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Georgetown bar where he worked.

For four months, his unemployment benefits application had been snared in red tape at the D.C. Department of Employment Services, a black hole of unanswered emails, phone holds and automated voice messages offering delays instead of answers.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the nation’s capital have been sucked down the same confusing abyss. Through July 29, the employment office has fielded more than 133,000 claims, nearly five times the number processed in all of 2019.

The pileup has led to delays for applicants knocked from their economic perch, many of them reaching for government help for the first time. Although the D.C. Council recently approved a major modernization of the system, implementing it will take years.

In the meantime, the end of July meant the end of the initial round of federal emergency pandemic assistance. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are deadlocked over the scope of a second wave of federal help. No matter what that future assistance looks like, for people like Vought, still waiting for benefits from the spring and living without a financial cushion, the damage has been done.

People pushed into poverty by the coronavirus pandemic could face years of increased dependence on government help, experts say, and greater housing insecurity and homelessness. A single mother with another baby due this summer found herself choosing between buying food or paying the rent. A former D.C. police officer spent months on a relative’s sofa, unable to find work or collect unemployment so he could find his own housing.

Their desperation morphed at times into isolation and anger, feelings Vought confronted as his cracked iPhone rang that Friday in late June. It was an aide from the office of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) who had responded to his earlier messages and complaints.

“I understand your frustration,” the aide said. But she didn’t have any news.

“Can you do me a solid and just bug them once a day for me?” Vought begged her. “I don’t know if they’re forgetting me. I don’t know if somebody is skipping me in the line. I don’t know if this is just the worst time to have a last name that starts with ‘V.’ ”

“I think it’s just an overwhelming amount of people,” the aide answered, promising to follow up. “Have a good weekend.”

Vought stared into the living room, where stray sunlight from the drawn blinds fell on the crates he would have to store or haul or trash by Wednesday. His bank account was overdrawn. He had $10 in his wallet. A week from now, he could be homeless.

“Oh,” he mumbled. “I’m going to have a great weekend.”

Coronavirus could push 250,000 into hunger in D.C. region

'Survivor mode'

The pandemic crept up on Lakeisha Rollins one text at a time.

When the coronavirus hit the District in March, the 30-year-old was working at the Whole Foods Market on P Street NW, pulling items off shelves to fill online orders. Rollins, who is studying to become a nursing assistant, got a message that one of her co-workers had tested positive. The next day, another text alerted her about another positive employee. By April, six workers at the store had contracted the virus.

For Rollins — who has a 10-year-old and a baby arriving in August — the health risk was too much. A fan of “The Walking Dead,” she left her job and decided to wall her son and herself off from the outside like survivors barricading against zombies.

That meant a tough decision. She had about $500 in the bank and was eligible for pandemic assistance because she left her job over a health concern.

Until those benefits kicked in, should she buy food or pay the rent?

Rollins decided to use her savings on food, buying groceries in bulk and scanning Pinterest for recipes that would last.

She called it “survivor mode.”

As the weeks ticked by, and her unemployment check did not appear, she pushed aside thoughts about what might be ahead, helping her son with his school work and learning to make soap — a new hobby, something to keep her busy.

The notices she got from her landlord noted that due to special protections put in place by the District during the pandemic, she could not be issued a summons for lack of payment for now. But they were keeping track of each $1,297 payment she missed.

“I could not fathom the idea of what was coming next. I couldn’t look in that direction,” she said. “I don’t want to be in no shelter, so I tried not to think about it.”

For those getting unemployment, anxiety and sleepless nights as benefits lapse

A few miles away, Thomas Kennerly was sleeping on a relative’s sofa and starting to despair of ever finding another place of his own. He and his wife had sold the rowhouse they’d owned in Southeast Washington for nearly 20 years just before the pandemic set in, a last-ditch effort to avoid foreclosure.

Kennerly’s wife moved in with her mother. Kennerly — a former D.C. police officer who left law enforcement in 2001 after being shot in the line of duty — packed up for his brother-in-law’s one-bedroom apartment in Naylor Gardens.

They planned to save for a few months and get another place.

Then Kennerly, 48, lost his job as a seasonal delivery man at the Amazon Hub Locker on Alabama Avenue SE because of the coronavirus.

