'I know what it feels like': For Rep. Cori Bush, fighting to extend the eviction moratorium is personal
WASHINGTON – For Rep. Cori Bush, eviction is “personal.”
The Missouri Democrat has been sleeping and staying outside the United States Capitol since Friday – the day the House failed to extend a federal moratorium on evictions that helped renters suffering as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and left for summer recess.
In the days since, Bush has been joined by other progressive lawmakers like Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., but the freshman congresswoman has emerged as the leading voice on the issue and is intent on staying at the Capitol until "we see some change and some relief for the people."
For her, partially, it’s from her own experiences.
“I've been evicted three times, myself,” Bush said Monday on the steps of the Capitol. “The first time I was evicted, I was evicted because of domestic assault. Someone (choked) me out and left me for dead, but because of the noise that it caused, the landlord evicted us, and then added all of these fees. So there was no way that I could come up with the fees.”
Bush was a notable political activist in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri. Her activism led her to run for office. With her election win last year, Bush became the first Black woman from Missouri elected to Congress. She was also a nurse and pastor before joining the House.
Those personal experiences now inform her work in Congress.
“Ending human suffering should be our work, but lawmakers, that is our job,” she said. “The people voted for us to come here and represent them – every single one of (them), regardless of their economic status, regardless of if they have a home that has four walls or not.”
Throughout the day on Monday, dozens of supporters and progressive congressional staffers sat outside on the steps of the Capitol. In the afternoon, the sun was shining bright, and someone protected themselves with a sign from a voting rights protest from a few blocks away.
Someone else brought lunch for the group: sandwiches. For dinner, lawmakers and protesters alike shared pizza. One person lounged in a camping chair throughout the day, reading a book, getting a sunburn on their legs.
Later into the evening, the group more than doubled. They were joined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who held court on the stairs with dozens of protesters as she munched on an apple. At one point, the group broke into song. Later, a few Democratic lawmakers prayed with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
Those protesting the eviction moratorium overnight can now sleep only in chairs or sitting upright, USA TODAY was told, but not on the ground. This guidance has changed from night to night, according to those who have been sleeping outside the Capitol.
Because of that, and fluctuating temperatures, Bush told reporters she has gotten just over five hours of sleep since Friday.
Sleeping outside, Bush said, “you're subject to the elements. When it got too cold, it was just too cold. I didn't have enough blankets. The sleeping bag – the wind was blowing straight through it. I was freezing.”
“The rain was coming down, the ground was wet. What happens when you're trying to sleep and it's raining on you or your pillows and your blankets get soaking wet? How do you cover yourself when you're wet and it's wet and it's cold? How are you supposed to live like that?”
Progressive lawmakers are calling on the House to reconvene for a vote on the extension and insisting the Biden administration take action in the meantime as roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
How the eviction moratorium evolved
The eviction moratorium was implemented last year under the Trump administration amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began the eviction freeze to help stop the spread of the virus.
President Joe Biden extended the eviction freeze through July 31.
Biden on Thursday asked Congress to extend the moratorium, arguing he was unable to act because of a Supreme Court ruling in June that said the CDC overstepped its authority when it created the policy but allowed the moratorium to stand through last month.
House leaders scrambled on Friday to whip votes needed to extend the freeze in response to Biden's request.
Bush had pressed her fellow lawmakers to support legislation to extend the moratorium in a letter to House Democrats released Friday.
"I'm urging you to please hear me out on this issue because as a formerly unhoused Congresswoman, I have been evicted three times myself," Bush wrote. "I know what it's like to be forced to live in my car with my two children."
Despite the pressure on Democratic leadership, the House on Friday adjourned for its August recess without extending the moratorium, which would have provided financial relief to renters.
Democrats were outraged when the eviction moratorium expired at midnight Saturday, with Ocasio-Cortez criticizing the White House on CNN's "State of the Union." She blamed the White House for waiting until the last moment to act.
"We asked the Biden administration for their stance, and they were not being really forthright about that advocacy and that request until the day before the House adjourned," she said. "The House was put into a needlessly difficult situation."
