‘We Don’t Have Much, but This Is Our Home’

By: - July 20, 2021 12:00 am

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the group that paid for Juana’s health insurance.

DALLAS — Juana, a 52-year-old Mexican immigrant who has lived in the northwest part of this city for more than a decade, was carefully packing the family photos that had decorated the walls of her one-bedroom apartment when her phone rang.

It was almost 3 p.m. and her landlord had given her until 5 p.m. to pay the nearly $12,000 she owed in back rent. The following morning, the landlord would file a writ of possession with the constable to force Juana and her husband out of the home they’d shared for nearly a quarter of their lives.

“My hands were shaking,” Juana said in Spanish, remembering the moment she picked up her cell phone. She felt hopeful—the call might be an answer to her prayers for emergency aid—but also scared. “I didn’t know where we’d sleep the following night if we were evicted.”

The call was from Sarah Alrubaye, a resettlement services specialist at Catholic Charities of Dallas.

“Please tell me I was approved,” Juana pleaded. “I could hear in her voice that she was happy, so I knew it was good news.”

Alrubaye said the agency would cover Juana’s back rent—in fact, she could come by to get the check whenever she was ready. Juana looked up at the clock. She didn’t own a car, and the bus ride to and from Catholic Charities could take as long as two hours.

“I ran to the bus stop and prayed the whole way,” Juana said.

At least 3.4 million people nationwide are likely to be evicted within weeks, according to a June U.S. Census Bureau survey.

As of May 31, state and local grantees had only provided some $1.5 billion of the $46 billion allocated by Congress for the Emergency Rental Assistance program, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The program is supposed to help households financially harmed by the pandemic pay their rent and utility bills and prevent a wave of evictions when the federal eviction moratorium ends on July 31.

With time running out, most states and cities are partnering with community organizations to reach hard-hit neighborhoods like Juana’s, where language and tech barriers prevent some renters from accessing aid. Dallas, which received $40 million through the program, partnered with Catholic Charities and 15 other nonprofits, according to Ashley Brundage, executive director of housing stability at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, another nonprofit working with the city.

“We’re spending the money faster than we can get it,” Brundage said. “But we know there are still pockets of people out there that still don’t know the assistance exists.”

For Juana, help came with no time to spare.

Fifteen minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline, she was still at least 30 minutes away from her apartment complex. She called the leasing office and begged for more time, but she didn’t expect to get a break. At 5:15, Juana ran into the office, out of breath—and was greeted with cheers. She could keep her home.

Living in the Shadows

Juana and her husband came to the U.S. legally 13 years ago, but they overstayed their visa when they were denied a new one. Because she is living here illegally, Juana asked Stateline not to publish her last name or the name of her husband.

Tenants applying for the emergency rental relief program are not required to provide a Social Security number to prove they are in the country legally, according to the Texas Rent Relief program website.

The couple had always lived paycheck to paycheck, barely making enough money to cover all their living expenses and medical bills. Juana was on dialysis for nearly a decade until August of last year, when she received a kidney transplant.

The American Kidney Fund helped pay for Juana’s health insurance but stopped after the surgery, leaving the couple with a bill of $1,400 a month for medicine to prevent her body from rejecting the transplanted organ.

“I never thought I’d get a kidney, especially because of my immigration status,” Juana said. “It was unexpected, but we left it in the hands of God and made it work however we could.”

At that point, the family was already behind on rent. In April of 2020, Juana and her husband contracted COVID-19. Juana suspects she gave it her husband after catching it at the dialysis clinic. It took her husband two months to fully recover and another month or so to find a job after being fired for being out sick.

In Texas, about 80% of the 455,000 households who are behind on rent have low incomes or are made up of people of color. The share of renters behind on rent in Texas is 13%, about the same as the national rate, according to the National Equity Atlas, a data and policy tool maintained by the University of Southern California Equity Research Institute and the research firm PolicyLink.

Before the pandemic, the share of renters in debt was about 7% in Texas and nationally, according to the 2017 American Housing Survey.

Going to Court

In late August, a few days after Juana left the hospital following her transplant, a uniformed officer who only spoke English knocked on her door. The officer told her she had 24 hours to pay the nearly $5,000 she and her husband owed in rent or be kicked out.

Juana, who was still recovering from the surgery, dressed herself and made a slow and painful trek down a flight of stairs and across a parking lot to the management office.