In April, he applied for benefits. He didn’t have a computer. The job center where he usually could hop on a desktop was closed. He applied on his phone. For weeks, there was no word — and no money coming in.

“It’s impossible to get an apartment without funds,” he said. “You don’t want to be depending on other people. It’s hard. You’d rather have your own.”

Clogged pipelines of assistance

Kennerly, Rollins and Vought all needed help from the government to steady lives shaken by the first global pandemic in a century, a plague that has contracted the economy at a record pace and put close to 50 million out of work across the country.

But the social services infrastructure designed to deliver that help in the District stalled at the very moment its services were most critical.

The federal government added additional benefits to what the city offered, creating a new alphabet soup of options for struggling workers. According to activists, attorneys and applicants, however, the quickly assembled system led to a paralyzed tumult.

“We have had around 200 calls from people looking for help accessing their benefits, and many are facing delays, if not all of them,” Nicole Dooley, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, said in July. “It’s just an overwhelming number that are applying, and [the city] can’t handle this huge wave of applications.”

There are two main public assistance pipelines for District workers set adrift by the pandemic. Unemployment insurance benefits are the traditional source of aid, and that has been bolstered with additional payments through the federal Cares Act, the legislation passed this spring to support workers sidelined by the pandemic.

That same legislation set in motion the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for those who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment insurance — people like gig workers, independent contractors and owners of small businesses. The money was supposed to become available in April.

But in the District, those seeking pandemic assistance must first apply for — and be denied — traditional benefits. That application can be submitted over the phone or online. But pandemic assistance can only be applied for online — and, until recently, only in English. Further complicating matters, the city’s employment website, built in the early 2000s, struggled at the start of the pandemic with mobile phone traffic and pageview surges.

Many of the logistical knots could be sorted out in a phone conversation with a city staffer. But connecting with the employment services agency is another battle.

In May, a group of George Washington University law students spent a week calling the agency’s hotline. According to testimony presented before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development later that month, of the 643 calls made between May 11 and May 15, only 20 percent connected.

Calls made between 9 a.m. and noon connected just 9 percent of the time.

D.C. officials say the department has since hired emergency support staff and moved employees from other agencies to help staff the phones, bringing the connection rate to 64 percent by late July.

But the average call time is still one to two hours, and the agency still receives an average of 5,000 calls daily.

Amid historic economic collapse, 10 lives interrupted

Somewhere in that daily logjam of phone traffic was Kennerly, dial­ing and getting hours of classical music, as May rolled into June and his benefits did not come and no one could tell him why.

“Every time I would stay on the phone for three hours,” he said.

Rollins, too, called the Department of Employment Services (DOES) regularly, as her pantry dwindled.

“I’m just swimming and hoping I don’t drown,” she said at one point. “These are concerns people have in Third World countries. I started thinking we might not survive this.”

Vought started each day trying DOES on the phone, then yelling into a pillow or putting his hand through the wall when another attempt ended in frustration and brought him a day closer to homelessness.

“Where am I supposed to go?” he said. “Be on Mayor Bowser’s steps screaming?”

A downward spiral

It was Saturday morning. Four days left before Vought had to move. He sat on the porch, a bummed Marlboro Red in one hand, counting the bills in his wallet. Two. Three . . . Six. Seven. He was down to $7 in cash.

He now had a place to stay — 230 miles away. Vought’s father, a 68-year-old maintenance man at a Manhattan skyscraper, had offered the couch in his one-bedroom Bronx apartment, and sent $100 through Western Union to help with travel expenses.

“It’s the street or my dad’s,” Vought said. “There’s nothing else.”

But was $100 even enough to get to New York City? His cellphone bill was due: $50. If he paid, was the rest enough for travel? Were buses even still running between the District and New York?

“When you’re poor everything is a 10-step process that ends up costing way more than if you actually have resources,” Vought said before starting his walk to Western Union, a mile and a half away at a Safeway on Georgia Avenue.

He had loved working at the bar in Georgetown, a fancy cocktail joint called L’Annexe.

Vought wasn’t a big drinker, but he enjoyed the intricacy of the elegant drink recipes.

Music was his true love — specifically punk. He had tattooed arms and a nose piercing to prove it.

But a few years of touring had punctured his rock star aspirations. He started imagining himself in hospitality long-term. Until Bowser shut down bars and restaurants on March 16.

