The pandemic has underscored the harsh fact that racial and ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. While there are multiple reasons, being forced to live in unsafe housing and unhealthy environments are top of the list.
The racial inequities highlighted by the pandemic struck home for me through a pro bono client of mine who was evicted from her subsidized housing. Annie was a 43-year-old black woman with multiple medical problems including asthma, lupus, and chronic kidney disease. Due to these conditions she was unable to keep her job transporting children to and from day care, and, consequently, qualified for subsidized housing in 2004. She was a single mother who lived in Dorchester with her son, an honor roll student and a good kid, by all accounts.
Then, one cold day in January 2018, her son, and Annie’s life, turned a bad corner. Her son, then 18 years of age, found himself involved as a participant at the scene of a murder. He pled guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Annie, who had absolutely nothing to do with the crime, was forced out of her apartment under strict regulations that require tenants to be evicted if family members commit crimes.
However, under the law, tenants are entitled to a hearing where they can present “mitigating factors” such as whether they have disabilities that would be exacerbated by being rendered homeless. Annie, unrepresented at the time, attempted to tell the Hearing Officer of the Boston Housing Authority about her multiple medical problems and that becoming homeless could be life-threatening for her. The Hearing Officer didn’t give Annie the chance to discuss her disabilities or to produce medical records and ultimately upheld the termination.
Annie and I first met at a volunteer clinic in the Appeals Court where we assist pro se people in pursuing an appeal. She was a slight woman who looked years older than her age of 40. I recall she had an expression that reflected a mix of hope and disappointment. After speaking with her and learning her story, I concluded that she should appeal the termination based on her substantial medical problems. I agreed to represent her and filed her appeal. Then the pandemic hit, and the hearing was delayed until June 2020, a year from when we first met.
In July 2020, the Appeals Court concluded that the BHA had failed to consider evidence regarding her disability and ordered a new hearing at which Annie could present evidence of her dire medical condition. She was thrilled. We began the process to gather all her extensive medical records in preparation for the hearing which took several months.
Since Annie’s eviction, she had moved into her mother’s small apartment in Dorchester with her brother and niece, sleeping on a couch. Her health continued to deteriorate, and, in November, she suffered a seizure due to a brain tumor. Annie had surgery to remove the tumor and survived; but her kidney function worsened, and she found herself on home dialysis with a tube in her stomach and chest.
Finally, a hearing was scheduled for early February 2021. I prepared Annie for direct and cross examination. Then, the day before the hearing, the BHA told me they were conceding and giving her back her Section 8 voucher. When I called Annie to tell her the news, she sounded truly happy for the first time since we met.
The only step that remained was for her to complete a simple form. After getting the form, I emailed it to her. However, she didn’t respond. I called. No response. I texted. No response. Annie was always extremely responsive, so I was worried. She had been in an out of the hospital so many times. But I also knew she was a very determined woman.
I drove to her apartment in Dorchester. I introduced myself to her elderly mother and was invited in. I anxiously scanned the small, dark, cluttered apartment. “Is Annie here?” I asked. “She hasn’t been returning my calls and texts,” I said.
Her mother paused a moment. “She died last week in the hospital,” she said simply and sadly. I was in shock, even though a part of me expected this might be the case.
I shook my head, held back tears, expressed my sympathies, which felt weak and useless, and left. I didn’t ask if it was due to COVID or because of her underlying medical problems. It didn’t matter because I really knew how she died. She was another victim of the devastating accumulation of racial disparities.
Racial disparity is like a virus. It starts in one place and then spreads until it finds a way to kill. Annie’s early exposure to unhealthy living conditions and lack of access to quality health care was fundamentally why this young woman was so frequently very ill during her life. She was then forced to quit her job and rely on subsidized housing in a crime ridden neighborhood, which led to her son getting involved in a murder. That led to her eviction, her inability to get a lawyer, and lack of due process before the BHA. Then, she was forced to live on dialysis in a dank, crowded apartment in a polluted neighborhood continuously risking her health. Eventually, these repeated infections of systemic racism were just too overwhelming and killed her.
I believe that, like a virus, racial inequities can be treated if not cured. But it must be done aggressively using every possible modality. Each of us must recognize our role in this. I know I will never stop asking myself whether I could have gotten to this disease sooner by working faster and harder to get her out of that apartment, and maybe have helped her to win her battle. I now owe it to her to get her story out to enlist others in the fight against injustice.
For more information, please contact Jeffrey Catalano at email@example.com or 617.720.2626.
Todd & Weld COVID-19 Update.