Stuck-at-Home Parents Want More Support for Home Schooling

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on July 22, 2020.
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Christine Morgan, a mother in Peachtree City, Ga., calls herself “a big proponent of public schools.” But after dealing with her district’s remote-learning offerings this past spring—which she says were scant on instruction and heavy on busywork—she decided to look at home schooling for her rising fourth grader. “I would consider sending my kid back to brick-and-mortar school if everyone were taking the virus seriously and taking precautions,” she says. “But it’s Georgia, and they are not.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, about 4% of school-age children in the U.S. were home-schooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Many more families are weighing the option for the fall, either frustrated with remote learning through their public school or nervous about the health risks of sending their children into buildings with others. School choice proponents, who’ve long advocated that per-pupil spending should “follow the child” wherever they seek their education, hope to capitalize on the shift. And with the backing of President Trump and Republicans in Congress, home schooling could get the biggest boost it’s ever gotten from the federal government in the next round of stimulus funding.

In April the American Federation for Children, a national school choice group that was formerly chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, commissioned a poll and found that 40% of families were more likely to consider home schooling even after lockdowns ended. Tommy Schultz, the group’s vice president, says the results were initially met with skepticism: “Some people were saying, ‘Well, those numbers are inflated and it’s too early to tell.’ ” But in late May, a separate Ipsos/USA Today poll found 60% of parents were considering home schooling in the fall and 30% were “very likely” to make the switch.

“We started putting on social media, ‘Hey, we’re spending on average $15,000 per kid for public schools. Shouldn’t families get some of that back to support home education?’ and that sort of messaging just skyrocketed in terms of interest and engagement,” Schultz says. “We’ve been running online petitions, and it’s the single largest spike in advocacy we’ve ever seen.”

Brittany Wade, a mother of five in Washington, D.C., is among the parents who think the government should do more to help families shoulder the cost of home schooling. Wade and her husband considered opting out of public school even before the pandemic, frustrated with what they felt was a stagnant curriculum offering too little Black history.

Wade helped her children with remote learning through the spring and says the difficulty of that experience hastened her decision to explore home schooling for the fall. She’s in the planning stages, browsing Facebook groups and talking with veteran home-schooling parents in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. “I do think there should be more support for parents that are choosing to keep their kids home,” she says. Because some of the learning apps that District of Columbia Public Schools used during the spring aren’t available during the summer, she says, “I had to pay out-of-pocket for them.”

Home-schooling families receive virtually nothing from the federal government, and some don’t want any public funding, seeing it as opening the door to government interference. But conservatives in Congress have been trying to change that. Now, with House Democrats and education groups clamoring for at least $250 billion in education stimulus funding, Republicans have their best shot in years to push through new school choice programs. Trump and DeVos support the passage of Education Freedom Scholarships, a $5 billion annual tax credit for individuals and businesses who donate to organizations that support private-school tuition or home-school expenses. Eighteen states have tax credit scholarship programs, although according to EdChoice, New Hampshire’s is the only one in which home-school students are eligible for funds.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who introduced the Education Freedom Scholarships legislation in 2019, also introduced the Helping Parents Educate Children During the Coronavirus Pandemic Act in June. The bill, which he hopes to include in the next round of stimulus, would allow parents to use 529 college savings plans to cover K-12 expenses such as tutoring, test fees, and private-school tuition.

It’s not clear whether Democrats will bite. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said that with only weeks until the start of the new academic year, “the administration and Secretary DeVos remain fixated on how it can siphon away resources for vouchers and other privatization schemes” instead of plugging public schools’ funding gaps.

Many school districts are scrambling to figure out how to keep students enrolled, at least in their virtual options, to avoid steep drops in per-pupil funding on top of additional budget cuts as states face a financial crisis. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has urged Congress to reject “failed ‘choice’ schemes” in any future stimulus package. Her national teachers’ union has fought aggressively against past attempts to expand federal funding for favored school choice options such as charter and private schools, and likewise sees home schooling as a way to undercut public education. “DeVos’ craven attempts to divide and privatize would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Diane Ravitch, president of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group championing public schools, is sympathetic to families that might decide on home schooling in the fall. “They won’t do it happily. They want real teachers, but they don’t want their children at risk,” she says. When Covid-19 is no longer a threat, Ravitch predicts parents who opted out will return their kids to public schools. “This isn’t going to be a permanent way of life.”

But other experts think the overlap we’re now seeing between remote schooling and home education will likely persist after the pandemic ends. Travis Pillow is the editorial director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center based at the University of Washington Bothell. “The twin financial and public-health pressures of Covid appear to be accelerating the blurring of the lines between public education and home schooling that was already picking up steam before the pandemic,” he says. For Pillow, this would be a good thing—one that could lead to improvements and make home schooling more accessible. “We would welcome new entrants into this space,” he says, “because existing outcomes in full-time online learning have been pretty dismal.”

Israel/Palestine Looms Large Over Minnesota Primary

Originally published in Jewish Currents on July 17, 2020.
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REP. ILHAN OMAR, who represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District—which includes all of Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs—is well-positioned to win re-election this year. She faces four challengers, but Minnesota Congressional incumbents virtually never lose, and she has the endorsement of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, support from other high-profile politicians like Attorney General Keith Ellison, and a prolific fundraising operation.

But despite her strong odds, Omar does have one challenger who is running a relatively viable campaign. Antone Melton-Meaux, a Black Minneapolis-based lawyer, was backed by nearly a third of the DFL’s delegates for the party’s endorsement, and raised a whopping $3.2 million between April and June, next to Omar’s $472,000 in the same period. A sizeable portion of Melton-Meaux’s money has come from national pro-Israel groups that have endorsed him: Pro-Israel America and NORPAC. As HuffPost first reported, those groups, which are also significant donors to Republican candidates, have bundled more than $450,000 for Melton-Meaux to date. Their fundraising comes just weeks after they poured money into New York’s 16th Congressional District primary, in an unsuccessful effort to save Rep. Eliot Engel’s seat from progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman.

In some ways pro-Israel groups’ investment in the Minnesota race is unsurprising, as Israel/Palestine has been a flashpoint throughout Omar’s time in office. Melton-Meaux is the only Congressional challenger endorsed by Pro-Israel America, which is backing 40 candidates this cycle. Executive Director Jeff Mendelsohn, who describes Pro-Israel America as “an online portal” with over 100,000 members, said it was easy to find donors willing to back Omar’s opponent. “Our members and people beyond our membership recognize her positions as dangerous and antithetical to the US–Israel relationship that they value,” he said.

Though Melton-Meaux has not made questions about Israel central to his messaging, they dovetail neatly with his campaign’s narrative that Omar hasn’t been “focused on the 5th.” He argues that her controversies on the national stage and her “divisiveness” have detracted from her ability to work for her constituents. In contrast, he highlights his background as a mediator. “I live in conflict, and I know how to understand that there are very deep-seated differences that people come into a situation or dispute with,” he said. “What is amazing to me is that even with those differences in mind, people can have honest conversations and you can create really powerful solutions that didn’t exist before.”

The search to find someone to primary Omar began almost immediately after she won her general election. “Literally when Congresswoman Omar won there were calls going around to other electeds—particularly Black and Indigenous and people of color—testing the waters, before she even had a record in Congress,” said Andrew Johnson, a Minneapolis City Councilmember who Omar used to work for. “There were a lot of people who were called and said no, and I’ve personally spoken to a number of them.”

In the spring of 2019 The Hill ran a story on these struggling recruitment efforts. By December Melton-Meaux had jumped into the race, though he denies being recruited by any group or person. “He has chosen to pursue this office because of a deep commitment to service and a concern with the current representation our district is receiving,” said campaign spokesperson Lee Hayes.

Some aspects of Melton-Meaux’s candidacy have resonated with Jewish audiences. Earlier coverage of the race from Jewish media outlets like Jewish Insider and The Forward has emphasized his knowledge of Hebrew, which he studied in college and divinity school, as well as his Jewish communal ties. These publications have also highlighted Melton-Meaux’s opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. On his website, Melton-Meaux promises to “always oppose BDS,” though he insists he would not support anti-BDS laws that infringe on First Amendment rights. “I look at this from the perspective of a mediator, and BDS creates undue pressure on Israel, incredible barriers and headwinds,” he told me. “But I’m also a lawyer who believes in the Constitution, and I’m an African American man who has been protesting, and I will protect individuals’ right to protest.”

This is not wholly unlike how Omar has expressed her own position on BDS, at least at times. In August of 2018, when Omar was running for Congress, she was asked “exactly where [she] stand[s]” on BDS, and told a synagogue crowd she did not think the movement was “helpful” in getting to a two-state solution. It “stops the dialogue . . . I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure,” she said, “and I think that pressure really is counteractive.” But five days after winning her general election, Omar said she “believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.” Some Jewish constituents felt deceived. Omar, however, denied there was any discrepancy in her statements, maintaining that one can support a non-violent protest movement without believing in the efficacy of all of its goals or tactics.

Later on she would introduce a resolution, along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib and John Lewis, affirming the First Amendment right of Americans to participate in boycotts. In a speech that same day she reiterated her support for a two-state solution, and emphasized that while Americans must condemn those who use violence, “we cannot simultaneously say we want peace and then openly oppose peaceful means to hold our allies accountable.”

For some Jewish constituents, the difference between Omar’s and Melton-Meaux’s positions on this issue is decisive. “I agree with most of [Omar’s] policy positions, but as a Jew the BDS stuff hits too close to home,” said Barbara Bearman, an 85-year-old Jewish voter in Minneapolis who plans to vote for Melton-Meaux. “With all the antisemitism that’s rising worldwide, it’s frightening. I don’t like being a single-issue voter . . . but this is a single issue that frightens me.”

Perhaps the clearest policy difference between the two candidates on Israel/Palestine concerns conditioning military aid to Israel. Omar supports conditioning aid if Israel pursues annexation—a position shared by a small minority of progressive Democrats in Congress, including Bernie Sanders. Melton-Meaux says he too opposes annexation, but would not condition aid as a way to pressure Israel.

Some of Omar’s critics who now support Melton-Meaux are less concerned with the particularities of Omar’s policy stances than with her rhetoric around Israel and pro-Israel lobbying. In the first month of her term, an old tweet resurfaced in which Omar, responding to Israel’s November 2012 attack on Gaza, wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world.” (Omar initially called the wording “unfortunate” and later acknowledged the language was “offensive.”) Shortly after this, when Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy accused Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of antisemitism, Omar tweeted that McCarthy’s attacks were “all about the Benjamins baby.” An editor at The Forward accused Omar of tweeting an antisemitic trope and asked who she was alleging to have paid politicians to be pro-Israel. Omar quickly responded, “AIPAC!”

