U.S. eviction bans are ending. That could worsen the spread of coronavirus

By Michelle Conlin

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Last month, as the coronavirus was surging in Houston, recently unemployed hospital secretary Ramzan Boudoin got more bad news: She had six days to vacate her apartment for failing to pay the rent.

A Texas ban on evictions had enabled Boudoin to keep the two-bedroom place she shared with her daughter and granddaughter while she searched for another job. But that moratorium expired on May 18. The landlord took legal action and Boudoin couldn’t come up with $2,997 plus interest to settle the judgment.

So this month Boudoin, 46, packed her family into a 2008 Nissan compact and headed to New Orleans, where she moved in with her mother and her sister’s family. In all, nine people share the packed three-bedroom house. Bedouin said her mother suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a lung illness that makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 in a city where cases are rising at an alarming pace.

“Every minute, we are worried someone is going to give it to her,” Boudoin said.

As the coronavirus began to shut down large swaths of the U.S. economy in March, spiraling millions of Americans into unemployment, a patchwork of state and federal eviction bans were enacted to keep people in their homes. Now those protections are vanishing. Moratoriums have already expired in 29 states and are about to lapse in others. On Friday, a federal stay, which protects roughly one-third of American renters who live in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government, will run out unless Congress acts fast.

As many as 28 million people could be evicted in coming months, according to Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University who is the co-creator of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a national research center on evictions. That’s nearly triple the estimated 10 million Americans who lost their homes during the years after the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Public health and housing experts say such a massive displacement of renters would be unprecedented in modern history. In addition to the hardship that comes with losing one’s home, they say, the evictions could lead to a second-wave public health crisis as the newly homeless are forced into shelters or tight quarters with relatives, increasing the risk of spread of COVID-19.

Evictions have resumed in cities including Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, according to data compiled by Princeton University at its Eviction Lab. No single, comprehensive source exists to track U.S. evictions nationwide.

In Milwaukee, eviction filings dropped to nearly zero after Wisconsin instituted an emergency 60-day ban on evictions on March 27. But after that order was lifted May 26, evictions surged past their pre-pandemic levels. Milwaukee recorded 1,966 eviction filings in the seven weeks following the ban’s expiration, an 89% increase from 1,038 notices filed in the seven weeks leading up to the moratorium, the Princeton data show.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician and the medical director for infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said it’s impossible at this point to establish a scientific correlation between evictions and COVID-19 spread and deaths; diagnosed coronavirus cases are up 150% in Milwaukee, for example, since the eviction moratorium ended.

What is not in doubt among public health experts, she said, is that evictions are dangerous during a pandemic. “A key tenet of prevention in a pandemic is to have the infrastructure that will minimize transmission from person to person,” Safdar said. “Any activity that breaks down that structure … makes containment of a pandemic exceedingly difficult.”

A July 17 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that in 44 U.S. cities and counties, eviction filings by landlords have almost returned to their usual levels in places where moratoriums have expired, or where bans were never enacted.

That study said evicted tenants are “at greater risk of contracting, spreading and suffering complications from COVID-19” because precariously housed people often are unable to shelter in place, and because they tend to use crowded emergency rooms for their primary medical care.

As evictions rise in some coronavirus hot spots, displaced families are doubling up with relatives or moving into shelters, creating conditions for the virus to spread widely, according to Diane Yentel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S.’s premiere affordable housing policy group.

“In these cases where social distancing is difficult or impossible, the likelihood of them contracting and spreading coronavirus increases exponentially,” Yentel said.

A fragile safety net is adding to the strain. Enhanced $600 weekly unemployment benefits provided by the federal government are set to evaporate next week, at a time when the national unemployment rate is 13.3%.

Landlords say the pandemic is a crisis for them as well. Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, says eviction is always a “last resort,” but “the rental housing industry alone cannot bear the financial burden of the pandemic.”

He said nearly half the country’s landlords are mom-and pop operators who have invested in rental property for retirement income.

COVID POSITIVE, AND FACING EVICTION

For weeks, eviction courts across America were shuttered due to COVID-19. Now, over Zoom, conference calls and even in person in some places, proceedings are ramping up again.

In Houston’s Harris County, more than 5,100 eviction cases have been filed since the virus upended the U.S. economy in March, according to data compiled by Houston-based data science firm January Advisors.

