Not a handout. Not rent forgiveness. Not money. They were asking for mercy from the judge assigned to their case and for a little more time to come up with the money necessary to keep a roof over their heads.
"I lost my job of 11 years due to the coronavirus and I have 3 children," one of the declarations read. "We have no family and friends that will take us in because we are too many. I'm asking for the court to please have mercy on our family and give us a little more time to save some money to move."
Regans, an artist-in-residence for the nonprofit legal-aid organization Community Justice Project, has now turned tenants' testimonies into an audio/visual installation called "A Little More Time" to raise awareness about housing insecurity in Miami-Dade.
The nine-minute video project includes the words of five tenants who were fighting eviction cases but who ultimately were removed from their homes. To commemorate International Workers Day, it will debut this coming Saturday, May 1, at the Miami Workers Center, 720 NW 55th St., from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Over much of the past year, Community Justice Project lawyers defending renters against evictions have pored over hundreds of such testimonies, and housing organizers with the Miami Workers Center have knocked on doors to offer support to people at risk of losing their homes.
"Florida is not known for tenant rights and tenant protections," says Santra Denis, executive director of the Miami Workers Center. "We tell them that only a sheriff can make you leave your home, your landlord can't change the locks or cut the utilities on you, and there's a CDC eviction moratorium that offers some protections."
What the lawyers and advocates have found is that some of the people most vulnerable to losing their homes are mothers with small children and women who work in home healthcare, childcare, and other domestic industries.
"These are hardworking people," Denis says. "These aren't just people who decided not to go to work or not to pay rent. The pandemic happened to them, too. While many of us have the privilege to navigate these waters, the safety nets that exist for us do not exist for them. We need an economy that allows for folks in care industries to really thrive."
The two groups are helping women like Elena Riech, a mother of three whose husband died of a heart attack late last year. Although she was previously receiving rental assistance through another organization, Riech hasn't been able to pay rent since January. Her landlord wants her out, but she has submitted a CDC moratorium declaration and hopes that will provide protection.
"It's not easy being a single mother," Riech says. "I'm trying to get help everywhere I can. If it was just me by myself, it would be different. I'd just go out in the street and just be in the street, but I have three kids to worry about. That's my main goal, to have a safe place for my kids."
Community Justice Project selected a few out of the hundreds of eviction declarations for Regans to incorporate in her video. Regans typically does portraiture and in the past has drawn the faces of victims of gun violence, police brutality, and domestic violence. But she wanted to explore the new-to-her mediums of audio and video.
"I wanted to explore a new way of creating," Regans says. "I wanted to do a video piece and wanted to focus on different parts of the sense. I wanted the piece to be narrative and visual."
Regans enlisted the help of friends to read and re-enact the written responses to some Miami-Dade residents' eviction proceedings. She then overlaid the audio from those re-enactments onto images of peoples' belongings being thrown out onto the sidewalk.
"I remember when I was reading through the responses, I was so completely affected because I could hear myself," Regans says. "They were pleading for more time to be able to come up with the funds to keep their home, and I felt like these stories should be heard."
In one of the testimonies, a renter asked the judge for mercy.
"...please allow me to remain here what has been my home for the past ten years," the declaration said. "I am asking that you grant me the opportunity to repay what I owe or time to relocate, please."
In another, a mother of two said that she'd been laid off from her job at a restaurant and she could not work because she needed to take full-time care of her 9-year-old and 1-year-old.
"I'm asking that Your Honor please not put me and my kids out on the streets," she wrote to the judge.
Regans says she has experienced housing insecurity herself, and she knows how difficult it is to support a family in Miami-Dade.
"Being intimidated by the justice system and navigating legal jargon, I know what that feels like," she says. "Feeling hopeless and helpless, I know what that feels like. All those things kept me focused on the task at hand. I don't ever want to tell a story as a spectator. I always want to tell stories I can relate to. And reading people's responses, when they're talking about how their children being out of school limits how much work they can take on — I know exactly how that feels. When you become a parent, there are certain hoops you have to jump through that an employer isn't willing to forgive, and that the justice system isn't willing to forgive. I feel like I could really see these people."
Some of the letters, Regans says, were written on notebook paper. She says she could hear and feel the desperation the tenants must have been experiencing. Some of the responses were written in Spanish, although the questions were in English. She thought about how scary it must be to navigate a legal system in a different language and how a language barrier could lead to homelessness.
Regans says she hopes people will come see the video installation and try to understand the perspective of someone going through an eviction.
"There's this quote by James Baldwin that has been swirling around in my head," she says. "That the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people's pain. Indifference, complacency, silence, and separating yourself from the experiences that other people have — you're doing a disservice. So I hope that through this work, people will be more sensitive to people's experiences and have more compassion. Realistically, any one of us can be in a situation like this. The pandemic has affected everyone."