Omar’s tweets roiled Washington. Senior House leadership issued a resolution condemning her remarks, and urged Omar to apologize, which she did. But when Omar later said at a DC coffeehouse that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” a new wave of controversy ignited. The US House soon passed another resolution condemning antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, in response to the outrage sparked by Omar’s comments.

“I would have liked to support Congresswoman Omar but I can’t,” said Ron Latz, a Jewish state senator representing the Twin Cities metro area, who is supporting Melton-Meaux and did not support Omar in the 2018 primary. “She has demonstrated an antipathy for Jewish issues and Jewish sensitives and towards Jews themselves.”

Other local Jews say they have found little objectionable in Omar’s record, and feel compelled to stand up in her defense. “I do not find any antisemitism in what she has said, and she’s also shown a willingness to learn and has modified her views,” said Sylvia Schwarz, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace-Twin Cities. “The Jewish community here is not monolithic.”

Beth Gendler, the executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota, spoke highly of her group’s working relationship with Omar in Congress. “She listens to us, and has been a really important partner of ours,” she said. “Have some of the things she said been antisemitic or played into antisemitic tropes? Yeah, sure, antisemitism is in the air we breathe. Is some of the backlash because she’s a black immigrant woman wearing a hijab? I would hazard to say yes.”

Libi Baehr, an activist with IfNotNow Twin Cities, said her group of primarily millennial Jews took it upon themselves to stand up for Omar when the backlash to her tweets blew up. “We definitely feel a responsibility to vocally show up,” she said. IfNotNow members in both Minneapolis and Washington, DC visited Omar’s Congressional offices with freshly baked challah in solidarity, and the Twin Cities group has since spoken out about what they see as a double standard with Rep. Betty McCollum, a white Minnesota Congresswoman who is strongly critical of Israel.

“I did not think people’s pain and disappointment [with Omar’s comments] was unfounded,” said Baehr. “It was an unforced error, and she could have avoided the issues that came up after she had said those things if she had thought about it a little more. That said, I do think a lot of good came out of it, a lot of honest reckoning.”

The turmoil over Israel has faded into the background in recent weeks, as politics in the district have turned sharply to discussions around policing and racial justice, with Omar and Melton-Meaux responding in ways that reveal their contrasting political styles.About a week after Floyd was killed, Omar introduced legislation to create a federal agency tasked with reviewing all deaths in police custody. Two days later, she joined a group of protesters in Minneapolis organized around a call to defund the police, where she spoke about the limits of police reform and her own experience as a Black woman raising children in the United States, and defended calls to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Melton-Meaux has also tried to capitalize on the protests, telling Jewish Insider George Floyd’s killing has “amplified” his overall message that “leadership matters.” His campaign released two commercials in June, one emphasizing his experience as a Black man in America, and the second emphasizing his commitment to social justice and conflict resolution. His campaign has taken a more optimistic view on the potential of police reform, though he also supports redistributing some money from policing into housing, healthcare, and schools.

Voters in Minnesota’s 5th appear satisfied with Omar’s approach. Yesterday, following Melton-Meaux’s big fundraising announcement, her campaign released new polling conducted by Change Research that showed the Congresswoman leading Melton-Meaux 66–29% among primary voters in the district. The pollsters found Omar had a 70% approval rating, compared to 40% for Melton-Meaux, who also “still lag[ged] in name recognition.” Melton-Meaux’s campaign declined to share results from their internal polling, but said “what it does show is Antone’s message of leadership, unity, and accountability is resonating.”

Even if Melton-Meaux’s supporters can’t stop Omar from winning re-election, many of them still hope to prevent the kind of blowout win Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had in her recent primary, where the New York Congresswoman trumped her challenger with 72% of the vote. (Bowman’s victory was more modest; the latest available figures have him 25 points ahead of Engel, though with nearly 40,000 absentee ballots outstanding.) Melton-Meaux’s backers—like Engel’s—think that by spending big, they can at least diminish the mandate of the victor.

“Of course we want to win, but even if we don’t, part of life is the struggle to do good and that means you find and support good people,” said Dr. Ben Chouake, the president of NORPAC. “Our job was to give Antone enough money so that people could hear him, and then they’ll make their decision.”

Over 100 Houston Doctors Slam Rep. Dan Crenshaw for “Spreading Dangerous Disinformation” On Coronavirus

Originally published in The Intercept on July 17, 2020.

MORE THAN 100 doctors, medical professionals, and emergency room physicians in the Houston area have signed their names to a letter condemning Republican Rep. Daniel Crenshaw for spreading misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been ravaging the Texas city hard in recent weeks.

The doctors didn’t mince their words.

“The COVID-19 pandemic should not be a partisan issue — that’s why even Governor Abbott is finally stalling the reopening process and implementing the mask mandates that he unwisely blocked just two short months ago,” the medical workers, who are primarily women, wrote in the letter, which is first being reported on by The Intercept. “Dan Crenshaw, on the other hand, has spewed lies for the past four months — minimizing the threat we face and spreading dangerous disinformation for self-indulgent headlines.”

Doctors rarely ever make such pointed political statements, but the urgency of the coronavirus crisis — and the real harm caused by disinformation spread by elected officials — prompted the Houston-area physicians to speak up, especially as Republicans in the state continued to promote large, indoor gatherings against the advice of public health experts.

“As everyone is seeing right now with Dr. Fauci, the medical community is just getting raked over the coals, and undermined and blamed,” Dr. Christina Propst, a pediatrician in Houston who helped to organize the letter, told The Intercept. “If you’re a physician working in places like Texas and Florida, you’re just battling disinformation constantly, and it gets so exhausting and frustrating.”

The list of Crenshaw’s comments undermining the seriousness of the pandemic runs long. He has also taken it upon himself to strongly defend the Trump administration’s response to the public health crisis. In mid-April, the first-term representative recorded a video entitled “Debunking the Left’s COVID-19 Narrative” where he defended President Donald Trump’s pandemic response. (Trump tweeted the video, describing it as “BRILLIANT, A MUST-WATCH.”) Crenshaw’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

On Wednesday, Houston reported 16 new deaths from Covid-19, the first time the city had reported double-digit fatalities since the virus hit the region in March. The deaths were linked to cases that were reported in June, as the past month has seen the number of cases skyrocket in Texas and the greater Houston area.

Between Memorial Day and mid-June, Texas’s hospitalization rate shot up by 36 percent, a fact that Crenshaw has downplayed. “If you just hear 36 percent increase, that does sound like a lot. … In reality, it’s under 500 additional hospitalizations out of a state of 30 million people,” he said on his podcast. “So it’s really not a lot. … We’re so far away from being in over-capacity or even close to it that it’s laughable.”

When a Harris County judge said around the same time that Texas “may be approaching the precipice of a disaster” Crenshaw blasted her for “pure and simple fear mongering.” He also added that “people have figured out what they need to do to remain safe.” A few weeks later, he argued that “prolonged and universal closures” had been “devastating for learning and health.”

In their letter, the doctors criticized Crenshaw for “undermin[ing] the advice of our public health experts at every turn — enabling millions of his followers to the same.” This mixed messaging, they say, left medical workers “handicapped in our mission” to protect Texans from the start of the pandemic.

“We need elected officials who don’t throw out meaningless platitudes while trying to shift blame to the institutions working to keep us informed and protected,” the doctors wrote. “Please Congressman Crenshaw. We are tired. We are your neighbors. … We implore you to stop playing politics with our lives, stop spreading dangerous disinformation, and start leading by example.”

Propst said that she felt the tide start to change among physicians a few weeks ago, back when the Republican Party of Texas made clear it had no intention of canceling its in-person biennial convention, where 6,000 people were expected to convene inside Houston’s George Brown Convention Center. Propst and some fellow female colleagues began organizing a petition and phone calls to pressure the Texas Medical Association to condemn the event, which at the time the association was still sponsoring. The internal lobbying was successful and in late June, the president of the 50,000-member state medical association withdrew its sponsorship of the event and urged the GOP to cancel it. (Earlier this week the state Republican Party finally agreed to hold its convention online.)

“I think when people saw that organizing work, it emboldened us to speak out against more dangerous and unethical things we’ve been dealing with,” said Propst.

Crenshaw, who represents Texas’s 2nd District — which includes much of northern and western Houston — is facing off in November against Democratic challenger Sima Ladjevardian, an attorney and former adviser to Beto O’Rourke. The race is one of the seven Texas House seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deemed most competitive and possible to flip.

“Now more than ever we need a leader who will listen to our medical heroes, guide Houston toward a recovery, and protect Texans with pre-existing conditions,” said Ladjevardian. “Our medical frontline heroes are begging Congressman Crenshaw to stop spreading disinformation and start acting responsibly, but he won’t.”

How The Largest Known Homeless Encampment in Minneapolis History Came To Be

Originally published in The Appeal on July 15, 2020.
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On June 7, less than a mile away from where a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a veto-proof majority of the City Council gathered at Powderhorn Park and pledged to dismantle the police department and rethink public safety. A few days later, more than 200 homeless individuals were evicted from a hotel they had been using as an ad-hoc shelter, and about a dozen made their way to the closest park: Powderhorn. In the month since, many more have followed. City officials estimate more than 550 tents have been set up there, in what is the largest known homeless encampment in Minneapolis history.

Residents in the Powderhorn neighborhood initially jumped into action—determined to support their new, vulnerable neighbors, many of whom were Black and indigenous. But as the encampment grew, some housed residents’ became more exasperated, citing concerns about crime and safety. Their frustrations have gotten some national coverage. The conditions that led the encampment to form, however, and the government’s response or lack thereof, have gotten far less attention.

The homelessness crisis in Minneapolis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is not new. In 2018, a Minnesota-based research group found over 4,000 people experienced homelessness in Hennepin County, an 11 percent increase from 2015. The researchers cited a lack of affordable units as the main driver, and found more than half of those experiencing homelessness were languishing on waiting lists for subsidized housing.

Back in the summer of 2018, an encampment cropped up alongside a Minneapolis highway sound wall, with roughly 300 people living there by the fall. “One thing that was very frustrating about the 2018 encampment was everyone talked about this great emergency, but the emergency had been going on for years,” said John Tribbett, a street outreach manager at St. Stephen’s Human Services, a Minneapolis  homeless services group. “It was just a congregation of it that forced the public to actually see it.”

Nonprofit groups and city officials supported the primarily Native residents, who are disproportionately represented among Minnesota’s homeless. But by December those living in the encampment were moved into a so-called navigation center, a first-of-its-kind experiment in the state. The navigation center had on-site social services, lower barriers to entry than many homeless shelters, and no curfew. Within six months nearly half of its homeless population had moved into permanent housing or treatment programs, though others were kicked out, incarcerated, or back on the streets. The center shut down in June 2019.