That’s still roughly half of pre-pandemic levels. But it’s worrisome to public health advocates given that Harris County has seen confirmed coronavirus cases jump 500% since Texas’s eviction ban was lifted May 18, the Reuters COVID tracker shows.

Swapnil Agarwal is the 39-year-old founder of Nitya Capital, one of the largest landlords in Texas and owner of the Providence at Champions Apartment Homes from which Boudoin was evicted. During the pandemic, the company has filed more than 120 eviction notices against renters in Houston, a Reuters review of court records found. Houston-based Nitya has $2 billion in real estate assets under management, according to its website.

Agarwal said his firm evicted Boudoin because she was behind on her rent and “we realized that there was no intention to pay,” an allegation she disputes. He said Nitya has gone to great lengths to keep tenants in place and has provided $4 million in rent assistance to those who lost their jobs.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Mariah Smith was served an eviction notice on July 1. A shipping clerk for an aircraft parts maker, she lost her job in May. Smith said she hasn’t been able to pay her rent because she never received her $1,200 federal stimulus check and is still waiting to receive unemployment benefits.

Her fortunes have only gotten worse. Smith, 25, last week was diagnosed with coronavirus after experiencing chills, body aches and a sore throat. She said just walking leaves her winded.

On Thursday, she faces a court hearing on her eviction. Nick Homan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, agreed to help. He said he’s handling around 25 eviction cases a week now, more than double his typical load.

After Reuters contacted Smith’s landlord — a limited liability company named LPT 46 — an attorney representing the firm, Marvin Bynum II, said the company just learned of Smith’s COVID diagnosis. “The landlord is hopeful that Ms. Smith recovers soon, and is confident the parties can swiftly reach a mutually amicable resolution,” Bynum said.

Homan said he’ll see what happens Thursday, but the larger issue remains.

“There’s nobody in any position of authority to stop eviction right now,” Homan said. “I don’t see anybody making decisions on public health. I only see landlords making decisions about their finances.”

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Marla Dickerson)

U.S. orders China to shut Houston consulate as spying accusations mount

By Cate Cadell and David Brunnstrom

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying, marking a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”

China’s foreign ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand on Tuesday and called it an “unprecedented escalation.” The ministry threatened unspecified retaliation.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received “bomb and death threats” because of “smears & hatred” fanned by the U.S. government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a tweet.

“The U.S. should revoke its erroneous decision,” she said. “China will surely react with firm countermeasures.”

Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the U.S. consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

U.S.-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.

The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November U.S. presidential election, in which President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough towards China.

Speaking on a visit to Denmark, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of U.S. and European intellectual property, which he said were costing “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

While offering no specifics about the Houston consulate, Pompeo referred to a U.S. Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.

Pompeo also referred to recent speeches by the head of the FBI and others that highlighted Chinese espionage activities.

“President Trump has said: ‘Enough. We are not going to allow this to continue to happen,'” he told reporters. “That’s the actions that you’re seeing taken by President Trump, we’ll continue to engage in this.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”

Trump was due to hold a news conference at 5.30 p.m. (2130 GMT), the White House said.

The New York Times quoted the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying that the Houston consulate had been at the “epicenter” of the Chinese army’s efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to U.S. universities.

“We took a practical step to prevent them from doing that,” Stilwell told the Times.

Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s number two diplomat, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the decision was made in response to “longstanding areas of concern.”

He said these included intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, as well as unequal treatment of U.S. diplomats, exporters, investors and media in China and abuse by China’s security services of the welcoming U.S. posture toward Chinese students and researchers.

A Chinese diplomat, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, denied the spying allegations and said the Houston mission acted like other Chinese consulates in the United States – issuing visas, and promoting visits and businesses.

‘RACE TO THE BOTTOM’

U.S.-China ties have worsened sharply this year over issues ranging from the coronavirus and telecoms-gear maker Huawei to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and clampdown on Hong Kong.

Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert with the Brookings Institution, said he could not think of anything “remotely equivalent” to the move against the Houston consulate since the U.S. and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1979.

“The Trump Administration appears to view this latest action as political ammunition in the presidential campaign… It’s part of the administration’s race to the bottom against China,” he said.

Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen. Two U.S. government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.

But its closure within a short period of time by Washington was “an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Wang said.

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China was considering closing the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, where the State Department withdrew staff and their families early this year due to the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the city.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would shut the consulate.

