Steps away from the Phoenix moving company where Chris Frisby was general manager for more than a decade are his new places to sleep.
Sometimes the bed is a hot metal bus bench, engulfed by the roar of trucks on Cave Creek Road. On other nights, a gravel alleyway, where he lies on a blanket or discarded piece of particle board, hoping he won’t get mugged.
“In the summertime, it’s a little brutal,” Frisby said, “even at night.”
The 44-year-old Arizona native thought it would be easy, given his management experience, to find another job after he was laid off from Classic Delivery & Moving in April as a result of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. It wasn’t.
He thought the state’s rental and unemployment assistance would show up after he applied. Months later, it hadn’t.
He thought his landlords would agree to a payment deal. They wouldn’t.
After an eviction was filed against him, Frisby thought Gov. Doug Ducey’s moratorium would protect him from getting kicked out until Oct. 31. It didn’t.
Frisby mailed paperwork showing pandemic-related hardship to his landlords and faxed it to the court. But no one told Frisby he would need to stay home around the clock for more than a week, waiting to show the constable the documents, too.
So when Frisby got a call from the owner of Classic Delivery & Moving offering part-time work, he jumped at the chance.
While he was gone, the constable showed up and changed the locks.
For the first time in his life, Frisby is homeless, he said.
“Because I wasn’t home, (and I was) trying to do what was right in getting a job, the constable evicted me. And that was it,” Frisby said. “I was devastated. What am I going to do now?”
Sitting among the possessions of others at the moving company, Frisby, fighting back tears, said he doesn’t know what’s next.
“It’s new for me. It just feels like I failed myself. I could have done something different. Maybe I should have applied here when I should have applied there. Maybe I should have done this when I should have done that,” Frisby said. “There’s a lot of people that are going through the same thing. I never needed help all these years until now.”
Trillions in aid but not enough help
Chris Frisby sits at a bus stop he occasionally sleeps at in Phoenix on Aug 8, 2020.
Federal and state lawmakers agreed to spend trillions of dollars this spring to help struggling Americans and businesses survive the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For many the help has come too little, too late.
A record 1.1 million Arizonans have received some type of unemployment assistance since March. But 37,000 have received nothing because their applications are sitting in a backlog.
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Those receiving money recently saw weekly unemployment benefits drop from as much as $840 to $240 when a federal enhancement expired. A new plan from the president is supposed to raise that benefit up to $540 but only for five weeks.
When it comes to rental assistance, Ducey touts more than $90 million in government funding available to Arizonans struggling to make payments due to COVID-19. But only a sliver of that money has actually made its way to tenants.
So far, roughly 1,400 residents have received rental help from the state out of more than 21,000 applicants to the Arizona Housing Department’s eviction prevention fund, data shows. Less than $2 million has been distributed as of Aug. 10, despite the housing department’s promise in mid-June and the governor’s efforts in mid-July to speed up application reviews.
Maricopa County and Phoenix have started doling out rental aid, but the programs only recently launched and haven’t released numbers.
The ranks of Arizonans spiraling from pandemic-related layoffs or pay cuts to eviction to homelessness could grow.
More than 13 million Americans told the U.S. Census last month they were behind on rent, up from 10.8 million in April. Of those, more than 300,000 came from Arizona, up from about 170,000.
UMOM, one of the largest homeless service-providers in Arizona, saw a 30% increase in families requesting emergency shelter in April.
A friend of Frisby who was an executive chef is now living on the street, he said. And every night, Frisby sees people like himself huddled outside.
“It’s rocked this whole state,” Frisby said. “I’m not saying the Democrats are wrong or the Republicans are wrong. They just need to … come to some type of an agreement of what’s right for the people. Last time I heard, they worked for us.”
Life before coronavirus
Chris Frisby finishes his shift at Classic Delivery & Moving where he works part time in Phoenix on Aug. 8, 2020.
Frisby was doing fine before the pandemic, he said.
He said he earned about $30,000 a year managing a crew of movers for a family-owned business. He had a two-bedroom apartment in central Phoenix and a dog named Puck. He got around by bus.
Frisby had moved into the apartment, seeking a quieter location and cheaper rent, near the beginning of March, before the crisis hit.
