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COVID-19 and Our Most Vulnerable Communities

Mom and son by window inside homeCOVID-19 will have devastating impact on low-income communities and communities of color unless there is a robust policy response. We know that these vulnerable communities have a higher proportion of medically fragile people who are at greater risk of complications and death from the coronavirus. Many of the people in these communities live paycheck to paycheck and work in jobs that do not have paid sick leave or paid family leave. Without the reliability of work, many feel the looming threat of being evicted, not having enough food to put on the table, or that their electricity will be shut off. With school districts closing all over the state, children will be home, and many parents will not have accessible childcare, forcing tough choices even if no one in the family is sick.  

Other vulnerable communities are likely to be hard hit as well. Homeless populations have a high degree of medical vulnerability, difficulty (if not impossibility) maintaining the appropriate social distance in shelter settings, and little access to hand sanitizers or handwashing. Shelters are often overcrowded in many parts of Texas, providing a perfect place to spread the virus.  Juvenile justice-involved youth in detention or state secure facilities, those in jail awaiting trial, and those incarcerated in the prison system are also very vulnerable to the spread of the disease. Many of the preventive measures like handwashing or social distancing are not feasible in these facilities. Foster children in congregate care facilities are often medically vulnerable, and have some of the same issues, particularly in large congregate settings.  

The State of Texas and cities and counties across the state must not wait for federal action to begin providing relief. Many have already begun to take actions. Some of our policy recommendations to them include: 

  • The State of Texas should tap its rainy day fund to expand medical care for all who need it. The state should also use these funds to support public health efforts, and backstop struggling municipalities and counties.  

  • The state should release low risk people from prison, especially those who are medically fragile or elderly. These populations are unlikely to reoffend, and are highly susceptible to the disease.  

  • County jails and law enforcement must limit the number of people being taken into jail, and reduce jail populations dramatically. Law enforcement officers should stop arresting for nonviolent offenses, and jails should release all pre-trial detainees who do not pose a flight risk or a risk to the safety of the community. 

  • The State Supreme Court or the Office of Court Administration should suspend eviction proceedings in justice of the peace courts statewide. It is important, in these unstable times, to adopt a suspension of eviction proceedings as a consistent policy across all courts, so that impacted Texans need not navigate a confusing array of individual court or county policies. If this action isn’t taken quickly, justices of the peace can suspend their eviction proceedings in their individual courts, as several have already done. 

  • Cities and utility providers should suspend utility shutoffs for the duration of this crisis.  

  • Debts to public entities, especially for fines and fees associated with low-level misdemeanors, should be forgiven. At the very least, collections should be suspended, and bench warrants for failure to pay should be suspended for the duration of this crisis. Municipal and justice of the peace courts should stop drivers’ license suspensions through the Omnibase program as well.  

Businesses and industry also have a major role to play.   

  • In the aftermath of other disasters, financial institutions have provided forbearance for mortgages so that struggling families may have some respite, and they should do so again.  

  • Landlords should reduce rents as much as is feasible while keeping their buildings safe and maintained.  

  • Companies should provide paid sick leave to all workers, starting now.  

  • Utilities, like natural gas and private electricity providers, should cease cutoffs, and allow families recently cut off to reconnect with few or minimal fees. 

  • Lenders of all kinds should temporarily cease collecting interest and provide forbearance on outstanding debts for families who are struggling financially due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Payday and auto title lending, in this time of crisis, should be deemed price-gouging. It is unconscionable in all circumstances, but particularly now, to charge rates of 200% to 800% APR to Texans struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.

For a disaster as wide-ranging as this, these policy responses represent only a small portion of what should be done, but they should all be high priority. 


Also visit our Resource page for additional news and statements related to the coronavirus.

 

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