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Hungry And Homeless Texans Are Waiting Anxiously For Congress To Act. The Day After Christmas, Pandemic Jobless Aid Expires

President Donald Trump has suggested he will veto COVID-19 aid legislation, creating uncertainty about when assistance may reach Americans. Meanwhile, Texans are living in cars and the state is sitting on unspent relief money.

Workers boarded up bars on Sixth Street in Austin after Gov. Greg Abbott closed bars for a second time in June. After a financially devastating year, out-of-work Texans were dealt another blow this week when a congressional coronavirus relief package's fate became uncertain after President Donald Trump threatened to veto it.
Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
Workers boarded up bars on Sixth Street in Austin after Gov. Greg Abbott closed bars for a second time in June. After a financially devastating year, out-of-work Texans were dealt another blow this week when a congressional coronavirus relief package’s fate became uncertain after President Donald Trump threatened to veto it.

Rockie McMahan has been sleeping in her 2007 Ford Fusion with her pit bull, Lilly. The Amarillo woman lost her job cleaning houses early in the pandemic, and her ex-boyfriend kicked her out less than a week before Christmas after he felt she wasn't keeping up her fair share financially.

"I don't know where I'm going to sleep tonight or tomorrow night or the night after that," McMahan said in a phone interview Wednesday from a church parking lot. "I don't have any money right now. I'm flat broke. I have like a quarter of a tank of gas, and I have no clue what I'm going to do for gas when I run out."

And unless Congress and President Donald Trump can agree on new coronavirus relief legislation, McMahan expects her last unemployment check to show up in her bank account by Christmas — a day before pandemic jobless aid expires.

As McMahan continued her monthslong struggle to get by, federal lawmakers — and the entire country — reeled this week from the chaos into which President Donald Trump threw a congressional coronavirus relief package that includes stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits.

Trump suggested Tuesday that he will veto the relief legislation Congress overwhelmingly passed, telling lawmakers to send Americans stimulus payments of up to $2,000 instead of the $600 outlined in the bill. That could result in a congressional override of his veto — or tweaks to the bill. Either way, the situation created uncertainty over when Americans might receive relief, The Washington Post reported.

The aid package passed by Congress also includes — among many other things — money for live music and theater venues and payments to American citizens in mixed-status families who are married to immigrants who lack Social Security numbers.

In Texas, the unreliability of when government aid would reach struggling people fell at the end of what was already a financially devastating year. More than 4 million Texans have applied for jobless aid since March, many of them struggling to navigate the Texas Workforce Commission's confusing unemployment claim process.

The money in the first round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program designed to help support businesses has dried up, and the recent surge in coronavirus cases threatens businesses even more as people stay home to avoid contracting COVID-19.

The state still has $2 billion in unspent relief money from previous federal legislation. And in cities across Texas, long lines of cars have frequently waited at food banks, which themselves are facing shortages heading into the new year.

"I lost so much weight because I don't eat. I can't afford nothing," said San Antonio resident Laura Chabera. "You know what they gave my son at the food bank the other day? A box of bread."

As government officials' battles over a new relief bill threaten to delay getting aid to people, an unknown number of Texans are ending the year in worsening financial shape after spending months battling bureaucratic challenges to receiving help.

After a two-decade career as a welder, Chabera lives in an apartment on the northwest side of San Antonio, where her Wi-Fi was cut off Tuesday. Chabera also cannot afford a Christmas tree and presents for her five children and five grandchildren this year. She said she receives $322 every two weeks in unemployment assistance.

"I'm 48 and I'm on over 17 medications," Chabera said in an interview. "And right now I hate my life."

In Corpus Christi, Veronica Johnson, an out-of-work salon owner, has been staying with a friend since her electricity was cut off at the start of the month. She's been trying to get unemployment assistance from the Texas Workforce Commission since April, when the agency told her she didn't qualify for regular benefits.

Johnson filed an appeal, but she said she missed the hearing because her cellphone service was cut off. Eventually she was able to get back in touch with the TWC. The agency said it had made a mistake and that Johnson was eligible for pandemic assistance.

But she hasn't received any payments yet.

"It's not like I've given up, but I've been waiting this long, and it's horrible," Johnson said. "I feel like I'm not going to see any relief."

Still, Johnson has followed the daily developments in the coronavirus relief negotiations going on in Washington. As of Wednesday night, it was unclear whether more pandemic relief was on the way.

Trump's hint at a veto this week came after he sat out relief package negotiations to focus on unproven voter fraud claims, an attempt some Texas Republicans eagerly helped with even as their constituents have not been able to receive unemployment aid and have struggled to withstand the surge of coronavirus cases that impacted their livelihoods.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a lawsuit challenging the election results in four battleground states. Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas offered to argue the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court if the high court ended up taking on the case. (The justices threw out the suit.)

Cruz was among 10 Texans who voted against the legislation in the first place this week, praising provisions that provided aid but objecting to the relief being tied to a massive government spending bill.

"Had this bill been solely focused on re-opening the economy, getting Americans back to work, and jump starting a recovery, it would have had my enthusiastic support," Cruz said in a statement.

In Frisco, Robert Makintubee said Trump and his supporters in Congress have been more interested in themselves than in helping those in need. His family could use assistance — and a victory in the TWC's confusing appeals process.

In August, the agency notified Makintubee, who lost his job in coffee sales and delivery in March, that he owed $7,800 to the state for what it said was overpayment of unemployment aid. Makintubee's mind raced immediately to last year, when he, his wife and two young children were evicted.

"We were basically living out of the car," he said in an interview. "If we had enough money we would stay at a hotel."

McMahan, in the Texas Panhandle, knows the feeling. At this point, any federal support would be helpful. The legislation now mired in uncertainty also extends to the end of January an eviction moratorium.

"They're not offering any services for anybody and they're not helping anybody, really, so you're about to have tens of millions of people without a place to live," McMahan said. "What are you going to do then? What are we supposed to do?

"I'm living in my car with my dog," she added. "And I have nothing."

Disclosure: The Texas Tribune, as a nonprofit local newsroom and a small business, applied for and received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program in the amount of $1,116,626.