As we work together to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, our community’s resilience is reflected in its citizens. Each day we witness the helpers in our community serve vulnerable populations by providing health care, education, food, spiritual guidance, legal advice and shelter. Unfortunately, we have also seen this crisis result in injustice, such as housing discrimination against Asian Americans, sexual harassment in housing and eviction. While many of us are able to shelter securely in our homes, other families are facing the reality of eviction.
On March 19, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a moratorium banning residential landlords from evicting tenants. However,social service agencies in the city and statewide have continued to receive calls indicating landlords are not abiding by the order and are using lockouts and utility shutoffs to force families out of their homes.
A local leader told me he had received a call from a desperate Fort Wayne mother, who asked what she could do to keep her family in their home while the landlord threatened to shut off utilities. The leader said this was just one of many similar stories he has heard.
I have also received calls related to these issues and others. Families in our community are hurting and fearing they will be left homeless. Many are unsure of their housing rights and are scared of what may happen if they exercise those rights.
The National Fair Housing Alliance has found that during the pandemic there has been an uptick in sexual harassment complaints nationwide. Past experience shows us that in times of crisis women are vulnerable to sexual harassment by their landlords. Current trends suggest that women, mainly women with children, who are struggling to pay rent are requesting payment plans to stay current with their rent. It has been reported that in return for these requests, some housing providers are asking for sexual acts in place of rental payments.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, fair housing alliance and other fair housing agencies have also fielded reports of increased housing discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. This includes complaints of denial of services, verbal attacks, evictions and hate crimes as a result of stereotyping and misinformation regarding the coronavirus.
In response, the state Department of Health issued guidance addressing misconceptions about the coronavirus, specifically explaining that racial and ethnic backgrounds play no role in the spread of the virus.
What can we do as a community to address these problems? We must:
• Support housing providers who are trying to do the right thing during this difficult time.
• Support organizations promoting fair housing and working to rectify illegal evictions. This can be done by providing additional funding and sharing legal updates and resources to the public.
• Denounce rising discrimination toward vulnerable populations, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
• Ensure people who commit discriminatory acts are held accountable. Our public officials must counter discriminatory behavior by addressing the public regarding misinformation.
• Disseminate accurate and accessible COVID-19 information and resources to the public. We can do this by circulating evidence-based best practices in preventing the spread of COVID-19. We will continue to get this information translated to reach Fort Wayne’s large Hispanic and Burmese populations and accessible to those with disabilities by having sign-language interpreters and other forms of communication.
• Enact policies and programs that support vulnerable populations.
Fort Wayne is making headway in this respect as the Community Development-Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services has worked diligently to create an emergency eviction legal clinic. The office is also working with community partners to find safe places for displaced families to stay.
Nikki Quintana is executive director of Fort Wayne’s Metropolitan Human Relations Commission, the public agency responsible for investigating fair housing discrimination complaints.