Wang said the U.S. government had been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time and intimidating Chinese students. He said the United States had interfered with China’s diplomatic missions, including intercepting diplomatic pouches. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the Chinese accusations.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, Patricia Zengerle, Daphne Psaledakis, Mark Hosenball, Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Michelle Nichols and Echo Wang in New York and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Nick Macfie; Editing by Peter Graff and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. police unions approved for millions in pandemic aid

By Reade Levinson and Chris Prentice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At least six police unions qualified for a combined total of $2 million to $4.4 million in emergency U.S. government loans intended to help small businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus lockdown, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The unions represent about 110,000 law enforcement officers in Philadelphia, Houston, New York state, Michigan and 11 Southern states.

All told, the six approved loans make up a small fraction of the program’s $521 billion in lending across 4.9 million loans as of June 30. The data released on Monday does not specify whether the loans were disbursed or if the unions will qualify for loan forgiveness.

Intended to help small companies and non-profit organizations keep their work forces employed during the coronavirus crisis, the federal Paycheck Protection Program allows employers with 500 or fewer workers hurt by the economic fallout of the pandemic to apply for a forgivable government-backed loan.

The six police unions typically receive 90% of their revenue from membership dues, according to tax records reviewed by Reuters, and thus, barring layoffs, would not be hurting for cash. All six unions have work forces of their own, providing support to members. Their combined loan applications said they sought to retain 331 jobs.

Four forces with unions that received loans – the New York State Police, Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department – told Reuters they had not laid off or furloughed any employees during the pandemic, so their unions’ dues collections should not have suffered any significant hits.

It is clear the loan program, overseen by the Small Business Administration (SBA), gave out funds with few limits on who would benefit, said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“The onus was on the SBA to ensure we’re not just throwing public funds at entities that don’t need them,” she said. “It is common sense we’d prioritize the industries that need it most, and I don’t know that’s police unions right now.”

James Miller, spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said the union sought a loan in anticipation of potential revenue losses and possible layoffs amid prison closures. The union, which represents about 26,000 employees and retirees, qualified to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000.

“Based on current revenue projections for the remainder of the year, we anticipate returning the loan, as it is the prudent thing to do,” he said, in an email to Reuters.

The other police unions approved for loans did not return repeated emails and calls seeking comment.

Qualifying for a loan of between $1 million and $2 million was the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 58,000 federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement officers in eleven states. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 14,000 active and retired Philadelphia police officers and sheriff deputies, qualified to borrow between $350,000 and $1 million.

Authorized to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000 were the Police Officers Labor Council in Michigan, which represents about 350 sheriffs and police departments; the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which represents 5,300 Houston Police Department officers; and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Home Association, a separate non-profit that maintains a lodge for union meetings.

The police unions were among at least 117 public and private sector unions that applied for loans through the program. The SBA did not release the names of recipients of loans less than $150,000.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, which represents about 900,000 members across industries including teaching, performing arts, hospitality, manufacturing and construction, said in an email Wednesday that it received $267,000 and plans to ask for loan forgiveness.

Many affiliate unions represent industries that have laid off members as a result of the coronavirus, Rick Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president, said in an email. Faced with declining dues, he said, the union decided to seek aid.

“We made the decision to apply for the loan to keep our people employed.”

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in London and Chris Prentice in Washington, D.C.)

From New York to Houston, flood risk for real estate hubs ramps up

By Kate Duguid and Ally Levine

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The number of properties in the United States in danger of flooding this year is 70% higher than government data estimates, research released on Monday shows, with at-risk hot spots in Houston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The higher risk identified could have implications for property values as well as insurance rates, municipal bonds and mortgage-backed securities, according to investors and researchers at First Street Foundation, which released the data. (http://www.floodfactor.com)

“This could change the calculus on whether a given property is resalable, or what price you sell it at,” said Tom Graff, head of fixed income at Brown Advisory.

The data, which covers the contiguous United States, found that around 14.6 million properties, or 10.3%, are at a substantial risk of flooding this year versus the 8.7 million mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA maps are currently used to determine rates on government flood insurance and underpin risk assessments done by mortgage lenders, investors and home buyers. The maps, however, only account for coastal flooding – not rain or rivers – and do not incorporate the ways climate change has made storms worse.

