Cameron County residents struggle with homelessness in pandemic

Jim Ginther, 80, greets a friend as he sits in the dining room of Loaves & Fishes. He's been living there after a recent stroke and hospitalization left him homeless two months ago. (The Monitor)

HARLINGEN — Thanksgiving meals packed into styrofoam boxes sat on a table by the dining hall door of Loaves & Fishes, the homeless shelter in Harlingen. People lined by the glass doors or would drive up, and employees would come out with the boxes in hand.

It’s different from previous years when Bill Reagan, the executive director, would stand by the door, much like a pastor at the end of a church service, and greet every visitor.

“We got about 300 plates. We won’t use them all. We’ll probably serve 150 in Raymondville,” Reagan predicted.

As the pandemic set in, the shelter became busier than before.

“The shelter is full almost every night, both the men’s side and the women’s side,” Reagan said.

It changed in March “pretty much right away.”

The dining hall was sparsely populated Wednesday afternoon. Mostly men and a few women sat at the tables several feet apart. No table sat more than two people at a time.

Sitting by the table closest to the window was Jim Ginther, a man with a frail frame but a hearty sense of humor.

“I had a stroke, diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in the lung. I have emphysema. I have COPD. I’m knocking on the door, ready to go,” he said chuckling.

Ginther, 80, made light of his homeless situation spurred by a stroke from a 90% blocked carotid artery about two months ago. He was hospitalized for three weeks.

At first, he stayed at a hotel until the money ran out. Then he went with some friends, but eventually wound up at the shelter. Though mostly jolly, a serious tone colored his speech as he considered the risk of contracting the virus in his health.

“I’m very, very concerned, because of my cancer. If I get it, it’s over. It’s over. But, I’m just hoping I can last till they find a cure or a vaccine,” Ginther said.

Over a few tables away, Raul Martinez and Tony Cantu sat in relative silence. A rollator combining a walker and a transport seat was parked close by.

The couple of nearly 10 years are both disabled, but Cantu who is HIV positive was also diagnosed with stomach and colon cancer. He too was entering stage 4 but the cancer is currently in remission. Co-payments on medical bills related to his cancer treatment ate into their rent payment, they said.

The couple left voluntarily without an eviction notice, though they ultimately ended up at a homeless shelter.

“It’s taking a toll on both of us,” Ramirez said of their current living situation.

The couple who receives disability payments and other governmental assistance were told they make too much money to qualify for housing.

“Hopefully by the third [of December] we might get an apartment,” Cantu said. That’s when they get their disability check.

Like them, hundreds are homeless for the holidays.

A nonprofit community housing development organization, Come Dream Come Build, or CDCB, estimates hundreds of Cameron County residents were left homeless since the beginning of the pandemic.

They set out to study the eviction rate in the Rio Grande Valley.

In Cameron County, they found 301 evictions were filed from late March through August. In 2019, 473 evictions were filed during the same time period.

“It shows that the rate was about the same,” Caelen Mitchell-Bennett, a policy fellow who calculated the totals for CDCB, said.

CDCB is helping tenants struggling with payments during the pandemic through the state’s Tenant Based Rental Assistance program, or TBRA. Funding is expected to end at the end of December, just as the CDC’s nationwide moratorium on evictions expires Dec. 31.

Deadlines triggered the request for data.

“There is some focus on evictions and the tsunami of evictions we’re expecting to occur at the close of December at the state level. However, there’s no data available for our region,” Zoraima Diaz, Special Projects Manager at CDCB, said.

Through cooperation from local justice of the peace offices in Cameron County, CDCB received and analyzed county-wide eviction data.

Though about 300 evictions were filed in Cameron County, the CDCB estimates there were hundreds left without shelter. In Cameron County, the average number of people to a household is between three and four, according to the U.S. Census data.

Those who are displaced will likely see long-term repercussions.

“It doesn’t just impact their housing opportunities right now. It really serves to hinder potential housing opportunities in the future,” Diaz said referring to the effects of a credit score dip and an eviction history.

Similar data requests from Willacy, Starr and Hidalgo counties went unanswered.

The lack of transparency could create problems in the near future.

“If we don’t know what’s happening, we don’t know where the problems are. There’s no way we can fix them,” Mitchell-Bennett said.

For now, the organization is proposing solutions to help tenants and landlords.

They’re recommending a tenant protection order in the Valley prohibiting eviction proceedings and notices to vacate could provide tenants with a 60-day grace period to make late rent payments due to COVID-19 hardship through Mar. 30, 2021.

Other recommendations include help from local governments to mixed-status households who were affected by a lack of payment from the first stimulus act, or rental assistance to help the tenant and landlord through the pandemic.

The organization already held one webinar with local and state representatives. They’re inviting more to attend the second webinar, Eviction Crisis in Texas, on Dec. 2 from 10 – 11 a.m.

Those who were already served with eviction notices and need legal assistance can contact the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid at (888) 988-9996 or can visit their website for more information.

Back in Harlingen, Loaves & Fishes will continue helping those who show up at their door. That number may continue to go up.

On Thanksgiving, Reagan’s prediction of 450 plates served was exceeded. By the end of that afternoon, he received the full report. About 655 people in Harlingen and Raymondville got a meal through their efforts.

vgonzalez@themonitor.com