NEW HANOVER COUNTY — With the national eviction moratorium set to expire come 2021, school social workers are bracing for a potential surge of homeless children, similar to what New Hanover County experienced post-Hurricane Florence.
An order issued in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put a nationwide halt on evictions on the basis of nonpayment. Over the past several months, it has prevented some renters who have been unable to make rent for reasons related to the pandemic from winding up homeless.
But that order is less than two weeks away from expiring, and it’s still unknown whether the moratorium will be extended past Dec. 31.
The McKinney-Vento Act
On Thursday, Rebecca McSwain, a school social worker and the local McKinney-Vento liaison, stressed to the New Hanover County Resiliency Task Force the importance of families knowing their potential rights ahead of the order’s nearing expiration date.
This school year approximately 600 identified New Hanover County students are qualifying for McKinney-Vento services.
The federal law protects children without fixed, adequate or regular nighttime residences, guaranteeing them school stability while their families are without secure housing.
While the central protection of the act is to keep children in their school of origin when it’s in their best interest, the students are also granted other rights; those include access to school transportation when requested by the parent, and the ability to immediately enroll in school and participate in all activities without the normally-required documentation.
Of the roughly 600 eligible students in New Hanover County, about 400 are living doubled up with other families due to economic hardships, McSwain explained to the task force.
Forty-seven are living in shelters or transitional housing, and 42 are staying in hotels. Fifty-one are not with their legal guardian, usually meaning they’re cared for by a grandparent or are unaccompanied.
Nationwide, in 2016-17, 1.35 million students were eligible for McKinney-Vento services, including 901 students in New Hanover County.
From 2017-18 to 2018-19, the year Hurricane Florence battered the region, the number jumped from 619 to 1,522. Last school year, 2019-20, there were 928 public school students in the county without stable homes.
“These are just students that we know of,” McSwain said during the virtual meeting. “By no means have we identified every one that falls into this category. Often families are scared to tell us ‘cause they think we’re going to kick them out of school or call DSS.”
Finding families and finding help
McSwain urges families to contact their schools if they’re in need. After Hurricane Florence, families identifying their children for the services trickled in after the district worked to get the message out about the protections.
“We want to help them,” McSwain emphasized.
NHCS employs over 100 student support staff members to assist families, including more than 40 social workers who are accessible at every school.
“When these families are identified, we can help them with clothing, we can help them with food, we can help them with community resources,” McSwain said.
The most pressing need, though, is a place to stay. That’s difficult to find given the Cape Fear region’s lack of affordable housing and shelter space. McSwain said there is seldom even one open bed at local facilities.
“We are ready to respond to this crisis, but we need help from the community to develop affordable housing and more shelter space for these families,” McSwain said.
Government efforts up in the air
The next round of Covid-19 relief is currently being negotiated at the federal level. As part of that, legislatures are debating whether to extend the eviction moratorium through January.
During the virtual meeting, Nick MacLeod, local organizing director for the North Carolina Housing Coalition, estimated around 10,600 New Hanover County families will be vulnerable when the protection expires.
Without the extension, those that are eligible for rental assistance may not receive help in time before they are uprooted. MacLeod estimated the need for rental assistance in New Hanover County is about $10.5 million per month, not counting back rent.
“We are really hopeful that out of these negotiations there will be sufficient funds to help cover rental assistance,” MacLeod told the task force. “That’s really critical both for keeping families in their homes and also stabilizing the broader housing market.”
MacLeod noted that Gov. Roy Cooper could also enact another blanket moratorium, whether or not there is action from the federal government. A state-level eviction ban could close the CDC order’s loopholes that are causing people to continue being evicted amid the pandemic.
Currently, landlords can evict tenants based on reasons disguised as those other than nonpayment. They can also file an eviction against residents, which can result in “damaging long-term consequences” for those individuals, MacLeod said.
A recent study revealed that during the time there was no ban on evictions in North Carolina – between Cooper’s moratorium ending on June 20 and the CDC order launching on Sept. 4 – people were placed into crowded housing and struggled to practice social distancing, which accelerated Covid-19 transmission. The research found it may have contributed to more than 15,000 cases and over 300 deaths.
“That was at a time when the scale of both the pandemic and the eviction crisis were considerably smaller so we know that the stakes now are really, really high,” MacLeod said. “It’s really critical for getting the pandemic under control [and] for protecting these families that we can get these protections in place.”
Right now, people at risk of eviction have another safety net: There’s no small claims court for the time being.
Due to rising Covid-19 numbers, in-person and nonessential court cases were delayed for 30 days. This pause gives people at risk of eviction likely until Jan. 14 to get their affairs in order.
However, it’s unclear whether Chief Justice-elect Paul Newby will continue or rescind the order when he takes Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s seat Jan. 1.
“As we know, with foreclosures and with evictions, it does take time,” McSwain said Thursday, “so, I don’t foresee Jan. 1 tons of children being without homes, and I also hopefully foresee that they are going to put some more protections in place.”
In advance of this article, New Hanover County Schools provided the following statement:
“If a student lives in the following situation: In a shelter, motel, campground, park, abandoned building, or other inadequate accommodation or doubled up with other people due to loss of housing or economic hardship, then you may qualify for certain rights and protections under the federal McKinney-Vento Act . . . If you believe your child may be eligible for McKinney-Vento services, contact your child’s school or the local liaison, Rebecca McSwain at 910-251-2947 or firstname.lastname@example.org.”
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