“After it closed, what we really saw was the atomization of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness throughout the summer of 2019 and frankly up until COVID,” said Tribbett, emphasizing that displacement was routine, and homeless people were regularly “on the move all the time.”

As unsheltered people were dispersed across Minneapolis, the crisis of homelessness became easier for the city’s housed residents to ignore. The Powderhorn encampment has forced the public’s attention once again.

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After the tents went up at Powderhorn, the community mobilized to support their unhoused neighbors. Volunteers began organizing funds and coordinating daily meal deliveries, setting up laundry shifts, and donating blankets, water, and toiletries. They also began organizing among themselves to put pressure on elected officials for help.

While the Minneapolis Park Police told those living in the encampment they would have to evacuate, dozens of housed residents protested, and pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and an executive order issued by Governor Tim Walz urging against homeless encampment sweeps during the pandemic. The Minneapolis Park Board relented and said the encampment could stay, and five days later, on June 17, the board approved a resolution to allow homeless people to seek “refuge space” in Minneapolis parks. By this time nearly 200 tents had been set up at Powderhorn.

As time went on, some residents felt abandoned by the government and frustrated that the bulk of care duties were falling on untrained volunteers. Encampment safety concerns grew too, with at least three incidents of sexual assault taking place between June 26 and July 5, one person threatened with a knife, and several overdoses.

“Things are very tense,” said Patrick Berry, a 41-year-old homeless individual who moved to Powderhorn in late June. “When your life is in the gutter, little things can set you off. People definitely freak out at the encampment over little things.”

“As white homeowners, I think we just assumed that the government was operating at a level of competence that it’s clearly not,” said Lily Lamb, a lifelong Powderhorn resident who has been volunteering. “I’ve called my elected officials from all levels of government and their response overwhelmingly has been, ‘What do you think we should do, what are your suggestions?’”

Alex Richardson, another Powderhorn resident who has been volunteering, said although he understands some of his neighbors are anxious about security concerns, he has tried to help them recognize that these are not new problems. “It’s just that we’re seeing it now, now it’s in our front yards,” he said. “Some people have been fearmongering, or there’s a lot of shock and disbelief since they’re used to not having to bear witness.”

On July 4, residents brought tents and camped outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, demanding a more organized state-led response to the homelessness crisis. “Walz just gave $6 million in relief aid to the Minnesota Zoo,” said Sheila Delaney, a Powderhorn volunteer. “I love animals, but Jesus Christ.”

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Government officials have defended their crisis response, while noting that the pandemic has put unprecedented strain on their systems. “The most critical issue is that all of our staff and services have been stretched beyond anything we’ve ever known,” said David Hewitt, the director of the Office to End Homelessness for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis.

Hewitt pointed out some things the government has done at the county level, including expanding shelter space, redeploying county staff to homeless services, and working to distribute $15 million in emergency rental assistance to prevent new homelessness. Between January and May, Hewitt added, the county moved more than 700 people from homelessness into permanent housing.

But he acknowledged their efforts “still fall woefully short of meeting the unprecedented need” and said at Powderhorn, they’ve been working to provide medical services and connect residents with housing options. “The daily increases in the number of people at Powderhorn Park are also not accompanied by any commensurate reductions in the numbers of people in other encampments or in shelter in Hennepin or Ramsey County,” Hewitt said.

Marion Greene, a Hennepin County commissioner, told The Appeal that the county has also been significantly scaling up funding for homelessness. “Normally we budget about $20 million per year, and now we’re spending an additional $2.5-to-3 million per month just on shelters,” she said. “I feel like there’s been really strong partnerships between the city, county, and state, and we’ve all been clear that permanent shelter is the goal.” The Minneapolis Park Board, for its part, said it has been providing portable toilets, trash cans, handwashing stations, and other onsite cleaning services. Today encampments are spread across 38 city parks, though Powderhorn remains the largest.

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The current escalation of the homelessness crisis in Minneapolis is overlapping not just with the pandemic but also with intense protests around policing and racism.

Despite making up roughly 14 percent of Hennepin County’s population, Black people represent 65 percent of those living in its homeless shelters, and 49 percent of homeless adults living in the county overall.

While a dearth of affordable housing is certainly contributing to the crisis, the lack of wealth in Black and Native communities—the result of being shut out for centuries from wealth accumulation opportunities—is another main driver. Minneapolis has one of the largest racial income gaps in the country, and Black homeownership in the city stands at one-third the rate of white families. Some federal funds flow to tribal governments, but the majority gets spent on reservation life, despite the fact that most Natives now live in cities.

One resulting consequence is that in times of need, when Black and Native individuals turn to their family and friends for help, many of their social networks struggle to absorb the added financial pressure in ways white communities more easily can. Researchers found that people of color “are not unwilling to double up, take people in, or live in another person’s home—but they do not have the capacity to accommodate the additional consumption of resources” like food and household goods. “That, in turn, strains relationships.” Less wealth means less ability to weather unexpected financial emergencies.

The criminal legal system and decades of racist policing are also notorious drivers of homelessness. Formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 more times likely to be homeless than the general public, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports roughly 48,000 people who enter shelters every year come directly from jails and prisons. Having a criminal record can then be a serious impediment to finding housing, which can then begin vicious cycles right back into prison. One study found that people returning from prison who lacked stable housing were more than twice as likely to end up back in prison than those with stable homes.

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Looking ahead, even those most supportive of letting homeless people take sanctuary in public parks recognize an alternative solution must be developed, with the freezing Minneapolis winter just months away. Policymakers are also worrying about thousands of new people becoming homeless if lawmakers start lifting eviction moratoriums and unemployment rates stay high. “The economic impacts of COVID-19 are further threatening to exacerbate these challenges,” said Hewitt, the homelessness office director.

Earlier this month, Minneapolis Park Board members considered a resolution that would have limited homeless encampments to 10 parks, at a maximum of 10 tents per park, with all encampments having to be cleared by Sept. 1. After protests, the park board voted 5-4 to table the resolution.

“It felt pretty par for the course, where they wanted to do something that seemed like they were taking action, but it was really more for their housed constituents to get the homeless out of sight,” said Richardson, one of the Powderhorn volunteers.

“It was just another set of reactive strategies, similar to the governor saying you can’t clear the encampments but providing no further guidance on what you can do,” said Tribbett, the street outreach manager.

Jono Cowgill, the park board president, told the Star Tribune he brought the resolution forward to help set deadlines, which he hoped would push the state to act more quickly. Cowgill did not respond to a request for comment.

Some advocates are pushing the city to create a new navigation center, similar to the one that shut down last year. One possible location is in a South Minneapolis Kmart building the city recently purchased, though even that would not be a long-term solution.

“A lot of people called the navigation center a success but for many Native people it was just a revolving door to the streets,” said Autumn Dillie, an outreach worker with American Indian Community Development Corporation. Dillie said her group has been pressing the county to build a culturally specific shelter for Native people. Greene, the county commissioner, said the government is also exploring the purchase of hotels as a way to provide shelter.

Lamb, the lifelong Powderhorn resident, says the last few weeks have been exhausting, and she worries about people becoming desensitized to the crisis. “The ability of humans to adapt to circumstances is extremely powerful and is working against our favor,” she said.

Delaney, one of the Powderhorn volunteers, agreed. “I think we’ve become accustomed to seeing tents everywhere, but we should all be revolted,” she said. “Especially in an incredibly wealthy state.”

Berry, who is still camping at Powderhorn, wants help, but not too much of it. “All I really need is a safe place to live where I can close my door at night,” he said. “And where no one will harass me.”

Could Your Fitness Tracker Really Detect COVID-19?

Originally published in GQ on July 14, 2020

When professional golfer Nick Watney woke up on Friday, June 19, after playing the first round of a PGA tournament in South Carolina, he felt physically fine. But when he checked the WHOOP fitness tracker he’s worn on his wrist for the past year, he was startled to see a spike in his breathing rate while he was sleeping.

He had heard that could be a sign of COVID-19, so just to be safe, despite showing no other symptoms, he got a test. To Watney’s surprise, it came back positive. Over the next ten days, while he self-isolated in South Carolina, he never developed a fever, cough, or shortness of breath—though he did end up losing his sense of smell for a while.

A week after Watney tested positive, the PGA Tour announced it would be distributing WHOOP bands to all players and caddies, in the hopes that they too might be able to identify potential coronavirus infections early. The straps have since been credited with early detection for other PGA Tour golfers who have gone on to contract the virus. This comes on the heels of the NBA’s announcement earlier in June that it would be purchasing more than 2,000 Oura Rings, a similar fitness tracker, to help detect cases of the virus when the league re-starts in Orlando.

Whether it’s WHOOP and Oura Ring, or other fitness trackers like Fitbit and the Apple Watch, there’s increasing enthusiasm around fitness trackers among researchers as a first line of defense in the fight against coronavirus. While the science is still in its earliest days, the hope is these devices could alert individuals to changes in their health they might not otherwise notice. Early detection is particularly crucial for combating the coronavirus, which has the unusual characteristic of spreading “silently” from people who are not feeling symptoms. These devices use sensors to track a range of physiological markers—sleep patterns, heart rate, breathing rate, and temperature. For example, if your resting heart rate is normally 62 bpm, but jumps inexplicably to 75 bpm, you likely wouldn’t feel any different, but that jump could prompt your tracker to issue an alert to get tested. Of course, no researcher expects the tech to replace real diagnostic testing. At least right now, the best anyone can say about this right now is that, when combined with other coronavirus safety protocols, it doesn’t hurt.

Researchers also see potential to use wearable tech to study how the virus moves through large populations. If a cluster of people living in the same area all start to notice similar changes in their heart rate or temperature, that could help officials better respond to outbreaks and mitigate their spread. “If you and many of your neighbors are showing similar reactions—that’s when it becomes a signal rather than noise,” said Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, which is leading one of the major ongoing fitness tracking studies. Topol’s interest in using fitness trackers to predict disease predates the current pandemic. In January he and his colleagues published a study that found by using de-identified heart rate data from Fitbit users, researchers were able to significantly improve their predictions of influenza-like illness when compared to using CDC data.

A built in advantage for fitness trackers is that millions of people already have them. In 2019 Gallup reported nearly 20 percent of Americans currently use one, and consumer analysts say the devices represent one of the fastest-growing sectors in global technology, especially smartwatches. Another benefit is that they work passively; they don’t require manually entering symptoms into an app, or sticking a thermometer under your armpit on a daily basis.