When Ducey announced a stay-at-home order in late March, “essential” services like moving companies were allowed to operate as normal. But as infections rose, customers dropped.
“In this industry, it hit hard. People don’t want strangers in their home,” Frisby said. “My company was facing shutdown, and even though I’ve been here 12 years, they did all they could.”
Frisby worked shorter hours at first. By April, he was laid off.
“If this pandemic cannot be resolved soon and we cannot turn the business around, we will be closing,” the owner wrote him in a letter.
Trying to get help
Frisby acted quickly to find help.
He filled out an application for state rental assistance on March 30, the same day the program launched, emails show.
The Department of Housing confirmed he had passed the first stage and would be assigned for review to the Western Council of Governments, a Yuma non-profit agency. The email directed Frisby to submit more documents online, which he said he did.
Chris Frisby walks through an alley way he had spent the last few nights previously sleeping in in Phoenix, Ariz. on Aug 8, 2020. Frisby worked for Classic Delivery & Moving, a furniture store, for 12 years as a manager before he was laid off during the COVID-19 crisis, after which he was evicted from his home and forced to sleep in the alley and a bus stop near the furniture store for about 12 days. Frisby has resumed working part time for the store but remains homeless.
Frisby said he also filled out an application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program designed for gig workers, independent contractors and others who normally wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits.
It was hard using a cellphone to submit documentation, Frisby said, and he had to do it repeatedly.
“Your screen is only so big,” Frisby said. “All of a sudden you’ve been assigned to (an agency). Your case is under review. Four months later, they say you’ll get a phone call. They tell you to send these statements. You send them in, and you don’t hear from anybody. Then you lapse out of the time frame to do something, and now you have to do it again.”
His job applications went nowhere for a while. Then Frisby landed an Amazon warehouse job. But it was impossible to maintain, he said. The 10-hour shift was at least a five-hour round trip bus commute away.
Days turned into weeks, and Frisby was losing hope.
There were mornings he couldn’t get out of bed. He’d go two days without eating, he said. He felt so sick, he wondered if he had COVID-19. A test came back negative. It was the stress.
“I hit rock bottom … due to something I have no control over,” Frisby said.
The first eviction
On April 1, Frisby missed paying the $800 monthly rent, court documents show.
Two weeks later, he received an eviction notice. He mailed a letter to landlord Melvin Linberg about his hardship, including the note from Classic Delivery & Moving, court documents show.
By the end of the month, Frisby and Linberg were in court with Justice Andrew Hettinger over $959 in late rent and fees.
During the six-minute hearing, the phone line was barely accessible for Linberg, who wears hearing aids. His wife, Mary Ann Linberg, had to loudly repeat the judge’s words so he could understand.
The Linbergs denied receiving hardship documents from Frisby.
Frisby told the judge he had lost his job, was strapped for cash and apologized for not communicating more with his landlords.
“I slip into depression mode because of me having to leave my job of 12 years,” he said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Frisby promised to pay $400 from his stimulus check and to try to work out a payment plan. The Linbergs didn’t follow through with the eviction that day.
Frisby kept hoping unemployment or housing aid would come through.
“I’m a pretty smart guy, and when it came to figuring all this out, I’m going, ‘How the hell do you do this? And who do I ask for help?’” Frisby said.
State and charitable agencies were closed to walk-ins or were impossible to reach on the phone, he said. Frisby downloaded an app to automatically redial every time a phone line kicked him off, he said.
Kicked out while looking for work
May, June and the first of July passed without Frisby paying rent, apart from the roughly $400 he gave the landlords from his stimulus check, court documents show.
The landlords filed again for eviction on July 13 for roughly $2,300 in overdue rent and fees.
Desperate for housing assistance to avoid eviction, Frisby applied a second time to the state for help, with no results. This time his application was assigned to the Phoenix Human Services Department for review, the confirmation email shows.
Chris Frisby talks with a driver in a truck he’s borrowing to move his belongings form the apartment he was recently evicted from in Phoenix on Aug. 8, 2020.
By July 21, Frisby was back in virtual court with the Linbergs.
“He hasn’t paid a penny,” Melvin Linberg repeated.
Frisby explained his hardship in the 13-minute hearing.
