Column By Fernando Cerdeña

We have a problem.

The pandemic left us vulnerable. It stripped us as a society, as a city, state, nation, and as an entire planet.

They closed the country completely—do you remember that? No one walked in the street. There were no cars, no people, no shopping. Only the essentials: supermarkets, pharmacies, and—incredibly—liquor stores (of course, very essential). The next pandemic will most likely include the sale of marijuana.

This emerged from the chaos: people lost work, family life became strained with everyone ordered to stay at home, mental health issues worsened, students missed classes, churches lost congregants, and the gap in understanding of the problems of the people and the politicians they elected widened.

Consider Juanita, a hardworking woman with two teenage children whom the pandemic hit hard. She lost work and her husband left her making it more difficult to pay her rent and utilities like electricity and gas. She recently found out that the state offered an assistance program for rent and electricity payments, and she applied, but very late. The prohibition on evictions had elapsed and by the time the program received her application, it had run out of money. Juanita and her family were evicted and they now live in a shelter. They lost all their possessions, which are now sitting in the street until the city retrieves them and sends them to the dump.

We are not using her full name or publishing her photograph so she does not suffer the shame that follows homelessness because she is not the one at fault for her situation.

Like Juanita, there are thousands of people who have been evicted and thousands more are awaiting court hearings.

The moratorium on evictions is over and people are getting booted from their apartments.

If there is $43 billion in aid for Ukraine, there should be $43 billion in aid for our own people, for the most vulnerable who have worked all their lives and whose taxes have supported our country. I do care about the Ukraine, but abandoning our people at home in such challenging times is immoral.

Another upsetting case from a month ago centers on a mother of two, Sonia Ramos, who has endured multiple health issues, has two service dogs—one that alerts her about a potential heart attack (she has already suffered two) and another that warns her at the start of a panic attack.

Sonia Ramos and her two dogs have been evicted from her apartment.

Without her dogs, she would not be able to live. (The owner of the building lives in New York, like many who invest in Waterbury these days.) Sonia has felt abandoned by all facets of society. Despite all her health issues, Sonia works, but her income is not enough to meet her expenses. She has never been approved for disability relief. Her apartment was a zoo: in addition to her two dogs, she lived with cockroaches, rats, spiders, and ants and the only reason she did not have tigers or lions seemed to be that the landlord never brought them in. All the renters in the building have leveled complaints, but the landlord has ignored them. The owner should be fined to set an example for any investor who thinks he can come from New York or Mars, or wherever, and disregard basic rules and norms that every city upholds.

We tried to prevent Sonia and her two dogs, Stitch and Brown, from eviction. We have focused on protecting Sonia because these days many people think it is more important to save animals rather than people. Our efforts did not work and Sonia has been evicted.

State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. tried to assist Sonia Ramos.

“The system failed her,” Reyes said. “She called all the help lines she could and it was useless. It’s an embarrassment.”

Ironically, Reyes said there might be more help for her as a homeless person than as a tenant fighting to stay in her apartment. During the last legislative session Reyes fought to get an $50 million of funds into the Department of Housing to address the impending eviction crisis.

“We got $5 million and that’s not nearly enough,”Reyes said. “This is a horrible situation. There are going to be many evictions this summer and very few people want to talk about this.”

Renters who are evicted cannot obtain other housing due to their histories of eviction. In the prior legislative session, a group of legislators attempted to pass a bill that would ensure that prior eviction would not affect credit checks and the decision-making power of landlords to rent to tenants. It did not pass. I believe that the political campaign money donated by the real estate companies counts more than the need of the people.

The people and the politicians will meet again at the ballot box in November. This time we might elect more politicians who not only want to save the dogs from eviction, but will fight to save the dog’s owner too.

(Fernando Cerdeña works at Waterbury Neighborhood Housing doing outreach with rental assistance and homelessness, and has been contributing to the Waterbury Observer the past two years.)