While researchers are optimistic about the potential, they caution that the existing knowledge base is very, very scant. There’s been almost no research, for example, on how wearables could be turned into reliable clinical tools. “Your average doctor doesn’t want to see your wearable data because they don’t know what to do with it or how to make sense of it any more than anyone else,” said Benjamin Smarr, a data science and bioengineering professor who is leading a University of California at San Francisco study on Oura ring data and COVID-19.

Smarr is among a handful of researchers who have been studying wearable tech data for the past decade. He said the overall assumption is that having lots of information health professionals wouldn’t otherwise have access to will prove to be useful in some way, even if they don’t know exactly how yet.

And while Harvard health policy professor Thomas Tsai supports the ongoing research—“it’s fascinating and important,” he says—from a public perspective, Tsai worries about the mixed messages these fitness trackers could be sending during the pandemic. “We’re working really, really hard to break the message that only symptomatic individuals should get tested,” he said. “That was true back in March and April, when we had a huge shortage of tests, but that’s not true anymore.”

Tsai also raised concerns that someone’s smartwatch could give them a false sense of security about their health. “The danger is that someone who needs to get tested may not want to because their wearable device says they are showing no symptoms,” he says.

Right now there’s at least four large-scale fitness tracker studies underway; the one at UCSF, the one at Scripps, a third at West Virginia University, and a fourth at Stanford. In late May the West Virginia researchers announced preliminary results from a study of 600 healthcare professionals and first-responders, which found that, using Oura Ring data and artificial intelligence models, researchers could predict COVID-19 symptoms three days in advance of their onset, with over 90 percent accuracy. That’s not a huge sample size, but they’re now scaling up their next phase of research to roughly 10,000 people. (Oura is not funding the West Virginia study, but is funding the trial at UCSF.)

Topol says he hopes that when (and if) we have high-quality coronavirus tests that people can administer from home, the fitness trackers could pair well with them, allowing infected people to self-isolate earlier than otherwise would have. “There are sixteen companies working on at-home COVID tests and we’re in discussions with five of them,” he said.

“These fitness tracker studies are going to lead to a really, really large amount of comparative physiological data,” Smarr added. “We don’t know yet what we’ll find— nobody has ever done something like this before.”

Protests Against Policing Could Help Make Formerly Candace Valenzuela The First Afro-Latina In Congress

Originally published in The Intercept on July 10, 2020.
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A POLL RELEASED on Friday shows changing dynamics in the runoff for the Democratic primary in Texas’s 24th Congressional District, which represents suburban areas between Fort Worth and Dallas. According to the survey, which was commissioned by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and conducted in July by Data for Progress, 36-year-old local school board member Candace Valenzuela leads 62-year-old former Air Force Col. Kim Olson by an 11-point margin, 40 percent to 29 percent.

The poll reveals a substantial shift since Texas’s March 3 primary, a seven-way contest that Olson won with 41 percent of the vote, followed by Valenzuela with 30 points. Undecided voters, the pollsters reported, are leaning Valenzuela, with white, Latino, and Black voters also more likely to support her.

“Our polling suggests there has been movement since the first round,” said Data for Progress executive director Sean McElwee, noting that only 2 percent of voters who backed Valenzuela in the primary are now undecided, compared with 7 percent of those who initially backed Olson. Data for Progress also found 3 percent of voters who initially backed Olson now back Valenzuela.

It seems likely that the recent wave of protests against racism and police brutality have helped turn the tide in favor of Valenzuela, who would be the first Afro-Latina in Congress and has been endorsed by the Congressional Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Progressive Caucuses.

In June, Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis came out for Valenzuela, directly tying his support to the ongoing national reckoning. “Issues of racial and economic justice are front and center in America right now,” he said in his endorsement. “Candace brings a unique perspective to these issues and will be integral in driving our national conversation forward.”

The protests have shaken up Democratic primaries across the country. In Kentucky’s Senate race, Charles Booker surged on the back of his “hood to the holler” message as a leader of local protests, falling just short of upsetting Amy McGrath, who had the backing of the national party and had racked up an early lead in mail-in voting before Booker’s rise. In New York, both Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones were buoyed in their primaries by the energy of the protest movement, while Ruben Diaz Sr., a close ally of the police in New York, saw his Bronx primary campaign falter in the final month.

Elsewhere in Texas, progressive-populist Mike Siegel, running in a suburban Austin runoff in the 10th Congressional District, has leaned into his career as a civil rights attorney and worked to frame the primary as revolving around issues of police abuse. In the 31st District, stretching from Waco to Austin, Democrats are similarly vying for the chance to flip the seat blue. Computer engineer Donna Imam, facing physician Christine Mann in a runoff, said that her campaign has seen a boost from the focus on racial justice. “People in our district are noticing that our campaign was talking about solutions for Black Americans back in 2019 well before the recent concerns,” she said.

VALENZUELA HAS SEEN a surge in fundraising in recent months. Olson stood as the top fundraiser leading up to the March primary, but in the most recent fundraising quarter Valenzuela outraised her opponent, $465,000 to $438,000. Average donations to Valenzuela’s and Olson’s campaigns stood at $33 and $48, respectively.

Early voting data from the Valenzuela campaign suggests voters of color are turning out in greater force for the runoff. “According to our VAN data, black voters made up about 8 percent of the vote in the primary,” said Geoffrey Simpson, Valenzuela’s campaign manager. “Black turnout in early voting is already over 12 percent, and we expect that to go even higher on Election Day.”

Turnout for the March 3 primary, while double the previous two primaries, still represented just 2 percent of the district’s population. Of the 60,000 Democrats who casted ballots in March, Olson took the district’s two largest counties and two-thirds of the total precincts. Valenzuela earned a narrow majority in Denton County but just 10,000 votes in total were cast there.

The House seat has been controlled by Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant for the last 16 years, but the district has changed a lot demographically over that time, and its population has been majority people of color since 2016. Marchant very narrowly fended off a Democratic challenger in 2018 (after defeating her handily in 2016), and last year, he announced he would not be seeking reelection: part of a wave of such decisions by suburban Republican incumbents dubbed locally as “Texit.” A Democrat will instead take on Beth Van Duyne, a former Republican mayor in the district who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. The diversification of the district is central to why Democrats view the race as one of the most competitive congressional contests in the fall — a factor that has been central to both Olson and Valenzuela’s campaigns since before the protests.

In the absence of major policy differences, Olson has been making the case that she’s best suited to represent the district because of her career experience. Valenzuela, meanwhile, has leaned on her high-profile endorsements as well as national momentum throughout the Democratic Party for more diverse representation. Also having grown up homeless, she would bring to Congress a socioeconomic perspective not often reflected among the wealthy federal legislators.

While Valenzuela faces the added challenge of trying to flip a district from red to blue, her campaign is aiming to harness some of the arguments made successfully by Jamaal Bowman and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, progressives who unseated long-serving, white, centrist lawmakers representing diversifying districts. The debate over diverse political leadership is also playing out in the presidential race, with many politicos urging Joe Biden against selecting a white running mate, saying his ticket needs to reflect the demographics of the country, and others arguing he needs a VP of color if he wants to generate enough excitement in the fall.

In April, the campaign arms for the Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Progressive Caucuses urged the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to endorse Valenzuela, writing in a letter that the party should “continue to strive for the diverse representation our communities deserve.” The DCCC does not often endorse in open primaries, but it did several times in 2018, including in Texas. A DCCC aide told the Intercept their internal data showed either candidate could win the seat in November, and it stayed out of all open primaries this cycle.

WHEN PROTESTS SURROUNDING George Floyd’s killing picked up, both candidates sought to incorporate the energy into their campaigns.

Olson attended five Black Lives Matter protests throughout the district, according to her campaign manager, Rachel Perry, and she released a new pledge for police and criminal justice reform.

Valenzuela, who lives with her 71-year-old mother-in-law and has an immunocompromised 1-year-old son, steered clear of the protests but dispatched members of her campaign in her stead.

Both candidates organized virtual forums around policing, racism and civil rights.

At one virtual town hall in June, though, Olson, perhaps overcompensating, got herself embroiled in controversy, leading the Congressional Black Caucus to later condemn her for her remarks. At the event, Olson was asked about the movement to defund the police, and as part of her answer, which was broadly sympathetic to the protesters, she dismissed concerns about property destruction. “Even if people loot, so what? Burn it to the ground, you know, if that’s what it’s gonna take to fix our nation,” she said. “I know people don’t want me to say that, but I’m just saying, you know, what are you gonna do, shoot us as we protest? We really have fundamentally pivoted the militarization of our police force where it used to be to protect and serve.”

Conservatives quickly grabbed onto Olson’s comments, first reported by the Washington Examiner, and accused her of endorsing violence. Van Duyne tweeted the Washington Examiner article and said, “The Democrat primary in the 24th District has become a despicable race to the bottom for who can be the most extreme, most radical, and most destructive to our neighborhoods, state, and nation.”

In response, Olson’s campaign issued a statement that Olson “knows we cannot use force to fix a systemic problem of undue violence and discrimination perpetrated by those who are sworn to protect and serve. We have to rebuild from the ground up a color-blind public safety institution across America.”

The Congressional Black Caucus then rebuked Olson for her comment. “Olson’s team response calling for ‘color-blindness’ is tone deaf and silences members of the community she is seeking to represent,” said Niccara Campbell, the political director for the CBC political action committee. “This is not solidarity or allyship. It is not even an attempt.”

Valenzuela also jumped into the fray, issuing a statement that Olson had “missed the mark” in her response to the Dallas protests by “actively encouraging the destruction of our community rather than amplifying the voices of Black people who are fighting for change with empathy and compassion.” Valenzuela then went further, saying Olson’s follow-up statement, which called for a “color-blind” public safety institution, “ignores 400 years of our country’s history and is exactly the kind of ignorance we need to call out.”

Olson told the Dallas Morning News she didn’t mean race shouldn’t be considered but that more must be done to ensure law enforcement doesn’t disproportionately harm black people. “It can’t be that police judge you because of your color, and courts can’t judge you for your color,” she said.

Earlier in the campaign, Olson struggled to articulate why she was best positioned to represent the diversifying district.

At a Democratic forum in February, the candidates were asked to make that case, and Olson responded first by saying she grew up “as a minority” in many countries overseas, because her parents were Department of Defense school teachers. “This district is very diverse, just like our nation, and we have to have voices that will speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves,” she added.

Olson declined to comment further on her claim. As for why Olson thinks she is better suited to represent her district, Perry, her campaign manager, said, “Texas voters will have the final say on who they want to represent them. … And from day one of this race — with their votes, donations, and grassroots enthusiasm — they’ve made it abundantly clear that that candidate is Kim Olson.”

Valenzuela meanwhile argued at that winter forum that her racial background will increase her competitiveness in a general election.

