Michael Isreal Mosleya of Waterville is a hotel worker. Crista Jakacky of Brewer is a bartender. Flavia Olivera is a city councilor in Waterville.
Sometimes, it feels like this pandemic is happening in two different worlds. In the world of steady jobs and higher incomes, times are difficult, but people have enough to see this winter through. They have warm homes and enough food to eat. In the other world, families’ futures are fraught with uncertainty, as we face daily compromises and crises: how to keep from being evicted, where to find enough food, how to find safe work to make ends meet, or fix a car that is our only way to school, work, and the store.
We — a bartender from Brewer, a father of three and a hotel worker in Lewiston, and a mother of two and city councilor in Waterville — are witnessing the impossible problems that pandemic life has created for Mainers who were already living on the edge. This spring, Crista watched all three of her jobs evaporate when the pandemic hit. The stimulus checks and unemployment assistance passed by Congress earlier this year felt like it saved her house, her car, her credit, and her life.
Help from the CARES Act, which has kept many Mainers like us afloat, has ended or will end very soon. With federal unemployment benefits and housing protections expiring at the end of December, Congress must stop squabbling and act now to pass a stopgap measure to stave off illness, hunger, evictions, and homelessness until the New Year.
People in Maine are suffering from a pandemic and a recession that arrived amid growing racial and economic inequality. Poverty has set the stage for this crisis to push people from housing insecurity to homelessness, from poor nutrition to hunger, and from worrying about affording a doctor’s visit to dying from COVID.
As a hotel worker, Isreal has witnessed the economic impact of COVID and the benefits of the federal protections. It was like a faucet. The pandemic came, jobs disappeared, and the calls for long-term housing poured out. He’d answer the phone to inconsolable sobbing as someone explained how their life had completely fallen apart. How they can’t get resources and just need a place to be safe until they can figure out what to do. These calls were like listening to the apocalypse on the radio, with the volume turned up every time a protection went away: when stimulus funds ran out; at the end of expanded unemployment benefits; at the end of the (first) eviction moratorium.
These are widespread problems. One in three Maine households now say they couldn’t meet basic household expenses, and 20,000 to 40,000 households in Maine are behind in their rent and at risk of eviction. More than half of all Maine households with children were “not at all confident” or “not very confident” that they would be able to afford needed food in the next four weeks. Food pantries say the pandemic has prompted a 50 percent spike in demand for food assistance across the state.
On the governing council in Waterville, Flavia has seen that towns like hers don’t have enough revenue to keep up with the growing need. It’s even more expensive now to provide basic services — to teach children, keep us safe, fight fires and be a last resort for people who need food to eat or a roof over their head. Our municipal governments never want to have to choose between public health and safety and education, but that is where they are heading without more immediate help.
As Mainers, we can face this winter together. We owe each other enough support to make it through this dark period without gnawing hunger pangs, without forcing people out of their homes, without dismissing the racial disparities that are killing Mainers of color, without forcing people to scour for resources when our country has enough to help. We need Congress to share the abundance and ensure that everyone has what they need to get through.