A FEMA spokesperson said that First Street’s maps build on those created by the agency and the two are not incompatible.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, New York and Cape Coral, Florida top First Street’s list of cities with the most number of properties at risk. At the state level, Florida, Texas, California, New York and Pennsylvania have the most to lose. Florida and Texas also top FEMA’s list, but with significantly fewer properties estimated to be at risk.

Washington, D.C., has the greatest deviation from FEMA’s numbers, 438.4% more properties at risk, because First Street accounts for potential flooding from the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and a drainage basin under the city. Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have the next highest deviations, all between three to four times greater than FEMA estimates.

Commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS), investments that pool loans for office buildings, hotels, shopping centers and more, are among the securities most exposed to flood risk because of the concentration of cities on the U.S. coasts.

“There is a moral hazard within the investment community of not pricing in the risk of something like this happening,” said Scott Burg, chief investment officer at hedge fund Deer Park Road.

Nearly 20% of all U.S. commercial real estate value is located in Houston, Miami and New York, according to CoStar data, each of which has been hit by hurricanes in the last decade.

Hurricane Harvey, which slammed Houston in 2017 and caused $131 billion damage, affected over 1,300 CMBS loans, 3% of the CMBS market in 2017, according to BlackRock research. Hurricane Irma in 2017 affected 2%.

The BlackRock report concluded that 80% of the commercial property damaged by those two storms was outside of FEMA flood zones, indicating that many of the buildings hit may not have been appropriately insured.

Any floods this year could compound the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sent more than $32 billion of commercial loans into special servicing – negotiations for relief in the event of a default – according to Moody’s.

“For property owners that’s like getting your arm amputated and then your head lopped off,” said Jacob Hagi a professor of finance at the University of North Carolina and a First Street research partner.

(Reporting by Kate Duguid; editing by Megan Davies and Steve Orlofsky)

George Floyd to be buried Tuesday as global anti-racism protests spread

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – George Floyd will be buried in Houston on Tuesday two weeks after his death while being held by police in a Minneapolis street, and more anti-racism rallies inspired by his treatment were set to take place in the United States and in Europe.

Thousands of mourners paid their respects on Monday, filing past his open coffin at the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston, Texas, where Floyd grew up.

Some mourners bowed their heads, others made the sign of the cross or raised a fist. Many wore face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a service that lasted more than six hours. The funeral will be a private ceremony and he will buried next to his mother’s grave.

“I’m glad he got the send-off he deserved,” Marcus Williams, a 46-year-old black resident of Houston, said outside. “I want the police killings to stop. I want them to reform the process to achieve justice, and stop the killing.”

Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, died on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Unarmed and handcuffed, he lay face down in the street, gasping for air and groaning for help before falling silent, footage filmed by a bystander showed.

His death unleashed a surge of protests across the U.S. cities against racism and the systematic mistreatment of black people.

Though mostly peaceful, there have been episodes of arson, looting and clashes with police, whose often heavy-handed tactics have fueled the rage.

The case also thrust President Donald Trump into a political crisis. He has repeatedly threatened to order the military on to the streets to restore order and has struggled to unite the nation.

People stand in front of a makeshift memorial as protesters rally against racial inequality and the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Seattle, Washington, U.S. June 8, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

The demonstrations have reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and raised demands for racial justice and police reforms to the top of the political agenda ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“I’m here to protest the mistreatment of our black bodies. It’s not going to stop unless we keep protesting,” said Erica Corley, 34, one of the hundreds attending a gathering in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.

AROUND THE WORLD

Floyd’s death triggered protests across the globe, particularly in countries with a history of colonialism and involvement in the slave trade.

In Britain, thousands of people of all races rallied in several cities over the weekend. In the port city of Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from trading African slaves, was pulled down and dumped in the harbor.

A protest is scheduled for Tuesday night at Oxford University to demand the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century businessman in southern Africa long accused of imperialist exploitation.

Mayor Sadiq Khan ordered a review of London statues and street names which largely reflect Britain’s empire in the reign of Queen Victoria.

“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored,” Khan said.

The British parliament held a minute’s silence at 11 a.m. to mark Floyd’s death.

In France, the family of a black Frenchman who died in police custody called for a nationwide protest on Saturday and spurned a government offer of talks.

Adama Traore died in July 2016 after three police officers used their weight to restrain him. His family and supporters have demanded that the officers involved be held to account. No one has been charged.

Thousands of people marched in Paris last Saturday to mark Traore’s death and in solidarity with the U.S. protesters.

