Have you noticed? A new generation of LGBTQ people — especially LGBTQ people of color whose arms are tired of juggling so many different issues – are finding the America Dream vaporizing into COVID-19 air. They are getting PTSD in the middle of the pandemic, an experience known too well by those who survived the AIDS epidemic. And now, like then, quiet community heroes have emerged to help strangers survive the unrelenting chaos of 2020.
One such community hero is Arturo Castro, the operations coordinator for the Yes on 21 campaign, who not only works to support the campaign team but also strives to help the hundreds of desperate people pleading for help as they deal with the beginning of an expected eviction tsunami in the deadly coronavirus environment.
Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. Top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits are key for stabilizing California’s housing affordability crisis. That’s why the California Democratic Party, the ACLU, the California Nurses Association, the California Alliance for Retired Americans, Black Lives Matter, the Los Angeles Times, and a slew of LGBTQ organizations and individuals — including LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl — have thrown their full support behind Prop 21, the Rental Affordability Act.
Like so many other LGBTQ people, Castro, 27, is a renter who needs Prop 21. He and his partner — who also does nonprofit advocacy work — live in Monrovia in the San Gabriel Valley. “We’re lucky that we are able to afford it,” he says. “But it’s still very far from where the [Yes on Prop 21] office is in Hollywood. I need about 45 minutes without traffic to get there. We wanted to move closer to our jobs, but there’s nothing that is within our price range. So, we’re out here in Monrovia. We’re willing to do that commute just so we can afford a place to live.”
Settling is not what Castro expected for his shot at the California Dream. Both he and his partner did “what people call the right thing” — they went to college, got degrees, and got jobs. “And yet, we can’t afford it,” Castro says. “You can only imagine when people who are working two, three jobs that are minimum wage, how they’re struggling. If we’re struggling, they’re really struggling. We’re all just a paycheck away from not being able to afford rent, not being able to afford our bills. My partner needs access to certain medications, and we can’t easily move around just to find a new place that can provide that kind of medication.”
And then there’s COVID, which is crippling even the promise of the California Dream.
“The first thing that they told us when the pandemic first hit was to stay in your house and to do as little interaction with others as possible. How do you do that and stay in quarantine when you don’t even have a house to call home? Illegal evictions were still happening to families because they got laid off from work or they got impacted somehow from COVID and they couldn’t afford the rent and they still got kicked out,” Castro says.
“Sometimes we overlook what people even consider a home,” he says. “Living on the street is what people consider homeless. But we overlook the fact of being a couch surfer, living in a car, even in an RV — those are people who also don’t have an established address. Yet we overlook that as being homeless because we have a stigmatize idea and stereotype of what a homeless person is and why they’re there [such as losing their job]… All of my friends are basically unemployed right now and not all of them receive unemployment assistance.”
And COVID is not the only threat. Castro and his partner were on evacuation notice for two weeks with the Bobcat fire nearby. “We were devastated. We were like — if we do have to evacuate, we would lose our home. Our contingency plan was to move into one of our parents’ house. But then what would we do after that? So, we can only imagine what’s going to happen if Prop 21 doesn’t pass where landlords can just jack up the rent to make up for what is considered a loss in 2020.”
For a good part of his day at the Yes on 21 campaign, Castro talks to people in crisis throughout the state.
“Having people reach out to us is overwhelming. I’m not going to lie,” he says. “People asking for housing assistance, rental assistance, telling stories about getting evicted because they lost their job due to COVID and having two kids. Or their SSI couldn’t cover the rest of the rent after they got a rent increase. It’s really devastating,” especially because previous programs and resources are no longer available.
“It really takes a toll on your emotional health and your mental health thinking that you’re trying your best to keep these people in their home,” says Castro, who connects them with tenants unions so they at least know their rights. “These are families who are trying their best. And you’re trying to help them as much as you can. It almost feels like guilt that I have a roof over my head and I have food to eat.”
Coming home after a day helping people and working to pass Prop 21, Castro finds pets, family, and YouTube tutorials keep him and his partner centered and provide “a little joy of happiness. We will make the best of the situation.”