IDAHO FALLS — One year ago, Aimee Thomson thought she had life figured out. Buying a place that she and her two children could call home was becoming a real possibility.
Now, the word “future” has a new, short-term meaning.
“Somebody asked me the other day if I have goals for my life,” Thomson said. “I just looked at them and I realized, no — my only goal is to get through the next month. I can’t even think past that.”
For Thomson, 38, things took a turn when Idaho Falls School District 91 closed in-class schooling in late March and early April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her parents live a short drive away, but with her father at high risk for COVID complications — he suffers from immunodeficiency — they have effectively sealed themselves from the outside world.
With a 6-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son with high-functioning autism and ADHD, the single mother needed to figure out how to pay her bills while caring for especially dependent children. Working in medical billing, Thomson was able to work from home, but she was limited in her hours — going from 40 to 50 hours per week down to 30 or as little as 25.
In addition to weighing which bills would be paid and which would be accruing late penalties to be figured out later, she found herself unable to pay rent.
Evicted and unable to find a new place she could afford — or a landlord who would look past the eviction she now carried on her record — Thomson developed a plan that she felt would protect her children.
“I was just going to tell my kids that we were going on a road trip,” she said. “It was summertime, and that is something we do pretty often. … I have a friend in Minnesota who had a couple open rooms, so we were just going to drive to Minnesota and make it an adventure.”
Inside, Thomson was stressed. She was scared by the thought of not being able to provide a home for her children.
But outwardly, she was determined never to allow her kids to face that fear with her.
“I don’t try to protect them from seeing struggle because I want them to know that we can get through hard things and be OK,” she said. “But I do it age-appropriately.”
With her belongings already loaded in a moving truck and a rental space reserved, Thomson and her children were ready for the type of adventure one might read about in a dramatic novel set in a dreary past or dystopian future. But, one day before she was legally bound to leave her home, a friend of a friend contacted her and told her he would rent his home to her.
Renting to Thomson came with a perk, thanks to the Federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.
The CARES Act was a relief supplemental appropriation passed in March by the U.S. Congress. Along with rental assistance, the $1.8 trillion bill increased unemployment payouts, produced payroll protection aid for small businesses, and delivered funds to state, local and tribal governments to aid communities as a whole.
Although it was originally written to expire in August, CARES was extended through December. A bill dedicating another $900 billion to COVID-19 relief was proposed in early December, and received bipartisan support but was rejected by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In addition to the aid it provided, the CARES Act included an eviction moratorium — a stay of evictions.
Property owned outright isn’t covered under the eviction moratorium. That leaves renters of property owned without liens unprotected.
Through the program, Thomson received three months of rent, which she gave directly to her new landlord upfront. Still, she understood the risk he was taking.
The owner’s property management company would never rent to someone with an eviction on their record, so he dismissed the company to help Thomson.
When she was at what she thought would be her lowest, the compassion of her neighbor was there to bail her out.
Thomson is the type of person usually on the other end of that compassion.
Normally a contributor to community assistance programs like Toys for Tots, she suddenly found herself going to the nonprofit organization to give her kids Christmas gifts.
But before she could get to Christmas, amid her attempt to get caught up through her three months of assistance and being able to work additional hours with her children back in school, Thomson contracted COVID.
“All I want is stability for my kids. I am a capable person. I want to work.”
“I was basically asleep for two weeks straight,” she said, “and my kids weren’t allowed back to school for almost four weeks.”
After not being able to work at all for two weeks, she was right back to working on a very limited basis. Worse yet, she was back to not having rent money, and she got even more bad news.
When she tried to reapply for CARES assistance — something she was told she would be eligible for after her three months had passed — she found out the aid was no longer available.
“Obviously, it’s not their responsibility to cover my rent. But I was counting on it,” she said. “That was really scary. But I got my stimulus check, so I used that to pay my rent.”
She felt saved when she discovered that her stimulus check had been deposited in her account in time to pay her rent for January.
Now Thomson and her children are right back in the situation that has become all too familiar.
