The tree was wedged into the corner of the living room, plastic white branches catching the morning glare from the windows overlooking the apartment complex's parking lot in Virginia's Henrico County.
LaRoya White, eyes heavy from working overnight, thought about how weeks earlier she had doubted whether she would be able to muster any holiday spirit.
"It is what it is," the 35-year-old single mom said from the couch.
In June, White lost her job, one of the estimated 10.7 million jobs that have gone since the coronavirus pandemic arrived. As a result, an estimated 12 million renters will have an average of $5,850 in back rent and overdue utilities on their balance sheets going into the new year. Before the winter is out, a wave of evictions is expected to begin as a patchwork of national, state and local moratoriums expire.
The catch was that White had seen up close how money problems could snowball into homelessness and worse. The job she lost was as a property manager at a low-income building in Richmond.
White had listened to excuses and sad stories from tenants. She had personally put countless eviction notices in the mail. She had watched sheriff's deputies empty out more apartments than she cared to remember. None of that readied White for the blast of anxiety and dread she felt when she saw the eviction notice taped to her own door in September.
White decided she would do whatever she needed to keep the deputies from moving her out. She resolved that by the time the Christmas tree stood in her living room, her debts would be paid off and she would start the new year with a clean slate. "Got to do whatever I got to do to be at zero," she told herself.
Her promises were only partially fulfilled. She glanced again below the white branches dripping with a string of lights. "Ain't too much under there, either," she said, nodding to the lack of gifts.
SEARCHING FOR AID
White was soon on the phone with an attorney from the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society -- Palmer Heenan. She had faced off against him in court proceedings he had brought against her property on behalf of residents. Now, she was asking for his help. He agreed to take her on.
"When I talk to Ms. White, it's really clear to me that a big part of what is going on right now is this incredible stress that people in her position feel," Heenan said. "She's never been in this situation before. ... if you are unable to get back to work or get on unemployment, or the work that you do have is much less than you were making, there's no way for you to get out of the debt."
Finding an attorney was a lifeline after months of wandering lost in a maze of government bureaucracy.
"I'm trying to figure out why I don't have Medicaid. Does my daughter have Medicaid? What are the other programs I can get into?" she said. "This is something new to me. I've never been on welfare or SNAP benefits, anything like that."
She applied for unemployment benefits in June. But the Virginia system was overwhelmed by the number of claims coming in, and her application was jammed up. With July's $650 rent and her $455 car payment about to be due, plus living expenses, White then turned to three local nonprofits that helped renters.
But those services were also buckling under the demand. She submitted applications and was told that a check would be coming, but nothing arrived. "When it came to me, a person who has had jobs, who has paid bills, why is it so hard?" she says. "I applied like everyone else. Why am I not receiving?"
She immediately looked for new jobs, staring at her laptop, eyes losing focus after another sleepless night because of anxiety.
"A lot of the places I applied to said my resume was too overqualified for the job that was hiring," she says. Others balked at paying close to what she had been making in her other job. Others wanted to hire only folks with property management experience in high-end buildings, not nonprofit complexes for the poor.
Soon, she was begging for a gig from a friend of a friend as a house cleaner, and eventually she started an overnight shift working security at a nursing home. Money started coming in, but only a small fraction of what she had been making -- $12 an hour. "I had to humble myself," she said.
In November, unemployment benefits finally came through, just under $8,000. But she was already behind about $3,800 in back rent and late fees on her apartment, plus small loans she had taken from friends.
She worked every shift she could; it did not matter how tired she felt. She poured every paycheck back into balances, trying to keep to the promise she made in September to get even by the holidays.
"I really wanted it to be all paid off," she says. "I don't want to have something hanging over my head. I have no support system. I'm alone."
The eviction, however, had already been filed. She was working off the balance, but the money was still owed. Heenan helped her file for a state rental relief program tied to pandemic support, but the money still has not come.
"I would say that this is always going to hang over her head," Heenan said, "even if the rent relief comes through and pays all or some of what she owes, and she's able to stay current, and the case against her is dismissed. This is still a black mark on her rental record. There are landlords who still won't rent to someone with an eviction filing on their record."
Now she felt differently about all those people who were pushed out of those apartments. "I see why it took so long for people to get their ledger clear," she said. "It takes people time to get back into the groove of things."