They Thought They Escaped Homelessness. Then Came Coronavirus.

Families that just got back on their feet are now facing another downward spiral.

Kenyal Braswell, 28, can’t sleep. She stays awake until 5 in the morning, sweeping every corner of her house. Even when her eyelids hang heavy, her mind is awake with worry. 

She worries if she’ll be able to make rent. And if she can’t, will she lose her house, again? 

Braswell and her three sons ― 3-year-old twins and a 5-year-old ― were homeless in November 2017. Since then, she’s done everything right. She found steady work, a home, and got back on her feet. Until last week, she worked two jobs. She paid her bills on time. Her kids went to a good day care. She had a friendly relationship with her landlord. She became a fixture in her community, getting involved with a local semi-professional football team.

She felt prepared. But she couldn’t have prepared for a global pandemic. 

“This is like a bomb that dropped,” said Braswell from her North Carolina home, about 30 minutes outside of Charlotte. 

There are over 550,000 homeless people in the United States on any given night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Over 180,000 of these people are families with children. Braswell’s family is one of the thousands more that got back on their feet in the past few years ― and are now on the verge of spiraling downward amid an economic shutdown due to COVID-19. They’re families on the brink. 

“Right now would be the worst time for a family to become homeless. It could not be a worse time,” said Claas Ehlers, CEO of Family Promise, a nonprofit that helps families experiencing homelessness. “Massive changes in hours and jobs for low-wage workers, and all of a sudden schools are closing, which we hadn’t anticipated. There was no way to get ready for it.”

Right now would be the worst time for a family to become homeless. It could not be a worse time. Claas Ehlers, CEO of Family Promise

Organizations like Ehlers’ are struggling to serve at-risk families, too. Shelter capacity has fallen as it becomes dangerous to house too many people together at once. Volunteers for organizations like Family Promise are primarily over the age of 60, and thus, the most at risk of getting seriously ill. Fundraisers have been canceled, stretching nonprofits’ financial resources. 

“We’re all trying to do a lot of prognosticating, and every day is about three weeks,” said Ehlers. 

Braswell fell into homelessness several years ago after her husband left. She spent months living in churches with the help of her local Family Promise branch.

But last week, Braswell’s primary job ― working as a hostess at Olive Garden ― stopped giving her hours. Two days later, her children’s day care closed, making it impossible for her to get the child care necessary to work her second job cleaning buildings.

Her carefully regimented routine suddenly came crashing down with overwhelming force. 

“It’s like it all got burned down,” she said.

The Worst Type Of Déjà Vu

Chyna Cain is a mother of three in Florida.
Chyna Cain is a mother of three in Florida.

Chyna Cain, of Brevard County, Florida, has been having trouble sleeping, too.

Her family just got stable housing a month ago. Then the coronavirus hit. 

Cain works for a company scheduling health services for government workers. Last Thursday, the company put her on temporary leave. Her husband, who works washing linens for hospitals, has also seen his hours cut, with his employer seemingly trying to stagger the amount of time employees spend together.  

Cain has already picked up another job, driving cabs for 12 hours a day, to try and make up for the lost wages. Nearly no one she’s driven around, she says, is concerned about their health. Everyone is concerned about losing their jobs. 

“I know the virus is a very real thing. But so is my rent and my light bill. So that’s really what’s stressing me out,” she said. 

The couple has three children. Two are still in day care, which has remained open. The eldest, 10, is now out of school after the district shut down in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. The family doesn’t have a computer, but expects the school district to deliver one soon. Cain’s heard rumors the district will start providing free lunch to needy students too, which would be a godsend. 

Cain fell into homelessness after the last government shutdown in early 2019 ― another situation in which her hours were drastically reduced. She’s determined not to fall back ― “it’s one of my worst fears,” she said.

“It’s kind of like reliving that,” said Cain. “It’s a déjà vu I was hoping to never experience.”

‘We Need Help’

Kenyal Braswell with one of her sons.
Kenyal Braswell with one of her sons.

Braswell would like to look for other jobs that she could do for home, but she doesn’t have internet access. 

She canceled the service just four days before she was let go from her job and two days before her kids’ day care shut down. She needed the money for rent, and thought she would be able to make it up soon. It was before the pandemic had hit her community. It feels like a lifetime ago. 

Braswell has considered filing for unemployment. But when she calls the number to ask for advice, she can’t get anyone on the line. 

“For a single parent, this is probably the worst thing that could happen,” Braswell said. 

Now her day to day is organized into a portfolio of immediate and longer-term concerns. 

In the short term, she wonders, how much can she stretch her food supply? If she does go to get groceries, where can she go that won’t have a line out the door? If she goes to the food pantry, will there be anything left? Will people let her cut to the front of the line if she tells them she has three kids she needs to feed three times a day? 

“I don’t want to ask for favors, but we need help,” said Braswell, who has been delivering meals to other families who don’t have cars. “It’s kind of like every man for himself. And I’m not used to that.”

In the medium term, how can she make sure her kids are still learning and engaged? She doesn’t mind being with them all the time, but how will that feel after weeks of isolation together? When day care does open back up, will she have the money to pay for it after weeks ― potentially months ― of lost income? If she has the money to pay the necessary fees, will she have the gas money to get them there? She does the mental calculations ― it’s a 10-minute drive, twice a day, five days a week. 

And, at that point, where will she and the kids even be living? Braswell’s landlord has been kind and patient, but at the end of the day, she has bills to pay, too. Braswell has a Section 8 housing voucher. If she’s unable to pay her rent, she will lose that ― which she said would be paramount to losing “everything” ― and she might not be able to get it back anytime soon. 

And at the end of all this, what will her community even look like? Will there be any jobs? If she gets her job back, will there be enough hours? Her thoughts race at all hours of the night. 

She has prepared for the coronavirus, stocking up on medicine and food. Though its been rough, she feels God is in control. 

At the end of the day, “Being sick is the farthest thing from my mind,” she said. “After all this and after we use all our money and the virus is gone, what do we do next?” 

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