“All I want is stability for my kids,” she said. “I am a capable person. I want to work. I want to take my kids to do fun things and get them involved in sports. I don’t party and do drugs and drink. I’m just trying to make our ends meet.”
With far too few hours to provide for her family represented on her most recent paycheck, Thomson is once again unable to pay her rent. She has worked so hard to create the stability she feels her children deserve and need — particularly for a young boy with autism who requires predictability. But, having faced so many bumps in the road, the destination never seems to grow any nearer.
“I’m so close. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel is right there, but I can’t get there.”
‘We are still struggling to pick up the pieces’
Abbey Barney lost both of her jobs in April.
Barney, 35, and her fiancee, Zach Pace, 34, live in St. Anthony with their two children and Zach’s 54-year-old mother, a double amputee.
When Barney lost her jobs, their landlord was sympathetic to their situation. She informed the family that her ability to afford the home they were renting rested on her ability to collect their rent.
“In July, we were officially evicted and had to scramble to figure out where to go from there,” Barney said in an email to EastIdahoNews.com. “We got a storage unit for all our stuff and were blessed to have family to take us in, but some of us had to live in separate houses.”
Despite the dire situation, the Barney-Pace family did not qualify for CARES Act aid.
To make matters worse, the family’s lone car broke down.
“It all felt like we lost our security and sense of being whole,” Barney said.
After extensive searches and finding out how difficult it is to find a rental with an eviction, the family found a home — a two-bedroom basement apartment. Although there is little space and no way to get a wheelchair into the dwelling, the family is clinging to the fact that it is whole again.
“We are still struggling to pick up the pieces of our ripped-apart family unit, but we are still hanging in trying to bring it all together again,” she said. “We learned a lot about what is most important in life, and that is family and love.”
‘I really thought 2020 was going to be the end of me’
Dawna Howard, 54, has been a city mail carrier between Idaho Falls and Shelley for 10 of her 20 years with the United States Postal Service.
Over time, her body has begun to wear down, and in 2019 she began a worker’s compensation claim as she dealt with numerous back issues. Her claim was still in the works when the COVID pandemic struck — and with the government’s attention pulled in other directions, her claim was pushed to the back burner.
Already receiving rental assistance from her church, food stamps and additional help from her children, Howard was struggling to pay her bills before the economy came to a screeching halt.
In July, everything came to a head. She was facing eviction, with no timetable for worker’s comp payments and fewer prospects of backpay. With her children unable to provide continued assistance, the new grandmother began doubting herself.
“How can a mother ask so much from the children for which she was supposed to provide?” she asked herself. “What kind of grandmother am I? What kind of example?”
“Me as a person, I am overly optimistic,” Howard said. “But in July, in my mind, the only way that anything was going to work out is if I took my car, drove on a road too fast, totaled my car so the kids wouldn’t have to worry about the car. In July, I was actually contemplating the best way to kill myself so it would look normal so at least my kids could benefit.”
Instead of ending her life, Howard began receiving mental health assistance, something she thinks is forgotten as the country takes inventory of all it has lost over the past 12 months.
Despite her financial and physical struggles before 2020, Howard said, she entered the year with a clean bill of mental health. Yet she considered suicide. She wonders about the people who entered the year with a history of drug or alcohol dependency and untreated mental ailments.
Eventually, she was told by the church that it would no longer be able to provide as they had.
“Even the people with the resources were stretched so thin that they had to say, ‘We can’t take care of you all,’” she said.
Thanks to continued assistance from her children, when it was feasible, local food banks and the CARES Act, Howard made it through the summer, eventually finding part-time office employment that came with housing.
Howard fully understands that having known the right person may have saved her and her family from further hardships. She was offered her current position — and home — by a friend of a friend.
“I’m glad I’m still here and where I am now. … I thought that 2020 was going to be the end of me, but I’m glad that I endured,” she said.
She also understands that others have not been so lucky, and for many the struggles are continuing to grow worse.
“I’m not sure that I’m not going to still see some repercussions, not everyone is going to have a happy ending like me,” Howard said. “It’s sad. I was lucky, but I think we’re going to see a lot of people without homes very soon.”