CLEVELAND — There are more than 120 million households in the United States. Forty-three million are renters and as the pandemic continues, protections for those people ended earlier this year.
After the federal eviction moratorium ended, thousands of Ohioans saw the welcome mat pulled out from under their feet which means people like Sarienya Thomas are not alone.
"You feel abandoned in a way. You have to pack up your whole life in a rush," she said. "I'm panicking right now. I'm panicking."
Thomas was served an eviction notice in early September days after she paid rent for the month.
Thomas spent the last seven years in her apartment on the east side of Cleveland. "I'm a homebody," she said.
She liked it there. She said it was quiet and well kept. It was a place to call her own after her partner died of cancer.
But that place is no longer the home it once was. Now, she has to be out by Oct. 1.
"Anybody who is renting, this can happen to," she said.
Thomas said she wasn't behind on rent. Instead, a new owner wants to renovate and charge more. "I'm packed up but I have nowhere to go," she said.
Since the moratorium supported by the federal government ended in August, thousands of people are looking for housing. Thomas said that makes finding another place nearly impossible. And with just a few days left in the place she calls home, she's desperate.
"I'm two steps away from taking a house I see empty, abandoned somewhere and move in," she said. "Because I don't want to be on the street. You don't want to be a burden to other people."
Thomas isn't alone. Since March 15, 2020, more than 5,000 eviction have been filed in Cleveland. While the Cleveland Municipal Housing Court still limits eviction filings to 25 each day, other courts have not.
That's how Toshia Killings ended up packing boxes on a Thursday afternoon.
"Sometimes I have my days where I cry. Sometimes I beat myself up," she said.
She's an Elyria native and lives in the same apartment complex as her mom and her sister. It's been her home for two years.
"It gives you comfort knowing you got your own set-up," Killings said.
But in less than two weeks, it's not hers anymore. She fell behind on rent when she lost her job. She applied for assistance. The complex owner wouldn't accept it. So, on Oct. 9 she has to be out.
"I've always been independent," she said. "So, got to stay with family, relatives—it's just not right in my book."
Numbers from the Princeton University-based Eviction Lab show more than 3.5 million people rent in Ohio. That's 29% of the population here, making Killing's struggle familiar to so many.
"Rent is the main thing everybody worry about," she said.
A familiarity not lost on the leader of the housing court in Cleveland.
"I think a lot of courts are starting to get on board with how to deal with this issue because it is a pressing issue," said Judge W. Mona Scott.
All Scott does is look at housing issues, including evictions.
"I don't think it's anyone's intention to have a lot of people evicted and have people not have access to the millions of dollars that are out there," she said.
Court session are not happening at the Justice Center in Cleveland. Right now, everything is virtual. And in these hearings are representatives from Legal Aid. That's a step Judge Scott said is solely for the benefit of tenants to get help.
"The magistrates and me, just working in government and law, have never seen this much money be available to the public," she said. "We'll never see it again. We promise we'll never see it again."
The money may be there, but landlords have to then accept it. If they don't and people can't pay, they can't stay.
"The housing crisis right now is an epidemic," Thomas said sitting on her couch surrounded by her life now packed up boxes.
A frustrating cycle for Thomas and Killings.
"I'm angry. I'm sad. I'm depressed. I'm stressed," Killings said. "I can't let that stop my life. I can't let that just control me."