02 pandemic homelessness Texas lusk2
'All I can do is pray': 60-year-old cook facing homelessness
03:09 - Source: CNN
Wilmer, Texas CNN  — 

For three months this year, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Diane Lusk was out of work.

She had watched unpaid utility bills pile up – then one day came home to find her electricity had been turned off. “I just never dreamed that I would see the days that I’m seeing,” Lusk told CNN.

Lusk finally found a new job flipping cheesesteak sandwiches at Happy Eats restaurant in Dallas. Now the 60-year-old cook often works 12-hour days trying to dig herself out of the valley of despair created by the pandemic.

But even with a steady job the pressure isn’t easing up. Lusk learned last month that her landlord would not be renewing the $600-a-month lease on the modest home with yellow siding that she shares with her three dogs.

Lusk makes $11 an hour and is struggling to find an affordable new place to live. She said most rental homes she finds are asking at least $1,000 a month and that’s too much for her right now.

Lusk’s eviction case is slated for a court hearing this week and she’s hoping the judge gives her until the end of the month to find a new place to live. She’s growing anxious about what the days ahead will bring.

The uncertainty of coming home wondering if the key will unlock the door gnaws at her every day. It’s a reality she never dreamed of having to deal with at this stage in her life. “If I have to move tomorrow, God help me,” she said.

“I’m trying to climb that mountain and get out of the valley.”

Neighbors called to help

Lusk and others have found a lifeline through the help of the congregation at Praise Fellowship Church in her hometown of Wilmer, about a 30-minute drive south of Dallas.

Every Tuesday, Pastor Edwin Favors and a team of volunteers host a food line. The food line started before the pandemic but in recent months the demand has grown like never before.

Pastor Edwin Favors and a team of volunteers host a food line that has seen a huge surge in demand.

Favors said that, before the pandemic, close to 400 people a week would show up for boxes of meats and fresh vegetables. The church now serves about 3,000 people a week.

Praise Fellowship Church sits on the side of Interstate 45. Most people probably don’t even notice the tiny church as they speed past it on any given day. But on Tuesdays it’s impossible not to see the hundreds of cars that line up waiting for their turn to wind their way through the food line.

The demand stunned Favors and made him realize the tentacles of the coronavirus have reached every corner of the country.

“I was very surprised,” said Favors. “Everybody’s going through it. You know this is a crisis that has literally hit every household.”

The car line is filled with the stories of Americans struggling from week to week.

They include a housekeeper who spent 20 days hospitalized with Covid-19 and has been out of work for most of this year. Another is a father whose catering company cratered in the pandemic and who now works part time as a security guard.

They were just a few of many others who talked about losing hours at work and struggling to make ends meet.

Team of lawyers volunteer time

The profound impact of the pandemic is still unraveling across the country and some are warning that, as coronavirus cases begin surging once again, relief for the most vulnerable is desperately needed.

In March, Dallas tax attorney Mark Melton knew that as the economy shutdown there would be thousands of people in danger of losing their homes. Melton started sharing legal advice on eviction through social media accounts and since then the calls for help have not stopped.

From the kitchen of his home, Melton spends hours every day counseling people of their rights as tenants and what they can do to protect themselves. The demand has been so intense that Melton recruited 150 lawyers to help.

Melton dials another phone number and on the other end is a woman desperately trying to help a friend who is days away from not being able to pay her rent. The caller says her friend has been unemployed during the pandemic, her savings have run out – and she fears that she’s about to get locked out of her apartment.

“She’s so scared. She’s all by herself,” said the caller.

Attorney Mark Melton and a team of volunteers provide advice for those facing eviction.

Melton said the team of volunteer lawyers have helped 4,000 people who are facing eviction in the last six months.

“It certainly is emotionally draining. I spend … many hours a day talking to people that are going through what is probably one of the worst experiences of their life,” he said. “There are definitely days where I just turn the lights off and sit in here and just cry my eyes out trying to figure out how to take the next step.”

‘A mass homelessness event’

A few months ago, Melton said he got a call from a woman who had been kicked out of her apartment. The landlord was moving all of her belongings onto the sidewalk.

Melton said it was an unlawful eviction and spent six hours on the phones with local prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

He made his case and by the end of the day all of the woman’s belongings were moved back into her house.

Melton understands the fear and heartbreak on the other end of these phone calls. When he was 20 years old, he lost his home in a foreclosure after being laid off from one of his first jobs when he lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Essentially homeless, Melton packed his wife and children into a car and moved to Dallas to start over. That experience is what guided him to start offering his help to those most in need during the pandemic.

“There really is no answer to this problem, unless the economy just magically recovers tomorrow,” Melton said. “We’re going to see a mass homelessness event like we’ve never experienced.”