NORFOLK, Va. — The phone on her desk rang for the 32nd time that day and Courtney Spann readied her tone, soft but steady, a manner she’d perfected over seven months of talking to strangers about their housing struggles.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “Thank you for calling the Regional Housing Crisis Hotline.”
The quavering voice on the other end belonged to a mother of four. This last Tuesday in June, the woman said she was trying her best. But she had lost her job during the pandemic. Her bills had run away from her, and the start of the month was just around the corner.
Spann comforted her the only way she could — offering her hope from a gray cubicle in an office building in Chesapeake. She told the woman that assistance was available and that she was going to help her get it. What bills did she need help with?
“I’m swimming in bills, baby,” the woman said.
“Well,” Spann said, “let’s find you a flotation device.”
The Regional Housing Crisis Hotline, operated by the nonprofit ForKids, fields calls from 14 cities and towns in southeastern Virginia.
The hotline pitches itself as a “starting point” for anyone experiencing a housing crisis. Operators — available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. — guide callers through an intake process, gathering demographic information before connecting them with relevant information and resources.
“People don’t know their tenants’ rights and they don’t know how to find them,” Spann began to say as the phone rang again.
Day in, day out, the team of about a dozen finds itself at the center of an ever-evolving patchwork of federal, state and local laws and programs, tasked with making public policy accessible for everyday people in crisis. Long before COVID-19 struck, the hotline connected people with help in Hampton Roads, which has witnessed some of the highest eviction rates in the nation.
The pandemic sparked millions of dollars in aid for rent and utility relief but left tenants and landlords confused about what assistance was available. In the early months, the hotline team fielded more than 1,000 calls a day. People unsure about how to stay at home without a home, unsure about how to pay their bills with their hours cut, unsure what the eviction moratorium really meant.
In recent months, calls have stabilized at around 300 a day.
The federal eviction ban, which applies only to failure-to-pay cases, resulted in a decrease in calls from people who are at imminent risk of homelessness, said Shirley Brackett, director of crisis response at ForKids. But, she said, her team has noticed landlords finding other reasons to evict tenants, or deciding not to renew leases in an effort to remove renters.
Last month, the Biden administration extended the ban until July 31. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it will be the last.
For the time being, the bulk of hotline calls come from people who have shelter but need help with rent and utility bills. Those types of calls have “super surged” in the past year, Brackett said.
Spann, a 40-year-old Norfolk resident, joined the staff late last year. Since then, she has taken more than 3,500 calls.
“You can hear the relief in their voice. And I know what that relief feels like,” she said in between calls, lifting up her glasses to dab her welling eyes with a tissue. “I really do.”
Spann was on the other end of the phone once.
“I’ve been evicted. I’ve been homeless before, with nowhere to go but to a shelter with my baby. I’ve had my lights cut off,” she said, recalling hard times in decades past. With her clients, “I know where they’re coming from and I’m just trying my best to get them assistance.”
She and her daughter now have a home. Before joining the hotline, Spann was cobbling together income from odd jobs and working as a DoorDash driver. She landed right where she belongs.
“I love this place,” she said. “And I love my team.”
As she spoke, her phone rang again.
On this Tuesday, she listened to a senior citizen who was sleeping in her car and was looking for a clean and safe place to shower so she could feel “like a human again.”
A disabled woman was searching for funding for a portable ramp so that she can leave her home freely. “I can’t leave my house,” she said through tears. “I can’t get out.”
A veteran was sleeping in an extended-stay hotel, worried that he’ll soon get kicked out.
Some were first-time callers; some had never asked for any kind of help before. Others had called a dozen times, checking in on the status of their search.
“I need assistance with my rent and my life,” one caller said.
Another: “I just want to get back on track.”
From October 2019 to September 2020, 802 households with children who called in were turned away from overnight shelter because of a lack of capacity. Shelters across the country had reduced the number of beds to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, though, it seemed there were often more people than beds.
ForKids operates its own shelter programs and works with groups throughout the region to find emergency housing.
“Even us at the housing crisis hotline are in a housing crisis,” Spann told one caller that day in June. “Every shelter I know is full to capacity.”
The hotline staff receives about 80 to 100 hours of training before they answer the phones independently. They are used to the pain, fear and anger they hear on the other end. But they also hear gratitude, strength and hope.
As a child, Spann was taught to treat others how she wanted to be treated. And she never forgot. That philosophy guides her when she answers calls from people who feel adrift, trying their best to keep their heads above water.
The mother of four who felt as though she was drowning didn’t know about the state’s Rent Relief Program, so Spann told her how to complete an application. She didn’t know she could receive assistance for her overdue electricity bill, so Spann connected her with a network of churches and organizations that are working to alleviate poverty. She didn’t know what to do about her water bill, so Spann explained the city’s COVID-19 water relief program.
“You’ve given me a flotation device,” the woman said, her voice ringing with relief.
“I told you, I got you,” Spann replied with a smile. “Now backstroke on home. We floatin’. ”
“Yeah girl,” came the voice at the other end. “We floatin’.”