For Jones, the finger-pointing is not enough: "We've got to do something in the meantime. The White House has to extend the moratorium to make sure that people don't go on to the streets."
Jones and Bush argued Monday that the White House could extend it while probable legal issues were pending and help tenants access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rent and related expenses.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., agreed, saying they should pass the moratorium and "let the chips fall where they may" while the money and legal questions were sorted out.
Advocates for tenants said that distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords.
Chris Smalls, a labor union activist, joined the protest on Sunday.
Smalls told USA TODAY he faced eviction threats after he was fired from his job at an Amazon fulfillment center worker last March. He began living with a relative during that time.
“In the middle of the pandemic, you know, that was short-term,” he said. “I'm right now standing here, still unemployed – no health insurance – so, you know, I'm one of the people that you know that really need the support of the government.
“I've been on the side, faced eviction plenty of times, got married young and got evicted young, so I understand why it's so important for this fight,” Smalls said.
“This is a real issue in this country. It's a shame that this is supposed to be the richest country in the world, and here we are camping out, occupying Congress, because they failed to pass an eviction moratorium. It's just ridiculous that we should be doing this.”
White House asks CDC for another eviction moratorium
Neither Congress nor the White House extended the moratorium before the deadline, essentially pointing fingers at each other.
The White House on Monday asked the CDC to create a new 30-day eviction moratorium to help renters.
But "to date, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and her team have been unable to find legal authority for a new, targeted eviction moratorium," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
"Our team is redoubling efforts to identify all available legal authorities to provide necessary protections," Psaki said. The administration also urged landlords to hold off on evictions and first seek federal emergency rental assistance allocated for them.
How other Democrats are responding
Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, released a statement Monday asking Biden to extend the moratorium through Oct. 18.
"With billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance that Congress provided still not distributed to renters and landlords, an extension of the moratorium until the end of the year would have given support and reprieve to families struggling to make ends meet and teetering on the brink of homelessness," Beatty said.
"The CBC believes that ensuring families have the relief they need is a national emergency and moral imperative to prevent people from being put out on the street."
Speaking outside the Capitol on Monday, Beatty said it's OK that the House broke for summer vacation because it allowed "people to go home and to be in the streets and to do the town halls."
In the upper chamber, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters that "somebody dropped the ball."
"It could have been on our end or the president's end. But millions of Americans face eviction, a cruel and devastating experience for many families," Durbin said.
Moderate West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told CBS' "Face the Nation" that rent relief money still needed to be dispersed to people in need.
"Basically, there's $20 billion or more that haven't gone out the door. We have to make sure that we watch the fraud that is involved," Manchin said. "There's been a lot of concerns about that getting the right people. But if there's money there, then we can help people as they're getting their life back.
"We should basically extend and help those who need it."
Where does the issue stand in the future?
Jones and Bush told reporters they want to have lawmakers return to Washington from their summer recess to vote on the question.
Despite being unsure whether Democrats have the 218 votes needed – and then an uncertain future in the Senate — Jones was convinced it would pass.
"There are a lot of folks who say that they're not comfortable extending the eviction moratorium are going to be hard pressed to explain their constituents why. So, we're going to change their tune," he said.
On a moderate like Manchin supporting the extension, Bush said, "I was shocked. But that's important information to know because we need him to do the work on the Senate side."
"So there are people who are moderates or even a little bit more to the right that are in support of this moratorium," she said.
If it passed the House, it would need 60 votes to pass in the upper chamber before it could head to Biden's desk for a signature. The Senate is unlikely to have 10 Republican votes to surpass the filibuster.
"Bring us back," Bush said to House leadership. She said the "Senate is not off the hook," but "I'm grabbing at straws because I know what it feels like to sleep on the street, and it's not OK to just for us to try to figure things out while we know that people are hurting."
In the meantime, Bush is calling on her fellow lawmakers to "come and help."
"If you're in the area, come and spend the night tonight. I would love to go home and hang out and get sleep tonight for the first time in days," she said. "Show the people that (you'll) stand up and put yourself on the line, because what you would be doing is putting yourself in the place of what your constituent would be doing."
Contributing: Joey Garrison