Look into the eyes of a person who’s being evicted, and you’ll see what the experience feels like, says Jim Willis. “They’re numb. They’re devastated. Someone’s taken over for them and told them to move everything they own. They’re in emotional and physical pain.”
Willis is a co-founder of SACC Movers, a volunteer service project of South Acton Congregational Church in Massachusetts. For 50 years, SACC Movers has moved household goods for people facing the challenge of moving without sufficient funds. “We go into someone’s home and move all their worldly possessions,” notes Willis. “We carry a person’s life. And we make a unique and vital contribution each time.”
Eviction and Losing Everything
Before COVID-19 hit, there were approximately 1 million evictions affecting 2.3 million people annually, notes Matthew Desmond, founder of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. That number doesn’t include people forced out of housing because of rent increases, illegal lockouts, and failed living arrangements. And evictions don’t just happen in cities. According to a recent article published by the Eviction Lab, research showed that about one in every 30 urban renting families and one in every 50 suburban renting families faced eviction each year.
With evictions looming as a public health threat at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government placed a moratorium on evictions in September 2020. This action kept countless housing-insecure people in their homes during a time of economic uncertainty, but the moratorium was struck down by the Supreme Court in August 2021. Renters in some parts of the country were still protected by state and local eviction moratoria in 2021. But as those protections are lifted, the numbers of evictions are rising.
The lack of affordable housing means that evictions or sudden loss of housing will continue to threaten lower-income people, with racial disparities due to systemic long-term discrimination. In its 2022 study “America’s Rental Housing,” Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that even with income assistance under the CARES Act, 15% of renter households were in rent arrears by the end of 2021. Due to job losses during the pandemic, Black households were almost three times as likely, and Hispanic and Asian households twice as likely, to be behind on rent as White households.
People facing eviction frequently contend with a requirement to leave their home quickly. Many have to store items as they look for new housing. But this can set up a no-win scenario for many lower-income people.
“We hear, over and over, that people end up one payment late and get forced out of their homes,” notes Andrew Witherspoon, of the nonprofit Chicago Furniture Bank. “They put their items in storage to look for a new place and can’t afford to make their storage payments to get their furniture back. Then they lose everything. When they find their new place, they come to us.”
Witherspoon co-founded Chicago Furniture Bank in 2018 to address the need for dignified, comfortable shelter for low-income people. In just three years, it became one of the largest furniture banks in the U.S., having furnished 7,600 homes for over 18,000 people. Clients hand-pick all their new home’s furnishings for free.
“Shelter doesn’t just mean four walls and a floor,” asserts Witherspoon. He notes that when people get evicted, they’ve lost a lot of choice. Many have to move to a place that’s foreign and uncomfortable; they’ve lost their friends, neighbors, and support systems. “We believe everyone should be able to sleep in a bed, share a family meal at a kitchen table, and enjoy the comfort of a furnished home,” he says.
Many Chicago Furniture Bank clients don’t have the income and resources they need for daily life, let alone to move on short notice. Over 50% of the furniture bank’s clients take advantage of its low-cost delivery service. “It’s a matter of accessibility,” says Witherspoon. “Even using the cheapest way possible, renting a van and moving things yourself, for instance: If you don’t have a major credit card, you have to pay 200% of the booking fee as a deposit that’s refunded when you return the truck. Many of our clients simply don’t have that kind of money.”
In Massachusetts, the SACC Movers work with Household Goods, a nonprofit that partners with social services agencies to provide free household furnishings to people in need. Many of its clients have experienced eviction and have lost everything. Household Goods is powered by a network of volunteers who accept furniture donations and distribute them to over 60 households who are moving to public and affordable housing each week.
“Household items, which many take for granted, may seem unimportant, but they make a huge difference,” says Sharon Martens, executive director of Household Goods. “Many of our clients have lost everything when they’re forced out of their homes. Our clients tell us that they find more than just a couch, dishes, or a lamp: They also find hope. Waking up comfortable and having a shelter that they’ve turned into a home makes it easier for them to start every day.”
Scenes of Moving Help:
The SACC Movers are called to help a woman and her two young children, recent immigrants from Pakistan who’ve found a place through the local housing authority but have no way to move their possessions. A few hours later, boxes and furniture fill every corner of their new apartment. The beds are assembled, the kitchen supplies unpacked. It looks like the job is finished, and the movers prepare to leave. But one man quietly approaches the woman and asks, “Where will you pray?”
She gazes around the room, her glance alighting on space next to a sunny window. “There, I think,” she replies, pointing, though the spot is filled with boxes and furniture. The team sets to work again. When the space is cleared, the woman gathers her children to her side, her face breaking into a smile.
The SACC Movers show up to move a woman whose landlord has decided to upgrade her apartment and wants her out immediately. She lives on the second floor, with no elevator. The team will have to carry her possessions down two flights of stairs. When they arrive at the apartment, they find her packing the last boxes in a dark one-bedroom apartment. She moves easily in her wheelchair as she does her final organizing. There is almost no food to pack: She reports that her helper hasn’t come lately. Once her furniture and boxes are in the moving van, it is time to go.
“Who’s carrying me?” she asks. The volunteers look at her quizzically; she repeats her question. “Who’s carrying me? I don’t walk.”
“How do you usually go out?” they ask.
“I never leave,” is the short reply. “I haven’t been out of this apartment in two years. My helper brings me everything I need.”
The local fire department is called, and two firefighters carry her down the stairs to her long-neglected car. The housing authority luckily has a good option available: The woman’s new place is a ground-level one-bedroom in a large apartment complex, with access to the outdoors and other people. She can even drive again.
Surrounded by boxes in her new home, the woman takes a long breath. “I haven’t felt sunshine on my face in a long time,” she says. “I’m home, I’m really home.”
Volunteers who help soften the hardships of eviction and moving on a low income show that “There’s a lot of good out there, and a lot of good people,” says Martens, of Household Goods. They’re helping others make a new home, with furniture, lamps, and access—at last—to some sunshine.
Martha Rounds is a Massachusetts-based writer with a deep interest in Systems-Centered Theory and how living human systems transform. Her work focuses on understanding what motivates individuals and groups to foster positive social change.