The office staff noticed her discomfort and asked what was wrong. Juana told them an officer had just told her she had to leave in 24 hours. She had worked out a payment plan with the manager, she explained. They told her that manager no longer worked there.

The new manager said Juana and her husband would be evicted unless they paid their debt in full, according to Juana.

The investment company that owns the several-hundred-unit complex where the couple lives filed for eviction the following month. Juana’s husband, who was the only one named on the court order, appeared before an eviction judge in November. During the hearing, the judge asked him whether he and Juana had been affected by COVID-19 and told them about the state’s eviction moratorium. The judge also said it was up to the landlord to work out a repayment plan.

Juana said the new manager would not take the $200 or $300 dollars they had been paying every other week. “She wanted the payment in full or nothing,” Juana said.

By February, the couple owed more than $10,000 in back rent. Juana had recovered from surgery and was trying to find help anyway she could. Then one day she heard about the Dallas Rental Assistance Program. Aided by the people in her leasing office, Juana applied for the relief but was denied.

Juana’s landlord filed another eviction case against her and her husband after the denial. In early June, Juana joined her husband and went before Justice of the Peace Sarah Martinez. They arrived at 9 a.m. sharp and were escorted to a small office where the judge’s staff told them where they could find free legal aid. But Juana told Stateline that the groups she called told her that as an unauthorized immigrant, she was ineligible.

Martinez said she could not help them because the state’s eviction moratorium had expired, and it was completely up to her landlord whether to proceed with the eviction, according to Juana.

Had Juana lived in just about any other state, she might have been protected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium, which runs through July 31. But Texas ended its moratorium this spring and declared the CDC order invalid.

“I told her we’d never missed a payment until COVID-19 came barging into our house,” Juana said, recalling the hearing. “We didn’t invite it in; we didn’t go out looking for it.”

The judge ruled in favor of the landlord and set a date of June 9 for the company to file a writ of possession, according to court documents.

A Tip from TV

Juana cried all the way home. Her husband tried to comfort her, promising he’d find a place for them to live temporarily. That afternoon they rented a storage room and began packing. On Sunday morning, Juana was filling boxes with the television on in the background when Univision’s “Contigo en la Comunidad Dallas” show came on.

A segment focused on rental assistance. Juana didn’t pay much attention, knowing she’d been denied, but when a representative from United Way of Metropolitan Dallas said the money was available for immigrants living in the country without legal permission, she picked up her phone and took a picture of the website on the bottom of the screen.

She learned that Catholic Charities was helping people apply in her area and called them. When she told them she faced a writ of possession order in two weeks, they told her to show up at a pop-up event in north Dallas the following Saturday.

On Friday night, Juana couldn’t sleep. Instead, she prayed and counted the planes as they flew in and out of nearby Dallas Love Field airport. Shortly before sunrise, she woke her husband and told him they should leave immediately to beat the expected crowds.

When they showed up at 7 a.m., there were already two couples ahead of them.

Juana and her husband were greeted by Spanish-speaking volunteers who helped check their documents and fill out the application. It took them no more than 45 minutes to process not only her rental relief but also to get her money to pay for her water bill, which was also past due.

“It was so easy, and everyone made me feel so welcome,” Juana said. “I call them my guardian angels because I was lost without them.”

Juana told them about her pending writ of possession the coming Friday and they promised to expedite her application and keep her posted on any progress. The only documents Juana and her husband were missing when their application was submitted were letters explaining how they’d been financially affected by COVID-19 and proving employment.

“We were hopeful but also mentally prepared if we were denied again,” Juana said. “But I knew God was watching over us.”

As she packed, she remembered all the memories she and her husband had shared in the 700 square feet of their apartment. The day she found out about her transplant, the times her children and grandchildren came to visit from Mexico and would sleep spread out all over the living room floor. The time the ceiling leaked, leaving a sagging, peanut-shaped stain on the sheetrock above the dining room table, which the landlord never fixed.

“We don’t have much, but this is our home,” Juana said.

“This is where our church is, it’s where I take the bus to get anywhere in the city, it’s where the Sam’s and the Walmart and the Target are right there, where I can easily walk to buy groceries when my husband is at work,” she added.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Juana said. “It’s where God wants us to live, that’s clear to me now more than ever.”

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Stateline staff
Stateline staff

Stateline’s team of veteran journalists combines original reporting with a roundup of the latest news from sources around the country.