“In order to win a district like this, you need to be able to bring out folks who feel enfranchised by [their] leadership,” she said. “I mean, look at me. I am a young black Latina myself, and one of the ways you’re going to excite voters to come out is you’re going to have someone that has represented them in a way they’ve never seen before.”

 

Elderly People Subject to Flawed Guardianship System Are More Vulnerable Amid Pandemic

Originally published in The Intercept on July 6, 2020.
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IN THE SUMMER of 2018, then-84-year-old Genyte Dirse was removed from her home — a motel she had owned and lived in for decades — and placed in an assisted living facility in St. Petersburg, Florida. This followed a relatively fast and bewildering legal fight between Dirse and a local real estate agent who argued that she wasn’t in her right mind to live independently. Ever since then, her closest living relative in the U.S., her great-nephew Gedi Pakalnis, had fought a losing legal battle to bring her back home.

Pakalnis’s fight to bring Dirse home ramped up this spring, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the globe. In the United States, residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been particularly vulnerable, with more than 51,000 deaths reported nationally from those institutions so far. In Florida, like elsewhere in the country, the number of Covid-19 deaths at senior living facilities has grown at a much faster rate than the broader population and, by early May, accounted for more than a third of the state’s pandemic fatalities.

In late April, the virus struck Patrick Manor, where Dirse lived. For weeks prior, Pakalnis had been trying to reach his great-aunt’s legal guardian to get information about her health, raising concerns about the fast-spreading disease. After weeks of no news, Pakalnis finally learned that Dirse had been hospitalized with Covid-19 symptoms. Dirse’s guardian told Pakalnis that he could potentially visit her once the pandemic calmed down.

He never got the opportunity. On May 5, Dirse died of Covid-19, alone at St. Anthony’s Hospital. She was not the first Patrick Manor resident to be hospitalized with the coronavirus, and by mid-May, 11 Patrick Manor residents and two staff had tested positive with the disease.

The frequent deaths of elderly people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities has become a horrifying reality throughout the pandemic. But something was also different about Dirse’s death; according to her great-nephew and others who were involved in the guardianship process, she was confined against her will to Patrick Manor, where she faced a greater likelihood of getting sick — despite having family willing and able to take care of her.

For decades, adult guardianship has been a legally thorny issue, with independent watchdogs and journalists repeatedly finding that senior citizens are stripped of their rights and often financially exploited — with little government oversight. The cases often involve complex family drama and disagreements among siblings, but sometimes, as in Dirse’s case, it’s an outsider who gets involved, over the objections of the elderly person’s relatives. A court’s decision to appoint a guardian is usually final, as appeals are costly and complex, and appellate courts are highly deferential to the lower court’s initial findings.

The issue has taken on new relevance amid the pandemic. In a Covid-19 resource compiled by the National Guardianship Association, the American Bar Association, and the National Center for State Courts, advocates acknowledge the pandemic “will make it more difficult” for seniors to exercise the remaining rights they do have.

“In this pandemic we’re going to see abusive guardianships started over Zoom, with the virus facilitating the racket that’s already in place,” warned Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, a national advocacy group. “The difference with Covid-19 is we’re going to see wards dying in nursing homes faster, in weeks, rather than months, and a further decrease of any monitoring.”

LIKE MANY LEGAL guardianship cases, the story of how Dirse ended up at Patrick Manor is fraught with allegations of ulterior motives and complex family dynamics. It all started after a local real estate agent accused Pakalnis of exploiting his great-aunt.

Pakalnis, who is 37, is the great-great grandson of Dirse’s maternal grandmother. In the early 1990s, Dirse visited her relatives in Lithuania, where Pakalnis was being raised by his dad. Dirse invited him to come live with her in the U.S. He took her up on the offer in 2003, living with Dirse throughout high school, college, and graduate school. “My aunt has always been like my mother,” he said. “We were a happy family for 15 years, lived together, and loved each other.”

For several decades, Dirse managed her small motel business, Dirse Apartments and Motel. In 2017, in front of witnesses and a notary, she sold one of her three properties to Pakalnis for $50,000. Diana Sames, a local real estate agent who visited Dirse annually to pass out calendars and broach selling her property, was aghast at the transaction, which was for well below market-value.

Sames petitioned a court to appoint a guardian for Dirse, citing the property sale as evidence that she was not in her right mind. Though Sames denied doing so out of self-interest, she did tell local reporters that she “would have no problem” taking a commission from the sale of Dirse’s property if it were listed on the market. As the guardianship case proceeded, tenants said in sworn affidavits they repeatedly heard Dirse tell Sames that she had no intention of listing and had long planned to sell one building to her family. One recalled Dirse mentioning that she was “well prepared for retirement” and would “have more than enough for herself,” even with one less property. Pakalnis meanwhile scrambled to hire attorneys to provide evidence to the court and file complaints with local institutions.

But a few months later, a judge and a panel of professionals declared Dirse “incapacitated” and appointed an adult legal guardian to take over her affairs. The guardian, Traci Samuel, had no prior relationship with Dirse and was proposed to the court by Sames, the petitioner.

Samuel quickly filed a lawsuit to reverse the sale of Dirse’s property and moved Dirse against her will to an assisted living facility, Inspired Living in St. Petersburg. At first, Pakalnis was able to visit her there. After a visit on November 10, 2018, he filed an affidavit with the court saying that his great-aunt looked weaker, less healthy, had complained of untreated leg pain, and told him she wanted to go home. The guardian then barred Pakalnis from seeing Dirse again, claiming that Dirse didn’t want to hear from her great-nephew anymore.

Samuel, who later changed her name to Traci Hudson, was soon engulfed in scandal. In November 2019, she was charged with felony exploitation by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and accused of stealing more than $500,000 from a 92-year-old man who she was also caring for. Investigators found that she had transferred nearly all his money to her bank accounts and used the funds to buy NFL tickets, new clothes and jewelry, and even a new house. She did not return requests for comment.

The court appointed a new legal guardian for Dirse in late November: Jean Farnan. In March, at the outset of the pandemic, Pakalnis contacted Farnan through a court filing, requesting information about his aunt’s well-being and said he was concerned “since nursing homes and assisted living facilities are vulnerable to fast-spreading Coronavirus.”

But he got no response. A month later, he learned via Farnan’s attorney, Hamden Baskin, that Dirse had been taken to the hospital. Farnan and Baskin declined to comment for this article.

Pakalnis filed another court petition on April 29 asking for more information about Dirse’s whereabouts and lamented to Farnan that he could have been caring for his great-aunt at home. “My aunt has educated family who never committed any crime and we have healthy environment and people who love her and can take care of her at any time at no cost,” he wrote in a court filing. He begged for his great-aunt to at least receive video and phone calls, stressing that she needed the emotional support.

The next day, Farnan wrote back claiming that she hadn’t received his earlier court correspondence. Attaching a photo of Dirse from January, Farnan wrote that Dirse is a “very pleasant lady” and said, “I am sure she is not feeling that well, and being in the hospital is always stressful.” Farnan ended her email by saying when the Covid-19 situation is under control, she’d like to allow Dirse to see whoever she wants.

Pakalnis wrote back on May 1, urging again for the opportunity to talk with his great-aunt on the phone and reiterating that Dirse could stay with him. “[P]lease remember that she has her home near the beach in ecological environment with her family that misses her,” he wrote. “[Not] being able to hear and see her for many months is unhealthy for both of us.”

Four days later, Baskin filed a brief asking the court to deny Pakalnis’s emergency petitions and prohibit any further communication from him. Dirse died later that day. Diana Sames, the realtor who started this whole process, defended her decision to petition for guardianship for Dirse. “She’s in heaven now. Why is there so much drama around this poor lady?” she asked The Intercept. “I don’t need to make money; I own my car, own my home, I have my own conscience.”

ADULT LEGAL GUARDIANSHIP is a process that has existed in the United States since colonial times, imported from a 14th century English legal principle known as parens patriae. The idea entails giving full rights and obligations to the state if an adult is deemed too vulnerable or “incapacitated” to care for themselves. A judge can appoint a guardian — often it’s a family member, sometimes it’s a third-party professional like Traci Hudson or Jean Farnan — and they have full legal authority to manage the individual’s health care decisions, their financial assets, or both. Many people can petition a court for guardianship if they believe an elderly person needs it: relatives, hospitals, government agencies, and even acquaintances like the realtor Diana Sames.

Adult legal guardianship varies by state, even sometimes county by county. However, in most places anyone 18 or older can nominate themselves to be a guardian, and few states require any sort of registration or licensing for the role. No good data even exists on how many seniors are currently living under guardianship. The National Center for State Courts estimated that based on the average of active pending cases in four states in 2008, there were 1.3 million cases nationwide, in control of roughly $50 billion in assets. This could be a low estimate, and as baby boomers get older, experts anticipate the numbers to rise considerably.

Though guardianship can at times be beneficial for the elderly, particularly if they really are at risk of being swindled or do need assistance, a growing movement over the last few decades has raised staggering examples of how mentally sound seniors lose their rights through this process, becoming totally isolated and forced to live in ways wholly contrary to how they want. In the worst cases, it’s the guardians themselves who exploit the senior, draining their assets, cutting off contact with friends and family, and confining them to expensive facilities when they just want to remain in their homes. Seniors have described the experience as living a “civil death” or being a “legal ghost.”

How widespread guardian abuse is remains unclear, but following a yearlong investigation, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging said in a 2018 report that they “identified persistent and widespread challenges that require a nationwide focus” to ensure  that guardianship “works on behalf of the individuals it is intended to protect.” The committee acknowledged that in some cases, “more rights than necessary” may be taken from an individual and that with such minimal oversight “once a guardianship is imposed, there are few safeguards in place to protect against individuals who choose to abuse the system.”

Issues around guardianship have existed for decades, and efforts at reform really took off in 1987, following a six-part Associated Press exposé. The investigative series prompted a flurry of new state legislation and the formation of the National Guardianship Association to establish new standards.

Yet despite modest improvements, lasting and widespread change remains elusive, and media reports detailing guardian abuse have continued to emerge. The U.S. Government Accountability Office looked at guardianship in 200420102011, and 2016, each time identifying major issues and a lack of clear information to guide policy. In its 2010 report, the GAO “identified hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia” since 1990.

Rick Black — who co-founded the Center for Estate Administration Reform with his wife in 2018 after dealing with a guardian who stole $200,000 from his father-in-law — blames “predatory attorneys” and a startlingly low burden of proof required to strip seniors of their rights.