He couldn’t find other work. His dad wired $50 or $100 when he could, small lifelines that brought a mix of relief and shame.

“That’s another 100 bucks that’s now not in my dad’s pocket,” he would think.

Vought had come close to homelessness before. When he was 17, after his sister was killed in a car accident, his relationship with his mother got ugly, and he left their house in Alexandria. He bounced between friends, he said, but spent a few nights curled under a playground’s slide. Two years ago, he was couch surfing, and sleeping in his car sometimes. Until the car was totaled.

But now he felt like he was fighting against a different kind of downward pull. As screwed up as his personal or family life had been in the past, he still sensed there were opportunities out there he could reach for.

“At least before, I could get a job, try to work or do something,” he said as the Safeway swung into view two blocks ahead.

Now, he just felt hopeless — and ashamed.

“Nobody wants to date a guy who doesn’t know where he’s going to be living next. Nobody wants to hang out with somebody that smells . . . because they haven’t had a shower in three days,” he said.

“The economic differences are becoming so stark in such a small area like here that I can’t even relate to people anymore that I meet. They look at me like I’m crazy. I look at them like they’re stupid.”

If Congress fails to act, a lot of damage could be permanent

There was no way he could know, but across the Anacostia River, Rollins was trying to untangle similar thoughts. She felt alone. It seemed like every day another friend was sending her a message saying their own unemployment had arrived.

When she learned that one of the holdups on her claim was due to mistakes on the 2019 tax form she had filled out by hand before the pandemic, Rollins was so embarrassed that she didn’t tell anyone — or ask for help from friends and family.

“I see everyone else is thriving but what about me?” she said. “I was unraveling.”

She hoped her coping skills — meditation, making soap — would keep her occupied.

Kennerly’s frustrations centered on his lack of a computer.

His benefits were held up, a city worker finally told him, because he’d provided incorrect information when trying to fill out the form on his phone. In June, the department promised to expedite his claim, but an important email ended up in his spam folder, costing him another month without aid.

“I don’t have a computer,” he explained. “It’s sort of embarrassing to tell people that you don’t, but I just don’t.”

After covid-19, a poultry worker fears a return to work

Vought made it to the Western Union, and soon was placing five $20 bills into his wallet. He hadn’t eaten a full meal in days, so he thought about buying some breakfast. At the very least, a bottled water for the hot walk home.

The cellphone bill — there was probably a Metro PCS store close by. Would they let him pay the bill with cash? Or should he try to get an emergency extension and pay later?

And then there was New York. And getting his boxes there. How would all that work?

But now he had $107 in his wallet.

'A whole box' of ice cream

One hot Thursday morning, Rollins’s son Amari asked her if they could go to the corner store for ice cream. Rollins guessed there was only $3 left in her bank account. But meditation and soap-making didn’t prepare you for disappointing a little boy. So she checked the balance.

The account contained over $1,000. Some of her benefits had arrived. She started to cry.

“Forget one ice cream,” Rollins told her son. “We’re going to buy a whole box.”

Over the next week, the rest of the money she was owed flowed in, filling her account to around $7,000. For the moment, she could handle both rent and food.

Kennerly was not as lucky. Rounds of phone calls eventually got him to an employment services supervisor, who looked over his application and said everything was in the proper place.

The delay now was just about processing the payment.

“It gives you some relief, knowing it should be coming soon,” said Kennerly, who is still living separately from his wife and relying on their relatives’ goodwill. “But it doesn’t give you all the relief you need. You are still waiting for that cash.”

Vought and his plastic crates got to the Bronx late on a Monday night. An uncle visiting the D.C. area had offered him a lift on his way back to New York.

The day before Vought left, he heard from the employment services office, who said he had been rejected for one type of benefits but now could apply for another. The case worker explained his initial rejection had been for traditional unemployment insurance. His situation should line him up for pandemic assistance, the case worker said.

Three and a half months after losing his job, Vought spent his last day in town applying for unemployment all over again.

By now the cycle was familiar: He was hopeful the money he needed was close; then angry with himself for being stupid enough to be hopeful; then depressed about waiting.

He had a place to stay in New York, he was not on the streets. But it was just a change of scenery, not a change in situation.

He arrived in New York with $1 in his wallet.

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