MURDER CHARGE

Derek Chauvin, 44, the policeman who knelt on Floyd’s neck and is charged with second-degree murder, made his first court appearance in Minneapolis by video link on Monday. A judge ordered his bail raised from $1 million to $1.25 million.

Chauvin’s co-defendants, three fellow officers, are accused of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder. All four were dismissed from the police department the day after Floyd’s death.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden met with Floyd’s relatives for more than an hour in Houston on Monday.

“He listened, heard their pain and shared in their woe,” family lawyer Benjamin Crump said. “That compassion meant the world to this grieving family.”

In Washington, Democrats in Congress announced legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and to allow victims of police misconduct and their families to sue law enforcement for damages in civil court, ending a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.

Trump resisted calls to defund police departments, saying 99% of police were “great, great people”.

In Richmond, Virginia, a judge issued a 10-day injunction blocking plans by the state governor to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston, David Morgan and Susan Heavey in Washington, Andrea Shalal in Silver Spring, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brad Brooks in Austin, Guy Faulconbridge in London, and Lucine Libert in Paris, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Nick Macfie)

George Floyd, a ‘gentle giant,’ remembered in hometown Houston march

By Ernest Scheyder

HOUSTON (Reuters) – George Floyd’s hometown of Houston held a memorial march for him on Tuesday, where attendees recounted a “gentle giant” whose legacy had helped the city largely avoid the violent protests seen elsewhere in the United States.

The mayor’s office said 60,000 people gathered downtown to honor Floyd, who died after a white police officer pinned his neck under a knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25.. Floyd’s death has ignited protests across the country.

Floyd lived most of his 46 years in Houston’s historically black Third Ward neighborhood, located about a mile south of the park where the march began. He moved to Minneapolis in recent years for work.

The memorial march was organized by well-known Houston rappers Trae Tha Truth, who was a longtime friend of Floyd’s – and Bun B, who worked directly with Floyd’s family for the event. Houston’s mayor and police chief attended.

“We’re gonna represent him right,” Trae Tha Truth, whose given name is Frazier Thompson III, told the crowd of several hundred people gathered for the march. “We are gonna tear the system from the inside out.”

He added: “George Floyd is looking down at us now and he’s smiling.”

After a prayer, the marchers exited the park and began to walk toward City Hall.

Democratic U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents portions of Houston where Floyd was raised, told the crowd that she would introduce police reform legislation in Congress on Thursday in honor of Floyd.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is black, said he understood marchers’ pain and told them they were making an impact.

“People that are in elected office and positions of power – we are listening,” Turner said. “It’s important for us to not just listen, but to do. I want you to know your marching, your protesting has not gone in vain. George did not die in vain.”

Houston has so far largely escaped the violent protests, with some attributing that directly to the legacy of Floyd himself.

“The people who knew George the best help set the tone for Houston. They knew what he was about. He truly was a gentle giant, a sweet guy,” said David Hill, a Houston community activist and pastor at Restoration Community Church, who knows the Floyd family.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Brad Brooks and Peter Cooney)

Woman living in her car brings sandwiches, love to the homeless of Houston

(Reuters) – Dominick SeJohn Walton spots a man with a shopping cart piled high with belongings and a sign that says “Homeless. Please Help” under a Texas highway overpass. With the coronavirus keeping many at home, the road is quieter than usual.

FILE PHOTO: Dominick Walton, who is homeless herself, leaves food bags for homeless people amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Houston, Texas, U.S., April 19, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

She hands him a plastic bag filled with a baloney and cheese sandwich, cookies, and applesauce. On the outside she has written in permanent blue marker: ‘God Bless. Jesus loves you. I love you!’

Walton knows what it is like to be homeless and hungry. She is currently living mainly in her car, sleeping at her sister’s apartment in Houston sometimes.

“I started serving meals to the homeless because I understand what it’s like not to know where your next meal is going to come from and that’s the least that I feel like we can do for our community is to give back,” said the 27-year-old.

Walton’s car became her home after she became depressed following surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. She quit her job as a gas station cashier and is now living in the 2010 Chevrolet Malibu, trying to save enough money to start a t-shirt business featuring her own designs. She was recently hired by a non-profit organization that distributes meals to low-income families.

In many U.S. cities, homeless people are spending their nights on empty trains, or camping behind closed businesses and under deserted highways. Many fear to enter homeless shelters, where the coronavirus can spread fast.