Pakalnis described his experience dealing with the legal system as massively stressful and time consuming. When it first began, he thought that once he provided the court his great-aunt’s medical records, the matter would quickly resolve. He said he wishes people understood how difficult it is “when a strange person is in charge of your loved one and is ignorant to the family.” He thinks the pandemic has “opened up the sores” of guardianship and revealed that some assisted living facilities just can’t guarantee safe environments for people living there.

TIM REID AND his sister Donna O’Neil have also been grappling with the guardianship system amid Covid-19. On March 18, after years of unsuccessful attempts to bring her home from an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, their mom, Margaret Estelle Reid, died.

“My attorneys and I tried everything legally and medically possible to show the court why my mother should have been allowed to live in her home,” O’Neil told The Intercept. “I presented the guardianship and court multiple plans to prove Mom would be better cared for at home, but no matter what we presented, it was always disregarded. She was moved almost an hour away into a lockdown facility with the very predictable result of her receiving much less visitation. She never again saw her neighbors or old friends, and visitation with family was destroyed.”

Margaret Reid ended up in guardianship after a 2014 dispute among Reid’s children about their mother’s future and estate plan.

Dr. Gregory Marsella, a psychiatrist in Boca Raton in South Florida, recalled speaking with Reid about the dispute shortly after it happened. (He had seen Reid several times between 2009 and 2014. He has also treated Tim Reid, the son, for years.)

“She raised concern in our last meeting about how the siblings would work together in the event that she was incapacitated, and she talked about how she planned to make edits to her advance health directives,” Marsella said in an interview. “She told me she wanted to stay in her home no matter what, that she wanted to die in her home. She gave me a handwritten note saying this for my records, which I still have, and she said she was going to review her advance health directives with her attorney too to make sure they underscored this.”

But shortly thereafter, her other daughter, Margaret Fallon, successfully petitioned a court for legal guardianship. The idea that Margaret Reid was incapacitated was “risible, ludicrous, absurd,” said Marsella, who had seen her earlier that month. He described the whole experience as “eye-opening” in seeing the way that “hired gun” doctors work with courts and attorneys to strip the elderly of their rights.

As an expert witness in Reid’s guardianship hearing in a Florida state court, Marsella testified about the risks of moving her to an assisted living facility or nursing home. Among other things, he testified that mortality rates go up 200 to 300 percent for patients in such institutions, compared to those kept and cared for in their homes. Ten to 15 percent of patients with dementia die within six months of their placement into assisted living facilities, he also told the court.

The court was not convinced. Margaret Reid was taken from her home in 2017 and moved to the Meridian at Waterways.

Reid’s guardianship process quickly ate up her assets. After an internal audit raised red flags, a Palm Beach County Inspector General investigation found that in just one year, guardianship costs amounted to nearly 22 percent of Reid’s net worth, with legal fees averaging $539 per day. The report also found “billing practices, invoices, and time entries for numerous of the attorney fee petitions were unconventional, unreasonable or unsubstantiated.”

In part distressed about visitation restrictions, when Covid-19 began to spread, O’Neil filed an emergency court petition about the risk her mom faced amid the pandemic. “I saw her alive the day before she died; she didn’t look good at all, she seemed to exhibit a lot of the symptoms of coronavirus and was fading so fast from when I had seen her a week earlier,” recalled Tim Reid.

Tim said he asked both a Meridian medical attendant and Fallon, his sister, to get Margaret Reid tested for Covid-19, which never happened. (Fallon denies ever hearing about a request for a Covid-19 test.) “It’s not uncommon for these institutions to avoid documenting things that could lead to charges of malpractice or negligence,” said Tim.

Randy Ramroth, executive director of the Meridian at Waterways, declined to comment on why Margaret Reid was not tested, to share how many positive coronavirus cases among residents there have been, and how, if at all, testing is handled. In an email, Ramroth cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as to why he could not answer. Instead, he asked for some positive press for his facility. “I realize you are reporting a news story but if possible, please share some encouraging words regarding our staff members for their dedication and tireless work in keeping their residents and families safe,” he said.

“The tragedies of assisted living and nursing homes are not new at all. Well before Covid-19, you could talk to 80 percent of doctors in any specialty, and they would tell you these places are death sentences for Mom or Dad,” said Marsella. “They absolutely accelerate your demise.”

Fallon declined a phone interview but in an email told The Intercept that it had been “deemed medically necessary” to move her mother to an assisted living facility. She said all of her siblings’ legal claims related to her guardianship were “fully litigated” and that her siblings had “full opportunity” to call witnesses and present evidence to the court. (Tim Reid denies all of this.) Fallon’s attorney, Laura Burkhalter, told that The Intercept she believes Tim and Donna’s attempts to bring their mother home were rejected because they couldn’t show it was in their mom’s best interest. “I think she got high-quality care” where she was, said Burkhalter.

BLACK, THE ADVOCATE and founder of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, said he hopes that Covid-19 will help shine a light on the abuses of adult legal guardianship. “The pandemic has illuminated our long-term care crisis in general,” he said. “Many of these facilities do not have adequate staffing, and they don’t want the public to realize how so many of them are just built around making money.” A recent New York Times investigation revealed that some nursing homes have been evicting Medicaid-funded residents in favor of Covid-19 patients who can bring in more funds.

Marsella said he can’t imagine there won’t be some kind of public reckoning, given all the coronavirus-related deaths that have been reported recently in nursing homes. “We’re not so blind yet as a culture that something of this magnitude will be swept under the rug,” he said. “The first and best change to happen would be to sweep away this aspect of guardianship as it exists and is promulgated by attorneys and judges.”

Some advocates say the answer lies in less restrictive options. One such alternative, which grew out of the disability rights movement, is known as supported decision-making. Under this framework, an elderly person would keep their rights and work with trusted advisers to help them make decisions. Texas passed the country’s first law recognizing supported decision-making agreements in 2015, and since then eight more states have followed suit. Experts say it’s too early to know if this model is less prone to exploitation.

Nevada has also been leading the way on guardianship reform, following exposés that revealed massive guardianship corruption. (One notorious Nevada guardian, April Parks, was recently sentenced with up to 40 years for senior exploitation.) In 2017, following recommendations issued by a state commission, Nevada’s legislature passed a series of reforms, including granting all seniors facing guardianship the right to counsel, the creation of a new bill of rights, and the establishment of a State Guardianship Compliance Office that investigates fraud and abuse. Iowa also responded to a spate of guardianship scandals by passing new legislation in 2019 aimed at reducing elder abuse.

Not all recent reforms have led to real improvement, though. In 2016, after local media exposed widespread guardianship problems in Florida, lawmakers established a new Office of Public and Professional Guardians in the state’s Department of Elder Affairs. Black described this as “a strategic paper tiger by state leadership,” noting that the division lacks jurisdiction over local courts and has yet to involuntarily remove or successfully prosecute a single guardian. When the office’s top executive abruptly resigned last summer, the Orlando Sentinel reported that she had grown frustrated by her agency’s limited power to execute its mission.

Advocates say one reason that meaningful reform has inched along so slowly is because the federal government provides no real money or guidance to states that might otherwise improve their practices. In 2019 U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bob Casey, D-Penn., introduced the Guardianship Accountability Act, which would expand federal demonstration grants to help states collect better data and improve their practices, yet its only other co-sponsor is Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.

“I hope we can learn from this pandemic that we need to prioritize support and services for the elderly and people with disabilities,” said Dari Pogach, a senior staff attorney at American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging. “And that must include funding for state adult guardianship reform.”

But Where Can We Shelter?

Originally published in The Nation on June 16, 2020.
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After the fifth debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, The Washington Post published one of its infamous fact-checks highlighting those moments when, in the paper’s estimation, someone got too loose with the truth. Among the 10 claims flagged by the Post was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s remark that the United States has “500,000 people sleeping out on the street.” This statement was “exaggerated,” the Post admonished, because while it’s true that in 2018 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that there were 553,000 people experiencing homelessness in America, not all of them were technically on the streets; some 360,000 were in shelters or transitional housing.

Putting aside that many experts believe HUD grossly undercounts the homeless, the Post’s finger-wagging exemplified some of the peak absurdities of America’s housing crisis. The United States is the richest country in the world, but millions of its people struggle to afford housing or find it at all. Instead of ensuring that there are enough units in areas where people want to live, we’ve dawdled for decades and made excuses for why things can’t be different—or even claimed they really aren’t so bad.

Golden Gates, a new book on the housing crisis by New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty, dives straight into these problems, skillfully exploring everything from the yes in my backyard (YIMBY) movement, which promotes more housing development, to anti-gentrification activism, the normalization of homelessness, and the factors that have made it so prohibitively expensive to build anything new. It’s the latest addition to a slate of books on housing that have come out over the past few years, including Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, Ben Austen’s High-Risers, Matthew L. Schuerman’s Newcomers, and P.E Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City. These books have explored various aspects of housing discrimination, especially the burdens borne by the nation’s poor and people of color, but Dougherty’s is among the first to look squarely at the politics of trying to respond to this disaster. By examining the inertia and ineffectiveness of political leaders who largely agree on what needs to be done, he makes a sobering case for how and why our politics have failed. While not so much a book of specific policy prescriptions, Golden Gates helps clarify why we have a housing crisis in the first place.

As suggested by the title, Golden Gates focuses on California, especially on San Francisco, where the housing troubles are particularly extreme. California has the distinction of having one of the highest housing costs in the nation and some of the highest-paying jobs. It also has, using HUD’s metric, more than 150,000 people experiencing homelessness—far more than any other state in the country. But California’s problems, Dougherty insists, are not anomalous: They are merely “an exaggerated example of the geographic inequalities” that we see in almost every American city as urban centers grapple with the increasing concentration of economic opportunity and the rising cost of living near it. As higher-paying industries like tech and consulting consolidate in and around a few dense areas and as lower-paying retail and health care jobs replace those in manufacturing, the competition to find housing near the good-paying jobs has grown more acute.

To tell this story of housing scarcity and political inaction, Dougherty focuses on a diverse set of people, including Jesshill Love, a longtime Bay Area landlord wrestling with how to raise rents, and Rafael Avendaño, the director of a youth center who tries to teach teenagers in Redwood City how to fight their evictions. We hear from housing developers like Dennis O’Brien and Rick Holliday about the byzantine barriers they face to build more homes and from state Senator Scott Wiener, who has struggled to get his housing reform bills approved. And we hear quite a bit from leaders in the YIMBY movement, like the teacher turned housing activist Sonja Trauss, who moved to the Bay Area in 2011. Since then, the Bay Area has created roughly eight new jobs for every new housing unit, far beyond the 1.5 jobs per new unit recommended by planners. Trauss and her fellow YIMBYs want more homes built, arguing that the shortage in metro areas with highly sought-after jobs has led to soaring rents and home prices and justified fears of displacement.