“Our business took a critical hit,” Frisby told the judge. “I’m still out there looking for a job that can help me pay at least some of my bills.”
By that point, Ducey had extended the eviction moratorium through October for tenants who followed new steps to notify their landlords of their hardship by Aug. 22.
But renters in court are essentially on their own to figure out how to qualify for the moratorium and avoid eviction.
Maricopa County Justice Courts do not provide written information to defendants about the requirements. And some judges do a better job than others of explaining the governor’s order during hearings.
Hettinger explained some of the moratorium requirements to Frisby before granting the July eviction order, but he did not explain the potential of getting kicked out if a constable arrived and he wasn’t home.
“With Gov. Ducey’s executive order, you just need to give a copy to the landlord, a letter saying you acknowledge the terms of the lease remain in effect, and some documentation showing how you’ve been negatively affected by COVID-19. And then you keep a copy for yourself as well,” the judge said. “That can give you protection from having to move out until Aug. 21. After that, there are some additional requirements. I’ll point you to the governor’s executive order to read what those are and to comply with those. You have a month to look into that.”
Hettinger said Frisby had roughly a month to turn in new paperwork under Ducey’s extended moratorium. But that reprieve went out the window once the constable came knocking.
Maricopa County constables enforce evictions, even if renters follow the moratorium requirements, if a landlord denies the tenant filed the paperwork and the tenant isn’t home to counter that claim, Chief Constable Mike Branham said.
Constables don’t read court documents or listen to hearings to find out if a tenant is eligible for the moratorium, he said. And they don’t let tenants know when they’re planning to come.
If a renter thinks a constable could show up while they’re gone, they can call the constable office or leave a note on the door stating they qualify for the moratorium and the time they will return, Branham said.
Frisby didn’t know a constable was coming.
Eight days after the hearing, he received a call from his boss offering a return to work, Frisby said.
While he was gone, the constable arrived and changed the locks.
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No appeal available
Frisby was left with little recourse.
The constable can’t reverse what happened, Branham said.
“It’s Chris’s responsibility to make sure the constable gets the documentation,” Branham said. “To me, we didn’t make a mistake. We simply didn’t have the information available to us.”
Frisby could file an appeal with the Maricopa County Justice Courts, spokesman Scott Davis said. But doing so would require Frisby to pay a filing fee, and it’s unclear if he would win or how long it would take to receive a hearing. In the meantime, he would still have to move out.
In other words, Frisby is out of luck.
The Arizona Department of Housing confirmed Frisby’s July request for rental aid. But no one knows how long it will take.
Nearly 10,000 applications for rental help haven’t been reviewed, state data shows.
“Staff are working diligently to review each application as soon as possible, generally in the order they were submitted,” spokesperson Janelle Johnsen said.
On Tuesday, Frisby received a large payment of unemployment benefits that had been due to him, after U.S. Rep Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., learned about his case from The Republic and intervened.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security, which handles jobless benefits, wouldn’t explain why help for Frisby was delayed for months. A spokesperson said the agency does not comment on individual cases.
The landlords declined an interview.
“We won’t be speaking with you. We follow the law, and that’s all,” Mary Ann Linberg said.
Frisby holds no ill will toward his landlords, he said, and hopes the government acts more quickly to assist them.
“I understand they need to make a living, too … Is it fair to people who own these homes outright? No, of course not,” Frisby said. “But what happens to us?”
Finding a place to sleep
Since losing his apartment, Frisby has bummed a few nights on friends’ couches, while spending the others on the bus bench or in the alley, he said. He has been wearing a borrowed pair of pants.
Frisby works when the moving company needs him, but it isn’t steady. Maybe $200 to $500 a week, he said.
Puck, his aging dog who had been living with a friend, had to be put down on Sunday.
Frisby used a company moving truck to move his apartment furniture to a temporary location this week. But Frisby is pessimistic about finding a new apartment with an eviction on his record.
He wonders what the future holds.
“There are millions of people going through the same thing. People that have never had to file for unemployment or for housing assistance. It’s a shock to them and their family,” Frisby said. “At least some still have a place to live.”
Contact the reporter Rebekah L. Sanders at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @RebekahLSanders.
AUTHOR: Rebekah L. Sanders