Walton drives around and spots a man sitting on the ground.

“Hello sir,” she calls out, her big smile hidden behind the surgical mask she wears. He does not respond, perhaps dozing, so she touches his elbow with her gloved hand to give him some food.

FILE PHOTO: Dominick Walton, who is homeless, sleeps in her car amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Houston, Texas, U.S., April 26, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

Walton buys the groceries herself or uses leftovers from her employer, making the bags in her sister’s apartment, where her 1-year-old and 4-year-old nieces play.

When she is done for the day, she parks her car near a mall, park, or just a quiet neighborhood, propping her cellphone against the car window while she stretches out in the front seat.

Her dreams: A t-shirt business so successful that she can give away even more food.

(Reporting by Go Nakamura; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Coronavirus hits hundreds of U.S. police amid protective gear shortages

By Michelle Conlin, Linda So, Brad Heath and Grant Smith

New York (Reuters) – When nine police officers showed up to make an arrest near Melrose Avenue in the Bronx last Wednesday, none wore a mask or gloves to protect them from coronavirus.

Similar scenes play out all over the city daily: officers making arrests, walking their beats and responding to 911 calls without protective gear, according to interviews with nearly two dozen New York City officers and scenes witnessed by Reuters.

As of Sunday, 818 members of the nation’s biggest police force had tested positive for coronavirus, including 730 uniformed officers and 88 civilian staffers, according to NYPD. The department said about 5,000 of its 55,000 total employees are on sick leave.

Major city departments nationwide, such as Houston and Detroit, are being forced to sideline officers as infections rise in the ranks, according to a Reuters survey of the nation’s 20 largest U.S. police agencies conducted between March 25 and March 29. The police agencies have confirmed 1,012 cases of COVID-19 among officers or civilian staff, according to the survey and a Reuters review of the departments’ public statements.

The pandemic has depleted police forces already strained by staffing shortages. Many departments have told officers to limit their interactions with the public and maintain social distancing. Some agencies are re-assigning detectives and administrative staff to help respond to emergencies as more patrol officers get sick, which requires pulling the investigators away from major cases.

“There’s a lot of triaging going on,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that advises police on policy issues. “Many departments are having to re-order priorities and the calls they respond to. Police are having to reshuffle how they use their resources.”

NYPD may face the biggest challenge because of the severity of the city’s outbreak: Of the 2,477 deaths reported nationwide as of Monday, 678 came in New York City.

The officers interviewed by Reuters said shortages of gear leave them vulnerable and that they fear spreading the virus to their families and the public.

“We show up first, to everything, and we are completely unprotected,” said one officer in the 33rd precinct.

All of the New York officers interviewed by Reuters spoke on condition of anonymity. They say the department forbids them from speaking to reporters.

Sergeant Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, said that the department was responding to an “unprecedented” crisis and has issued detailed guidance to officers on how to protect themselves. Since the outbreak began, she said, the NYPD has distributed 204,000 pairs of gloves, 75,000 N-95 masks, 340,000 surgical masks and distributed 125,000 alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer to employees.

NYPD did not answer questions from Reuters about whether that amount of gear – much of it disposable – was sufficient to protect its 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees. The department also did not comment on the accounts of officers who said they had little or no protective gear, or whether it had experienced difficulty in purchasing enough supplies.

Masks and other protective or sanitary supplies have often been scarce since the pandemic sent worldwide demand surging, prompting safety concerns from a wide range of workers who interact daily with the public, from first responders to doctors to delivery drivers.

One uniformed NYPD officer and two civilian employees have died after contracting COVID-19. The officer – 23-year veteran detective Cedric Dixon from the 32nd precinct in Harlem – died on Saturday.

On March 13, the New York City police union filed a complaint with state health and safety regulators over the department’s failure to provide protective equipment and adequate cleaning and sanitizing supplies. The union emphasized the threat to officers’ families.

“It’s important for our leaders to remember that we aren’t the only ones at risk,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the city’s police union, in a statement. “Our husbands and wives and daughters and sons didn’t pick this job, but they share our sacrifice.”

Reuters was not able to determine whether any family members of NYPD officers had been infected.

SIDELINED OFFICERS, DELAYED ARRESTS

Departments nationwide are struggling to protect their officers – and to operate without those who are getting sick. The Reuters survey asked police agencies how many of their employees tested positive for coronavirus, how many were quarantined, and how the outbreak has impacted their operations.