One of the most sobering aspects of Dougherty’s narrative comes from his historical findings. Many people are familiar with the current affordability crisis in San Francisco, which is often blamed on greedy tech CEOs and venture capitalists. But fewer are aware of its deeper roots. Digging through the archives, Dougherty shows just how long California leaders have been aware of the housing crisis that the state faced if it didn’t alter course. “Changing San Francisco Is Foreseen as a Haven for Wealthy and Childless,” read one New York Times headline in 1981. Two years earlier, an MIT urban planning professor blasted the Bay Area for its “arrogant” and “self-serving” land-use policies and traced how developers were routinely stymied by environmentalists and homeowners opposed to new people moving in. Delivering a 1981 commencement speech at UC Berkeley, the university’s top economics student warned that the Bay Area’s housing shortage would result in sharply rising prices and that homeowners were likely to keep fighting any efforts to address that.

The commencement speaker was right, yet too little was done in the years that followed. This lack of reform around land use was largely rooted in the failure of leaders to take on entrenched interests who profited from the status quo—from the investors, developers, and building trades to the homeowners who were fortunate enough to move to a desirable area first.

Today politicians are trying to tackle these structural problems more directly. Policy analysts say California needs to build 3.5 million homes to get serious about solving its housing crisis, and in 2017, California Governor Gavin Newsom committed to reaching this goal by 2025. But this is a tremendous task that would necessitate building roughly 500,000 units a year, when over the past decade, on average, fewer than 80,000 homes were built in the state annually. And there are, as Dougherty observes, considerable impediments that stand in the way, including soaring costs for construction and land. The cost of building a 100-unit affordable housing project in California had increased from $265,000 per unit in 2000 to almost $425,000 by 2016. And that’s an average. In cities like San Francisco, it can cost upward of $850,000 to build a single subsidized unit. When California’s legislature passed a $4 billion bond to build affordable housing in 2017, it was hailed as a serious step forward, one that would amount to a nearly $12 billion effort when paired with private money. But $12 billion divided by $425,000 equals just 28,235 units, or 0.8 percent of the 3.5 million goal. As Dougherty writes, “This sort of math could make a joke of any new funding effort.”

Voters across California have been more supportive of new funding packages for affordable housing over the past few years, but the quiet dread among advocates is that once the public realizes how little effect each influx of money has on the crisis, their appetite for new taxes might wane. “Behind each new affordable housing bond and the additional billions for homeless services was a public who thought they were being generous, when really the new taxes were nothing in comparison to a problem that was getting worse faster than cities could deploy the money,” Dougherty writes.

While the political leaders in Sacramento and on city councils continue to squabble, renters are doing what they can to organize, and Dougherty gives voice to their experiences too. In particular, we hear from teenager Stephanie Gutierrez, who studied every Tuesday night with other community members how to protest gentrification and eviction. One day, Gutierrez returned home to discover that her family’s rent would be jumping by 45 percent.

Gutierrez and the activists she worked with did their best to raise hell. “No hay peor lucha que la que no se hace,” another tenant insisted—there is no worse fight than the one that isn’t fought. But Dougherty doesn’t sugarcoat the hurdles that renters face. “Protests could make [housing] flips more expensive, but not nearly by enough,” he writes. Despite the occasional bad headlines, developers saw easy opportunities to make more money, and landlords were well within their legal rights to raise rents.

Dougherty also follows the YIMBY activists as they mobilize for new subsidized and market-rate housing. Their build-everything philosophy often pits them against anti-gentrification groups, which view new for-profit development as housing policy moving in the wrong direction. But activists like Trauss insist that more housing will help reduce prices for everyone by relieving pressure on strained markets. Dougherty is sympathetic to this argument, but he also notes some of the real limits faced by these mostly white, highly educated activists as they struggle to build a multiracial and cross-class movement.

Perhaps one reason Dougherty is more sympathetic to the YIMBY movement is that unlike many others, it has been more willing to confront the reality that you can’t stop people from moving to dense, crowded cities, no matter how much you wish they’d stay away. As Wiener, who is aligned with the YIMBYs, once vented, “There is a strain of self-described progressive politics in San Francisco that says: ‘Lock down the city’…. Don’t build more housing—just lock it down, and maybe if we dig a moat around the city and put crocodiles in it we can just stop people from coming.”

Despite finding some hope in local activism, Dougherty doesn’t end his book on a particularly optimistic note. The rising costs to build, the increasing polarization, and the failure to take on entrenched special interests, he suggests, could leave California in much the same place it has long been. And yet he writes that there is growing momentum on the legislative level, not just in California but across the country. Since 2017, rent-control bills and ballot initiatives have cropped up in roughly a dozen states, and in February 2019, Oregon became the first to pass rent control statewide. In June 2019, New York legislators beefed up rent control for nearly 1 million apartments in New York City, and California approved statewide rent control a few months later. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning, a measure intended to boost the housing supply, and Oregon shortly followed suit. In the DC area, where planners say at least 320,000 new units are needed in the next decade to accommodate demand and population growth, lawmakers are considering measures to expand rent control and reduce barriers to construction.

Yet a crucial question in Golden Gates remains unanswered: What can governments do to help those who need housing now without enacting policies that could make the situation worse in the long term, whether by exacerbating displacement and segregation or by contributing to an even more severe shortage down the road?

Some new housing ideas have emerged recently on the left, such as building more housing that would be kept off the market for speculation and profit entirely. The homes guarantee movement, launched in September 2019, seeks to do for housing what Medicare for All would do for health care. While some homes guarantee advocates object to the idea of expanding Section 8 vouchers because they’d like to reduce reliance on the private rental market, others maintain that these policies are not necessarily in conflict with each other. In fact, Sanders campaigned on both a homes guarantee and making Section 8 vouchers available to all who are eligible. “Mixed solutions can feel like a cop-out,” Dougherty writes, “especially in polarized times. And yet, over and over, in city after city, it’s always where people end up and what seems most likely to work.”

He has a point. To move forward, movements will have to find ways to break out of their particular communities and build strength across class lines. In other cases, activists and political leaders might need, as was the case with Medicare for All, to find new language to address existing policy demands. One think tank in Seattle tested YIMBY messaging and found that the word “homes” worked better than “development” and the phrase “walkable and convenient” was more appealing than “density.” In Minneapolis a YIMBY group has opted for the warmer name Neighbors for More Neighbors. These are all worthwhile steps, but the politics won’t be solved by friendlier rhetoric alone. To build more housing, we’ll need to build more power.

This Hurricane Season, The Coronavirus Pandemic is Complicating Disaster Response Plans

Originally published in The Intercept on June 15, 2020.
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IN THE LEAD-UP to a hurricane, residents of high-risk areas may find themselves subject to evacuation orders. Some travel to other states that fall outside the storm’s projected path, while others stay with friends and family who live in higher-elevation homes. Many people flock to shelters prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its state and local counterparts. Volunteers pitch in to assist with first aid and essential supplies like food and toilet paper.

The coronavirus pandemic — and the attendant social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders — has upended hurricane planning protocol for the 2020 season, a five-month period that started on June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted in May this season will be “above-normal,” with as many as six major hurricanes expected. To put this in perspective: The agency predicted two to four major storms in 2019, and three in 2018. Major storms are those classified as Category 3 or higher, with winds of at least 111 miles per hour, and are guaranteed to yield significant destruction and death.

It’s the first time in U.S. history that hurricane season planning will have to take into account social distancing, and the first time every state and territory has simultaneously declared a “major disaster” — a designation that allows them to access millions in federal funds and assistance from FEMA.

“This is very uncharted territory,” said Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins, where she studies disaster response and how disasters impact health care infrastructure. “Almost everything we’re doing is new, and we’re already seeing shortages on essential supplies.”

For now the federal government is projecting an air of confidence. In a recent briefing FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor told the president his agency is ready to handle the challenges of hurricane season and Covid-19, noting they’re “more than fully funded” thanks to an extra $40 billion allocated from recent pandemic appropriations, on top of the $40 billion FEMA typically begins hurricane season with. The agency also put out guidance last month on how leaders should plan to navigate the next few months. “FEMA is prepared to address unique disasters with a customized response that meets the mission need while minimizing the potential for COVID-19 exposure,” a spokesperson told The Intercept.

Like many workplaces around the country, FEMA has had to adapt to teleworking in light of the pandemic, and those adjustments will extend to hurricane response as well. In its recent hurricane guidance, the agency said it’s expecting “many aspects” of disaster response could be operated remotely. In an email, a FEMA spokesperson said that includes inspection processes, preliminary damage assessments, coordinating meetings with government officials, and increased public communications through internet and social media platforms. “Depending on the needs of a particular disaster, it may still be necessary to send Disaster Survivor Assistance teams, search and rescue, damage assessment teams or communications technicians into a disaster area,” the spokesperson said.

When asked how FEMA will provide remote services if internet and cell service is no longer available, the spokesperson said they coordinate with industry partners and federal agencies to provide “temporary communications solutions” if the traditional infrastructure is degraded. Still, independent experts and some members of Congress are less sanguine about the federal government’s readiness.

Last week Democrats on the House Subcommittee on the Environment sent a letter to FEMA criticizing its hurricane guidance as lacking important details and noted staffing shortages the agency is facing. The “available personnel qualified to lead field operations has fallen from 44 to 19, staff members have been pulled from responding to other disasters, training centers have been shuttered, and new employee recruitment efforts are on hold,” they wrote. The letter cited a Homeland Security Department inspector general report from March that reported FEMA lacked “a coherent strategy” for using advanced contracting during Hurricane Maria, and a Government Accountability Office report that documented FEMA’s challenges in responding to hurricanes and wildfires in 2017. The lawmakers requested a virtual hearing with Gaynor by June 22 to discuss FEMA’s plans for navigating Covid-19 and natural disasters, including tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes.

WHILE THE FEDERAL government deliberates, states and cities have been taking steps to consider how they might plan for evacuation shelters while maintaining social distancing. Officials are hoping to screen evacuees with temperatures checks, to require masks, and to isolate anyone with symptoms. “States will most likely need to identify more sheltering capacity [than normal],” said Brant Mitchell, the director of the Louisiana State University’s Stephenson Disaster Management Institute. “One potential solution may be contracting with hotels due to decline in hotel capacity resulting from stay-at-home orders. Typically during disasters that is not an option for the state but may be a consideration due to the circumstances of the lockdowns.”

Another challenge is that often during hurricane season, many who lack the means to physically evacuate the state in an emergency make plans to shelter with a neighbor or friend whose house may be on higher ground. With coronavirus, though, there may be less willingness among individuals to let people crash in their home.

