Capturing with words what makes a toddler special is a difficult task, and doing so when you miss everything about him at once is an impossible one.
Alvine Nguemezi tries anyway.
“My son, he was a good baby,” she tells me on a recent afternoon. “He was always happy and playing.”
The 2-year-old could count to 10, she says, and he was starting to learn his ABCs.
She also noticed in her son an independent nature that showed itself whenever they went on walks. During those moments, he would insist on taking each step by himself, refusing to let her carry him — unlike other moments, when he would pull close to her and give her kisses.
“He did everything with me,” she says, through sobs, of her only child. “He was everything to me.”
On Saturday — 13 days after Ezechiel Nguemezi fell from a third-floor window of his family’s apartment in Takoma Park, Md. — his relatives held a funeral for him.
The private ceremony was limited to family members, but they weren’t alone in their grief.
In the days since the toddler’s death, a series of events has left strangers knowing his name and forced them to see one of the most unfair aspects of the pandemic: For many financially struggling families, losses no longer come one at a time. Many families are experiencing layers of loss.
Lost jobs. Lost child care. Lost car leases. Lost confidence. Lost health. Lost loved ones. And for many, the lost sense of security that comes with knowing they at least have a home.
After the toddler’s death, Grayce Wiggins, Takoma Park’s Housing and Community Development manager, met with his mother and grandmother. She recalls asking them the same question she has asked other families: Is there any way we can help?
That prompted Ezechiel’s grandmother to bring her a summons that showed the family’s landlord was taking them to court, she recalls. In bold letters on that summons, which I have also seen, are the words, “Landlord’s Complaint for Repossession of Rented Property.”
“From a tenant perspective, getting a summons to appear in court is a big deal,” Wiggins says. “If folks have been evicted before, or have been in a house where someone has been evicted, it’s the beginning of the end.”
It’s what happens before locks on doors are changed. It’s what happens before possessions end up stacked outside like garbage for people to see and snatch.
While Maryland and other states have put in place protections aimed at making sure people don’t get evicted during the pandemic, Wiggins says loopholes remain and landlords are taking advantage of them. She says her office receives about 15 to 20 calls a day from people worried about losing housing.
One of those calls came from a middle-aged Black man with a disability who arrived at the room he rents to find the locks changed.
Another was from a family, in which every member contracted the coronavirus. The relatives managed to scrape together enough money to cover their rent, but because they didn’t pay a late fee, their landlord took action against them.
“All of these stories are unfolding and they’re below the radar,” Wiggins says. Some families that receive court summonses move without a fight, because they don’t know their rights, she says. Others, like Ezechiel’s family, sit with that threat hovering over them. “This family really represents the true state of what’s going on.”
In the building where Ezekiel lived with his mother and grandmother, most of the units are filled with residents with roots in West Africa and Central and South America. His mother came from Cameroon and, before his death, worked for a food delivery service.
The summons the family received lists an amount of $916.31 that was due on May 1, and shows a trial date set for Nov. 25.
After learning about the family’s situation, the Montgomery County Renters Alliance started a GoFundMe for them. “Sometimes life becomes too much for anyone to bear,” reads a description on that page. “We must help. The Renters Alliance asks everyone in our community to donate whatever you can to relieve some of this family’s suffering and grief.”
The fund has since raised more than $30,000 of its $50,000 goal. The family’s landlord has also agreed to stop the legal proceedings, says Wiggins and Matthew Losak, the executive director of the Renters Alliance.
“That is a tremendous relief for this family,” Losak says.
But, he says, at the same time, many families around them, and across the country, remain at risk of losing their housing. One way landlords are getting around the governor’s order prohibiting evictions of tenants who can’t pay rent because of the pandemic is by letting rental agreements expire and then giving tenants a 60-day notice to vacate, he says. He and other local officials want to see that loophole closed.
“I’m sympathetic to landlords who have expenses, too,” Losak says. “We’re not Pollyanna here. But we are in a pandemic.”
In Montgomery County, according to a survey of multifamily properties, about 20,000 households are behind on their rent and at risk of eviction. That represents about 15 percent of rental households, a significant increase from 5?percent before the coronavirus.
To help those families avoid eviction and the possibility of homelessness, the county has taken a multifaceted approach that includes providing financial, legal and counseling resources. The county is also encouraging residents to apply for up to $4,000 in rent payment assistance. Officials have put aside $20?million toward that end and anticipate that amount helping 5,000 households.
“Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest counties in the world,” Losak says. “We have more supports than other places, and the supports we have are not enough. I dare not think what’s going on in poor states that have large communities that are out of work.”
He and Wiggins also point to another way the pandemic is hurting people who rent apartments in Washington’s suburbs. Many places have seen surges in apartment dwelling but have not put in place the same safety regulations that exist in larger cities.
An effort in Takoma Park to get apartment buildings to install window guards was moving forward when the pandemic “put the brakes on that,” Wiggins says.
She never met Ezechiel, but she has noticed the way he has brought the community together. A rent stabilization program has made Takoma Park a unique place where someone in a million-dollar home can live not far from someone paying less than $600 a month in rent, she says. His death has both illuminated that divide and brought people on each side of it together.
“He was our child,” Wiggins says. “We lost a part of our community.”
April Kissel-Diskin, who lives in Montgomery County and lost her job as a software tester in September, says she hadn’t given much thought to the ways the pandemic might be taking from people around her with less financial stability.
Ezechiel, she says, changed that.
She has donated to the GoFundMe in his name, but unlike other people who have clicked on that page, she knew what the toddler looked like even before she saw his picture. The first time she saw his face was in the parking lot of his building the day before he fell.
As she tells it, she was there campaigning for a candidate in a local election, and after talking to the toddler’s mother about voting, she walked over to Ezechiel to say hi. His reaction, she recalls, was typical of a -2-year-old. He was too busy playing to respond.
In his hands were four blue balloons, she recalls, and as his mother stood nearby, watching him, he kicked at them, happily.
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