The Nassau County Police Department – just outside New York City on Long Island – reported the second highest number of cases with 68 employees testing positive. In Detroit, a fifth of the city’s 2,200-member force has been quarantined after at least 39 officers tested positive – including the police chief. Two department staffers, a commanding officer and a 911 dispatcher, have died after contracting the virus.

The departments in San Antonio and Honolulu were the only ones that reported no confirmed infections on their forces.

In New Orleans and Seattle – which are not among the top 20 departments but are hotspots of infection – another seven police employees tested positive, the departments told Reuters.

The outbreak is forcing law enforcement agencies nationwide to implement sweeping changes to their policing strategies.

The Philadelphia Police Department, the nation’s fourth-largest law enforcement agency with 6,540 officers, has begun delaying arrests for certain non-violent offenders. The change means individuals will be temporarily detained only to confirm identity and complete required paperwork instead of being processed at a detective division. The person will then be arrested at a later date.

The 2,440-officer Nassau County department had quarantined 163 officers as of Saturday. Its dispatchers are screening all 911 calls to check if anyone needing help is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Responding officers and medics are ordered to wear an N95 mask, gloves, eye protection and gowns, the department said.

Some departments are limiting access to their buildings. Intercoms have been installed at the entrance doors of all seven precincts of the Suffolk County police department – also in Long Island, with nearly 2,500 officers – to screen visitors for symptoms before allowing entry.

In Dallas, where 34 employees from the police department have been quarantined and two have tested positive, officers are no longer physically responding to calls for certain minor crimes. People are instead being asked to file a report online.

Complaints over shortages of protective gear are growing in major police departments. The Dallas Police Department, for instance, has issued N95 masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to its more than 3,000 officers. But the police union president says it’s not enough. Many officers, he said, are using the same mask for days even though N95 masks are not meant to be reused.

“Those masks are in such dire need,” said Michael Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association. “We’re in a very bad spot.”

Mata says he’s been told the police department has ordered more protective gear. A Dallas police spokesman said the new supplies would be handed out starting Monday and confirmed that some patrol divisions had run low on gear.

In New York City, resentment over a lack of protective gear runs deep, according to interviews with current and former officers. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, cops working on the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center were told the air was safe to breathe. Years later, many developed fatal 9/11-related cancers and illnesses.

“This is even worse than 9/11,” said one NYPD officer. “We are bringing this home to our families.”

‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’ FOR CRIMINALS

While local stay-home orders and business closures have paralyzed the economy, they do not appear to have significantly slowed crime. Reuters reviewed police dispatch records in a handful of large cities, which showed far fewer traffic stops but similar rates of calls reporting more serious crimes.

In Baltimore, the Monday after Maryland’s governor issued an order shutting non-essential businesses, city police reported making just 71 traffic stops, compared to a daily average of more than 350 a day in the months before the virus hit, dispatch records showed.

But dispatches to more serious incidents were not diminished. The number of calls reporting a family disturbance, such as domestic fights, for instance, increased slightly after the governor imposed the first business restrictions on March 16. The number of dispatches involving assaults was largely unchanged.

Baltimore’s police force did not respond to requests for comment.

ShotSpotter – a company that tracks gunshots for many large police departments using networks of microphones – said there had been no perceptible slowdown in gunfire in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco or Miami.

“It’s business as usual, sadly, with respect to gun violence,” said ShotSpotter president Ralph Clark.

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin, Linda So, Brad Heath and Grant Smith; Editing by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot)

Two deaths confirmed as machine shop blast rips Houston neighborhood

By Collin Eaton

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A massive explosion at a machine shop ripped through a Houston neighborhood early Friday morning, and police said at least two people were killed and several injured while homes were damaged by the explosion that sent out blast waves detected for miles.

“First and foremost, I want to say that we do have confirmed fatalities in this case, at least two confirmed fatalities,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a press briefing.

Acevedo said police and fire officials will conduct an arson investigation that could take several weeks, but stressed there is no current evidence of foul play. “Having said that, when you have this kind of a type of incident, part of our protocol is to always conduct a criminal investigation,” he added.

Aerial video showed the shredded and collapsed wreckage of the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing building smoldering but no longer flaming, along with widespread damage to area homes and businesses from the force of the blast.