“The base elevation of our house is 9 feet so we’re completely safe from flooding and storm surge, and I’m pretty sure we’d be able to survive OK even during the worst possible hurricane,” said Hugh Gladwin, a retired Florida International University sociologist and anthropologist who studies hurricane evacuations. “We have a guest bedroom and we could take two people in, but I’m elderly, I have a heart condition, and I have to be certain they don’t have Covid-19 because I would croak.” Gladwin said he’s making plans with two friends who live in a condo on the Miami coastline but acknowledged it requires a higher level of trust and coordination than is typical.

Relatedly, hurricane experts are expecting less volunteer assistance both from within state and out-of-state due to coronavirus. “Typically we’ve relied on volunteers from the American Red Cross and partners from Division of Social Services and a lot of those volunteers are what you would classify as high risk population,” explained Mike Sprayberry, North Carolina’s director of Emergency Management, in a recent interview with ABC11. “We had 35-40 states that provided us with assistance during [2018’s Hurricane] Florence. … We’re pretty much going to have to be aware that we’re not going to be able to count on assets from other states like we would have in the past.”

Experts say evacuations could be a mess, particularly for vulnerable populations. And while such events are always challenging, public health officials recognize that a call to evacuate during a pandemic could confuse people who have heard for months that the safest thing they could do was to stay home and social distance.

“There will be a good chance some might assess that their risk is higher from getting Covid than the hurricane and they need to understand that if an evacuation order is issued, it’s incredibly important that they leave,” said Sauer.

Gladwin said he’s worried about highway gridlock while a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane goes over vehicles. “We’ve had almost no experience with that, just because we’ve gotten lucky,” he said. “We would have that with Irma” — a Category 4 hurricane that hit in 2017 — “if Irma had stayed on its original trajectory.”

In New Orleans, where many residents lack the means to evacuate themselves, Mitchell said Louisiana typically contracts with roughly 600 commercial buses to transport people to state-operated shelters and shelters in other states. “Due to social distancing requirements a commercial bus that may be able to transport 60 passengers may only be able to transport half that capacity or less,” he explained. “This will require either additional buses or moving the evacuation timeline up significantly to allow the buses to make multiple trips.” And whether states will welcome evacuees if they’re coming from a city that had a large outbreak is another area of uncertainty. I’m “not sure what the answer is but it is certainly something the state has to be prepared for,” Mitchell said.

In many ways, the states that frequently get hurricanes and are bracing for more severe ones this year may be somewhat better positioned than states that have less experience planning for and dealing with them. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, for example, the local government mailed a hurricane readiness handbook to all homes in early June that included instructions on making plans amid the pandemic.

“I think we’ll make it through here in Florida, but I am extremely worried about other parts of the country,” said Gladwin. “Here we are in good shape in terms of hospital capacity, but take a state like Georgia or the Carolinas. If they’re still on their wave of coronavirus infections going up and their hospitals need more capacity, that could be a big problem.”

Mitchell agreed that Louisiana might also be better positioned and noted state officials started planning for shelter capacity and evacuation routes back in April. “The state will be as prepared as they can for a major hurricane making landfall in [Louisiana] during this pandemic,” he said.

Sauer says the most important thing the federal government could be doing right now is scaling up its emergency response workforce, planning ahead for transportation, and working to contain Covid-19. “I think more attention should be paid right now to where all these states are reopening and we’re still seeing a ton of hotspots,” she said. “We need to use public health interventions to keep those cases low.”

How Did Brooke Pinto Win the Ward 2 Council Primary?

Originally published in Washington City Paper with Mitch Ryals on June 11.
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Brooke Pinto had no business winning the Ward 2 Democratic primary race.

The 28-year-old Greenwich, Conn., native has only lived in D.C. for six years. She’s never voted here and only registered to vote in D.C. in 2019. Her campaign signs said she was running for “city council,” a semantic mistake typically met with jeers from entrenched local politicos.

She has little, albeit relevant, professional work experience. After law school, Pinto joined the Office of the Attorney General through a fellowship program, working in the tax and finance division. She later transferred to work on policy matters directly under AG Karl Racine, who enthusiastically supported her campaign.

Pinto jumped into a field of seven opponents, three of whom—Patrick KennedyJohn Fanning, and Kishan Putta—are advisory neighborhood commissioners with deep community connections. Another, Jordan Grossman, had support of local progressive groups and many labor unions. And then there was ex-Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who came into the race with a longer record, more name recognition, and more ethics violations than any other candidate.

And yet, on June 4, two days after Election Day, Pinto declared victory with a lead of fewer than 300 votes. On June 6, after Pinto’s lead grew, Kennedy, her closest opponent, conceded.

The Board of Elections will hold a special election June 16 to fill the seat for the remainder of the year. Pinto is expected to win, as most other campaigns have suspended their operations.

Pinto will become the youngest D.C. councilmember in history and join a body that just traded two moderate, male members—Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, 37, and Evans, 66—for two younger female members in Pinto and the Democratic nominee for the Ward 4 Council seat, Janeese Lewis George, 32. (George and Pinto still have to win the general election in November, but in heavily Democratic D.C., they’re expected to coast to victory.)

“She literally ran a perfect race,” Racine says. “Anything short of perfection there, she loses.”

So how did she do it? And what does Pinto’s victory mean for the future of the D.C. Council?

On a good day, Pinto says she made 500 calls to Ward 2 voters. That’s in addition to the calls a small army of about 70 volunteers made—among them, her mother, Dale Pinto, who phoned D.C. voters from her home in Connecticut.

“Our philosophy was ‘yes to everything,’” Pinto says. Yes to requests to meet individually, yes to invitations for meet-and-greets, yes to writing out policy positions in emails.

Early poll numbers had Pinto at just 2 or 3 percent, but the tides appeared to shift when the Washington Post editorial board announced its unexpected endorsement of her campaign.

“The Post [editorial board] has been so discredited that everyone wrote it off as an important validator,” says At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who endorsed Grossman. “But clearly, in Ward 2 it still is.”

Pinto’s phone call strategy and select prominent endorsements were amplified by her fundraising haul.

On the campaign trail, Pinto emphasized her opposition to “outside interest group[s]” that try to buy elections, and praised the city for having  “progressive campaign finance limits and a public financing system to empower voters, not dollars.” Yet she was the only candidate in Ward 2 to decline participating in said public financing program, a decision that allowed her to personally contribute $45,000 to her campaign.

When asked how a 28-year-old with two years of work experience, earning public servant salaries that ranged from $56,000 to $101,000, was able to do that, she told City Paper she used “savings” from a personal brokerage account and some money she inherited from her grandmother’s passing.

Pinto comes from a wealthy family. Her father, James J. Pinto, has spent decades in private equity, and currently leads the firm MVC Capital, Inc. In 2015, while Brooke was attending Georgetown Law School, James and Dale Pinto endowed the school with an annual fellowship in their name for alumni.

Pinto says though her parents kindly maxed out their donations to her campaign, they did not contribute beyond that. Over the last decade, though, James Pinto has donated $12,800 to Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, and $7,800 to Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Both men endorsed Pinto, and on the campaign trail she emphasized that she’s “the only candidate in this race to be endorsed by sitting Senators & a Congressman.”

Early on in the campaign, it looked like Pinto’s parents were set to help their daughter establish a campaign headquarters, too. While Pinto lives on Q Street NW near Logan Circle, and put that address on her campaign lawn signs, her parents started renting a house down the street shortly after Pinto announced her bid.

That property, at 1300 Q Street NW, hit the market in late January, and on February 18, a new LLC entitled “1300 Q Street NW LLC” formed. The house was sold to this LLC on February 27, and less than a week later, Pinto listed it as her campaign’s address on her AFL-CIO questionnaire. She tells City Paper she was “intending to initiate a sub-lease,” but changed her plans when the pandemic worsened and her campaign went remote. Her mother returned to D.C last week to stay in the house she’s still renting, and put up large balloons outside that stated “Brooke4Ward2.”

Pinto tells City Paper she does not have any information on the LLC, and says her parents “of course put yard signs up” because they stay when they visit. Dale and James Pinto did not respond to requests for comment.

Pinto’s stance against outside money also rubbed up against the realities of her fundraising haul. She had the lowest percentage of D.C. donors and the most money coming from out of state among Ward 2 candidates. Pinto also had the second fewest donations coming from Ward 2. While she says she “understands the desire for people to go down the road” of looking at her own contributions, Pinto stresses that her campaign, which raised about $136,000, was outspent. “It’s just not true that we bought this race,” she said. “Other candidates had much more money.”

With Evans officially off the Council and Todd likely to be gone by the end of the year, Chairman Phil Mendelson will lose two significant supporters of his moderate priorities. While George, a Democratic Socialist, will ostensibly fit in alongside Silverman and the Council’s progressive wing, it’s less clear who Pinto will end up aligning and voting with.

Racine describes her as a cross between Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and At-Large Councilmember Robert White. According to the attorney general, Pinto has Allen’s organization and thoughtfulness and, like White, is progressive in areas around social and racial justice, with special attention to criminal justice reform, but can be “more center in areas around business.”

“My guess is that she’ll have a positive working relationship as well with the mayor,” he adds.

Silverman largely agrees. She spoke with Pinto by phone Sunday evening to offer congratulations.

She says she expects Pinto to generally support her priorities for working families, and is holding her breath when it comes to economic issues.

“Where the real rubber hits the road is on the economic issues,” Silverman says. “You can’t do restorative justice without progressive economic policy. ”

Meanwhile, Mendelson says he’s not concerned about losing control of a Council that appears to be drifting further to his left. By the time he talked with LL Monday afternoon, the chairman hadn’t spoken to Pinto, but said he intended to call.

Asked what Pinto’s victory says about potential changes in Ward 2, the chairman notes that “the ward is not as far to the left as some said it would be, but more importantly, the bigger message is the ward resoundingly rejected ethical lapses, to put it politely.”

The full effect of the 2020 election cycle on the Council will become clear after the general election in November. Ultra-progressive policy wonk Ed Lazere, who Mendelson thumped in 2018, is one of more than a dozen declared candidates running for At-Large Councilmember David Grosso’s seat.

LL will note that Racine is likely counting himself among the winners in the primary election. Both of his endorsed candidates, Pinto and George, will likely join former Racine staffers Robert White and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White on the Council dais in 2021.

For now, Pinto says she wants to restore faith in the ward. “I take very seriously the responsibility … that everything be … 100 percent above board and followed through on,” she tells LL.

Still, she’s off to a so-so start with some aspects of her campaign finance reports. Stickers she used to feature her Post endorsement were not included on her May 26 filings, and she tells City Paper “we are working with our compliance officer to determine why” that was.

“Please always feel free to ask if you have questions,” she adds. “I am confident that every question has an answer.”