The story of a local woman who allegedly set a Central City apartment building on fire after being evicted and given 24 hours to vacate was disturbing news. It was not as shocking as much as it was ominous and portentous–a sad sign of things to come, we fear.
Before we go any further, we want to make two things abundantly clear. The suspect in question has only been accused of arson. These are just allegations. And second, in no way do our thoughts on this unfortunate situation reflect the approval of any type of criminal behavior for any reason.
With that said, we when heard this story, we were not so surprised. We hate to say this—but we could see this (or something like it) coming. People are at the end of their ropes. Though it is not clear exactly why this woman was facing eviction, we know there are tens of thousands of residents who are or will be facing the same fate because of the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are still thousands of out-of-work Louisianans whose unemployment claims are tied up in red-tape, workers who have lost jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic who have not received a dime of unemployment benefits yet because of bureaucracy, people who were already on the edge or smack in the middle of poverty long before the economy declined, people who went to work every day and barely earned enough to keep a roof over their head way back in January, when no one was even thinking about COVID.
No, not everyone facing difficult circumstances does something so drastic. In fact, most people don’t. And no one should. But we live in the real world. And in reality, people may not know what they are capable of or willing to do when their backs are up against the wall. Strange and frightening things can happen at the intersection of fear, rage, hopelessness, and helplessness.
We admire efforts such as The Mayor’s Fund to raise money to help local residents facing eviction. By late August, $170,000 had been raised; and while every penny counts, we are certain it only reflects a drop in the bucket when compared to the great need.
This problem is much bigger than any fundraiser could meet. At its root, it is a problem caused by government policies and long-standing, unfair business practices. The pandemic may have stirred the pot, but the stew has been brewing for a long time.
All Americans deserve a living wage. Instead, we have leaders in Louisiana that fight against raising the minimum wage. And in New Orleans, we have hospitality industry leaders that had to be shamed into dipping into their massive fiscal reserves to provide meager assistance to local underpaid tourism industry workers after so many found themselves out of jobs because of the pandemic.
In the best-case scenario, people would not face eviction, food insecurity, or utility disconnections because of a missed paycheck or two. They would actually earn enough money to meet their current needs and save for tough times or the future—whichever comes first. Instead, many people faced challenges long before COVID-19 wrecked the economy, working hard for wages that forced them to choose between groceries or utilities, between paying the rent or doing anything else . . . at all. And until these real issues are addressed, instances of people who—when met by their worst nightmare—act illogically, or illegally, or immorally could become so commonplace, that nothing shocks any of us anymore.
In the short-term we need Congress and the White House to get it together and provide another round of relief to Americans who are facing challenges like many of us have never seen before.
The long-term solution has to start with ensuring that workers are paid fairly and adequately. In a city where a decent two-bedroom apartment now costs $1500 a month, $8 an hour will not cut it. Neither will $10. We need a government that is truly for the people. We need business leaders that understand that their workers deserve wages that will allow them to do more than scratch and survive.