The moment of the explosion, around 4:25 a.m. CST (1025 GMT), was captured on video by a home security camera and aired on KTRK. It showed a blinding flash in the distance followed by a fireball.

“I thought it was thunder,” said Bruce Meikle, 78, an owner of nearby manufacturer ChemSystems, who heard the explosion from his home about a mile (1.5 km) from the scene. He told Reuters the force of the blast bent back the metal loading doors at his business and caused minor damage inside, he said.

Paul Crea, 59, a chemist who works for Meikle, said the blast woke him 10 miles (16 km) away in Katy, a Houston suburb, and his dogs bellowed at the sound.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the blast was felt as far away as 14 miles (22 km), based on social media reports.

The explosion “knocked us all out of our bed, it was so strong,” Mark Brady told KPRC television. “It busted out every window in our house. It busted everybody’s garage door in around here. … It’s a war zone over here.”

Another neighbor identified only as Kim said her family was trapped in her home until rescued.

“The whole house is ruined,” Kim told KPRC, an NBC affiliate. “The whole ceiling crashed down on all of us. We were all trapped in there, and a nice family came and helped us out. It’s trashed. It’s just trashed. … Every house was devastated.”

The blast originated at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, which provides coatings, machining and grinding about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of central Houston.

The company’s owner told ABC affiliate KTRK a propylene gas explosion sent two people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, reporter Marla Carter said on Twitter.

Propylene is a colorless, flammable, liquefied gas that has several industrial uses.

“This is still an active scene,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña posted on Twitter. “We will advise of the possible cause of the explosion as soon as we have concrete info.”

Houston, a major hub for the oil and gas industry, is the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of some 2.3 million.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton, Peter Szekely and Bhargav Acharya; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Alex Richardson, Frances Kerry, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

Huge explosion rips through Houston neighborhood, causing several injuries

(Reuters) – A massive explosion at a manufacturing building ripped through a Houston neighborhood early Friday morning, injuring several people and damaging homes while sending out blast waves detected for miles around, officials and media said.

Smoke poured out from inside the structure in the predawn darkness about two hours after the blast as emergency vehicle lights flashed and first responders blocked access and checked for damage, aerial video from KTRK television showed.

No fatalities were reported, but one employee was unaccounted for, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The moment of the explosion, around 4:25 a.m. CST (1025 GMT), was captured on a home security camera, also aired on KTRK, that showed a blinding flash in the distance, followed by a fireball.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the blast was felt as far away as 14 miles (22 km), based on social media reports.

“(The explosion) knocked us all out of our bed, it was so strong,” Mark Brady told KPRC television. “It busted out every window in our house. It busted everybody’s garage door in around here. … It’s a war zone over here.”

Another neighbor identified only as Kim said her family was trapped in her home until rescued.

“The whole house is ruined,” Kim said. “The whole ceiling crashed down on all of us. We were all trapped in there, and a nice family came and helped us out. It’s trashed. It’s just trashed. … Every house was devastated.”

KTRK, the local ABC affiliate, said the blast appeared to have originated at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, a machining and manufacturing company. The explosion took place on Gessner Road in northwestern Houston, city police wrote on Twitter.

“The owner of Watson Grinding tells us it was a propylene gas explosion, which sent two people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries,” KTRK reporter Marla Carter wrote on Twitter.

Propylene is a colorless, flammable, liquefied gas that has several industrial uses.

The debris field from the explosion spread about a half mile (1 km) wide, but there were no known toxic gases emitted from the blast, Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

The explosion damaged several homes in the area, the Houston Chronicle reported, showing pictures of homes with windows blown in and debris scattered.

At least two people had cuts on their faces after their windows were blown in, according to pictures published on the Chronicle website.

“This is still an active scene,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña posted on Twitter. “We will advise of the possible cause of the explosion as soon as we have concrete info.”

A hazardous materials team was responding to the area and at least one person was taken to the hospital, the Houston Fire Department wrote on Twitter.

Mike Iscovitz, a meteorologist with the local Fox News channel, said the huge blast had shown up on local weather radar and was felt more than 20 miles (32 km) away.

“Radar clearly shows this brief FLASH of reflectivity from NW Houston,” he tweeted.

Houston, a major hub for the oil and gas industry, is the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of some 2.3 million.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Peter Szekely; Writing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Alex Richardson Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)