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Ferguson: Constables working to prevent COVID-19 eviction crisis through collaboration

I sat at my desk with the pile of papers, as thick as a phonebook now, holding what is sort of a scrapbook of our times: handwritten letters from residents to Pima County constables detailing job loss and frustration about unemployment payments being held up, fear that health conditions could lead to death if they catch the virus, or shame that they are in this situation.

This shabby stack of papers includes screenshots of text messages, pictures of scrawled doctor's notes, shorthand from the field scratched in the margins and legal opinions from every lawyer you can imagine.

Every paper represents a family who qualifies for the Gov Doug Ducey's expiring executive order that has delayed some evictions, and these families are becoming more desperate every day as we close in on the July 22nd end date of the order offering a temporary halt. The texts, calls and Facebook messages are increasing in frequency, as both landlords and tenants are wondering what happens next.

Being a constable in this time has been a trial by fire, and I've used every shred of communication skills I've built up over the years to try and be a part of the solution out of this eviction crisis we could be headed for.

There is no "silver bullet" to this complicated issue, which is compounded by the fact that Tucson was already listed as one of the top 25 cities in the United States for eviction rates and lack of affordable housing.

That is where the communication skill comes in: in order to keep as many families as we can in their homes and keep property owners afloat, we have to all work together as a unit in a way we have never done before.

Property owners, tenants, constables, courts, government agencies and nonprofits are starting to collaborate and come up with ideas that have never been tried before, specifically because there has never been this level of cooperation before.

I am particularly proud of a city of Tucson grant that will be announced soon using the constables as a point of contact and making referrals for assistance. Often, rental assistance grants require families to know about it and apply for it themselves.

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This grant, once operational, will see the constables who have built relationships with property managers throughout the years go directly to the doors of families who need help.

Constables are already there, already doing the work and already deeply familiar with the landscape and relationships at various apartment complexes. I am so proud to have been involved in these conversations and to help facilitate this innovative idea.

My approach to evictions is different than what might historically have been a constable's job.

Seeing myself as a conduit between a family in need and the agencies that can help while also offering myself as a point of contact reduces confusion and increases success, whether the goal is to keep a family in their home or to help them find a new place that they can afford.

As you can imagine, these issues are complicated and often intertwined with other problems which I can also help with: re-connecting utilities, fixing Social Security payments, working with VA concerns, helping route people to dependency programs, finding resources for pets, and more.

Each contact with a family who asks for help reveals a complex story that deserves a tailor-made solution, and with the help of a few other constables and an amazing support staff, I have been empowered to do this.

If I continue as your constable after the election, it is my goal to re-define how evictions are handled during the pandemic and afterwards.

The connections and collaboration we have built out of necessity in these times will be continued and strengthened and I will keep our office on the forefront of being part of the solution.

If you would like to find out more information about me and the changes I am making in the Constables Office, please follow me on Facebook at FB.me/ConstableFerguson or at fergusonforconstable.com.

Joe Ferguson is a Democratic candidate for Pima County constable in Justice Precinct 9.

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