Wednesday, July 28, 2021
First Watch

Combating Eviction, Door to Door

Reporter Rebecca Najera, left, interviews tenant rights advocate Terra Atkins at an apartment complex in east Tulsa. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

This summer Oklahoma Watch hired two reporters to cover race and equity because the issues affecting communities of color — including housing, economic mobility, justice, health disparities and environmental inequality — are vital to Oklahoma’s future.

Rebecca Najera and Lionel Ramos came to us through Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative that places emerging journalists in newsrooms. “So here I am,” Rebecca says, “emerging.”

Both published their first in-depth story for Oklahoma Watch this month. Lionel used the perspective of the unemployed and employers to look at the impact of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to end the extra federal unemployment benefits early.

Rebecca examined the impending end of a federal evictions moritorum through the experience of a Tulsa tenant rights advocate and those she serves. Below, Rebecca shares another dimension of that story.

— Mike Sherman, Executive Editor

We originally planned for a piece on what’s going to happen when the moratorium expires. Then I met Terra Atkins. 

She’s a volunteer with Allied Communities of Tulsa Inspiring Our Neighborhoods, better known as ACTION, and spends her days knocking on doors in Tulsa County apartment complexes with high eviction rates to help tenants find rental assistance. Having faced eviction herself, Atkins wants others to avoid that experience.

Just a couple months into that work, she started getting sick and the pounds just seemed to fall off her. She thought it was the stress of the pandemic, her own fear of eviction and being out in the heat all day. But last fall she learned she had liver cancer. 

After the diagnosis, Atkins started putting more effort into her advocacy. 

“I’ve not always been the nicest person, or done the best of things like I should, so at first it was like, ‘God … I’m just trying to get into heaven,’” she told me. “Or leave something behind, some kind of legacy.”

Whitney Bryen, our multimedia reporter, and I followed Atkins on one of her rescue missions. She carried a reusable shopping bag full of rental assistance flyers, pens, and paper and kept a roll of blue painters tape around her wrist. It was 93 degrees that day, so it didn’t take us long to start sweating. She occasionally would take breaks in the shade of entry ways to swap her wig for a head scarf before marching back into the sun.

The complex had many units in poor condition. We saw mold, holes in walls, shattered windows. I went home that night and cried after seeing some of the living conditions that Atkins said aren’t uncommon to some places she visits.

In one of our many chats over the last month, Atkins told me helping these people is much bigger than she is. Spending hours in the heat and watching her go back and forth between her wig and scarf showed me that. Watching her listen to tenants as they shared stories showed me that. Watching her help residents find help beyond rental assistance showed me that. 

Dianna Arroyo, a tenant who lost part of her government assistance, was using a wheelchair a friend was about to throw it away. Atkins gave her contacts for people who could helper her get a chair that fits properly.

Atkins remains worried about her own housing when the federal evictions moratorium is scheduled to end Saturday. Her fiance’s return to work has allowed the couple to start catching up on rent, but Atkins’ work with ACTION is all volunteer. 

It’s stories like hers that I want to tell, and I could use your help. Shoot me an email at rnajera@oklahomawatch.org with tips, suggestions or questions. You can follow me on Twitter here.

— Rebecca Najera

In Focus

Oklahomans Fear Eviction Spike as Moratorium Expires

A Tulsa woman has spent the last year working to help people avoid eviction. Yet she and thousands of Oklahomans could lose their homes when a pandemic-inspired protection expires this month. [Read more …]

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Around the web

  • Physicians Urge Gov. Stitt to Declare Emergency: A declaration would allow hospitals dealing with an increase in COVID-19 cases to take steps such as converting conference rooms into bed space for non-COVID patients. Of the 136 Oklahoma hospitals reporting, 85.6 percent of all ICU beds were in use as of Tuesday evening — one-fourth of them by a COVID-19 patient, according to this U.S. Health & Human Services database. Use it to check ICU bed availability in your community. [KOCO]
  • Supply-Chain Woes Come to School Cafeterias: The Moore Public School District is planning to pare down school lunch menus after the US Foods Holding Corp. notified it and districts in other states that it won’t be serving meal programs for the coming school year. Said Moore’s child nutrition director: “It’s a no-win situation. (Students) will bring their lunch or go out to eat.” [Wall Street Journal]
  • Why Vaccinated People Are Getting ‘Breakthrough’ Infections: Fifteen vaccinated people became infected with COVID-19 at Dr. Elyse Freitas’ July 10 wedding, which the University of Oklahoma biologist had already postponed once due to the pandemic. A dozen people went unmasked for a bachelorette party in downtown Oklahoma City bars two days before the wedding. “In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the vaccination rates in Oklahoma and the emergence of the Delta variant and adjusted my plans accordingly,” Dr. Freitas said. [New York Times]
  • Tulsa Mayor Announces COVID Policy Changes: Only fully vaccinated Tulsa city employees — or those granted an exemption by the city physicians — will be eligible for hazard leave if they contract COVID-19. [Tulsa World]
  • State Looks To Re-Hire Contract Tracers: Believing its initial vaccine rate meant there was less need for contact tracing, Oklahoma cut its crew from a high of about 175 to 30. Now state health officials are working to rehire contact tracers. Said state epidemiologist Jolianne Stone: “We did train them so that if we did see an increase, we could hire back in and quickly expand the numbers.” [The Frontier]

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