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With $600 Unemployment Aid Gone, Homelessness Is What Keeps This Mother Up At Night

Now that the $600 in additional weekly unemployment benefits has expired for Sandy Villatoro, she's not sure how she and her husband will support their family in the coming months.
Courtesy of Sandy Villatoro
Now that the $600 in additional weekly unemployment benefits has expired for Sandy Villatoro, she's not sure how she and her husband will support their family in the coming months.

Back in March, Sandy Villatoro was laid off from her job as a housekeeper at a hotel in downtown Phoenix. But the weekly $600 unemployment payment she had been receiving during the coronavirus pandemic kept her family afloat — until that benefit expired last week.

The mother of two children is still paying off hospital bills from her pregnancy last year. She also needed to upgrade the family's Internet service so her son could keep up with his school's remote learning. At the same time, Villatoro's husband, a roofer whose work has slowed during the pandemic, isn't bringing in enough money to cover the family's bills.

"My bills were piling up," she said. "It was so fast that I couldn't keep up with it."

Initially, her status as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which grants protections to people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — made her nervous about applying for unemployment benefits. But as she learned from a Facebook group, being a DACA recipient doesn't disqualify her from unemployment assistance.

She used the $600 in weekly aid to get ahead on her monthly car payments, hoping that if her unemployment benefits were ever cut off, she might get a break on late payments in the future.

Villatoro prides herself on being a smart budgeter, but without the weekly payments, she's not sure how she will make ends meet in the coming weeks.

"I feel so vulnerable," she said. "I hate asking for help, I hate asking for a handout, but it's something I need at the current moment, my kids need it. It's so hard just to even say I need it."

The possibility that she could lose her home keeps Villatoro up at night.

"It's not wants that we want — it's needs. We need a vehicle to get back and forth. We need to live under a house, you know, under a roof," she said. "I don't want to be homeless."

Villatoro is among the 17.8 million Americans who are unemployed. Meanwhile, Congress remains in a deadlock on whether to renew that $600 benefit.

Before the pandemic hit, Villatoro's union fought to earn her and her colleagues higher pay. She wants to go back to work at the hotel, where she can make more money than she had been getting on unemployment.

"We're not lazy people — we're hardworking people that just need a little bit of help for now," she said. "I don't want to lose my job; I don't want to lose my house; I don't want to lose my car or anything that I worked so hard for."

Elena Burnett and Courtney Dorning produced this audio for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
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