ST. PETERSBURG — Adam Back and Casey Robinson lay in their bedroom, a box fan blowing in from the open doorway, their only way to stave off the stifling heat. Then Back heard a visitor’s horrible, hacking cough from the next room.
It felt like the germs were being blown right at them, he thought.
“Social distancing” was common terminology by this point, but not for the couple’s roommates in the four-bedroom, one-bath home they shared. Even as the coronavirus struck down Floridians and sickened thousands in March, Back and Robinson’s housemates kept inviting big groups over.
Both were at high risk if they caught the virus. Robinson, 40, had been treated for kidney cancer. Back, 44, had HIV. Then Robinson went to the hospital with a high fever. Doctors told him it was rhinovirus, he said. But both were terrified that next time, it would be COVID-19.
Their only option, they decided, was to get out. But where would they go? One-fourth of a four-bedroom house was all they could afford in the first place. They could stay with Back’s parents, but they have medical conditions, too. Back didn’t want to unwittingly bring the disease to them. Maybe they could stay with Back’s parents if they quarantined in a motel first, but they didn’t have that kind of money.
“I thought, the only people left are maybe strangers,” Back said.
So last weekend, feeling desperate, he posted on Craigslist. Maybe some generous stranger had an empty in-law suite or garage apartment.
“Please help us get out of this house,” he wrote.
He titled the post: “WE NEED A SAFER PLACE.”
• • •
The pandemic can turn cracks into ravines. Back and Robinson just needed a cheap place to stay. Then their roommates put their lives at risk. It was already a daunting proposition to find safe, affordable housing before the pandemic. Now it seemed impossible.
That COVID-19 has driven a wedge through shared living spaces is apparent: The internet abounds with advice about what to do when your roommate won’t stop going out on the weekends or having their partner over, increasing the risk of infection.
Jacquelyn Flood, a clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, said living through a crisis can expose frayed lines of communication, especially when normal outlets for relieving stress are suddenly unavailable.
The first steps forward, she said, should be initiate difficult conversations about safety. But you should also take charge of your own security when possible inside a shared living arrangement.
“What can I control? Can I make one room a safe space? Am I able to lock this door while I’m in this room?” she said. “It’s a legitimate concern, but at the same time, if it’s an environment where people know how to be safe with it, it’s safer to be there.”
But when communication fails and control is minimal, the result can be traumatic. Kristin Hoffman, the director of the trauma psychology program at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, said a crisis can flip a switch, turning long-term but tolerable stress — like having unruly roommates — into compressed, profound stress related to survival.
Psychologists call this “toxic stress.”
“It’s almost like this emergency alarm system that mobilizes your body,” Hoffman said. “When you’re in chronic stress situations with not a lot of resources, you kind of get stuck in this fight-flight-or-freeze situation where a lot of your mental energy and your brainpower is put into keeping yourself safe.”
Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, said she’s heard anecdotes of people moving out of their homes because their roommates or loved ones won’t follow social distancing orders. But those people have had the means to get away.
Though perfect storms like Back and Robinson’s may be rarer, she said, they show the pandemic “brings a whole other layer of problems to existing problems.”
Florida, and the nation, were already undergoing an affordable housing crisis before the pandemic. The state was short more than 400,000 rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income renters, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Local governments and aid organizations already have their hands full trying to help Florida’s homeless population, which will swell as jobs disappear. That a roommate’s denialism could add to that problem by forcing someone out of their once-stable home is “unconscionable,” Ross said.
“Their roommates have created a housing crisis,” she said.
• • •
The St. Petersburg house was a mess, even before the virus.
Back and Robinson moved in last November. The couple said they’d lost their last apartment when the landlord wanted to renovate it. Money was tight. Back hurt his leg in a car wreck, they said, and they had spent much of their money on Robinson’s kidney cancer treatments. Then doctors found a worrisome new spot on one of his lungs.
They knew the house’s primary tenant, casually at least. They rented their room from the young man. He had always seemed nice, they said, and with people constantly moving in and out of the house, he was happy to take them in.
Soon they were living with five other people and climbing. More crashed on the couch and porch. Dirty dishes piled up. Not everyone bathed regularly. Robinson sometimes wore his flip-flops into the filthy shower.
All those problems merely annoyed them, they said, until the coronavirus began spreading through Florida. None of the roommates paid attention to the news, Back said. They didn’t think the pandemic was anything to worry about.
Back and Robinson said when they tried to talk to the primary tenant, he’d act apologetic about the mess, maybe ask one of the other residents to vacuum. But then he’d spout misinformation about how the coronavirus can’t kill you, and the gatherings would continue — more visitors Back and Robinson had never seen before, more sets of unwashed hands, more horrible coughs.
The bad behavior was now a major health risk.
• • •
Back and Robinson escaped the house for a few hours on the morning of April 15, a Wednesday. They drove to nearby Clam Bayou and walked through the morning and early afternoon. It was hot, but it felt good to be in the open air, away from the crush of roommates.
They returned to the house in the early afternoon. Back couldn’t make himself get out of the car. A new crowd of people was at the house. After 20 minutes, he and Robinson drove back to the bayou.
It had been three days since Back pleaded for help on Craigslist. Nobody had come through. He tried a bevy of charities and housing organizations, he said, with no luck.
Now they were running out of time — and not just because of their own fears. That morning, Back said, the man they rent the room from texted. After their arguments about the virus, he wanted them to move out.
What else could they do? Maybe drive their car to an empty parking lot somewhere and stay there until someone told them to get lost. Maybe rent a motel room for a couple of days, until the last of their money ran out.
Long before the virus, when Back and Robinson still had steady work painting houses, they’d sometimes work out deals to live rent-free in homes under renovation in exchange for their services. They knew some basic carpentry. They prided themselves on being able to give a place curb appeal.
It could feel safe. It could feel normal. Biding time in their parked car, they dreamed of having that option and dreaded going back to the crowded, hazardous house.
“I’m afraid to go home right now,” Back said.
• • •
Epilogue: ‘We feel safe here’
This story went online on Wednesday. A few hours later, Adam Back got a call from a woman who lives in St. Petersburg’s Historic Old Northeast neighborhood. She said that behind her main house was a furnished, detached apartment her family had used for their own self-isolation; now everyone was back in the main house and the apartment was empty.
If they wanted to stay there for a couple of weeks while they figured out where to go, she said, they were welcome to.
Back and Robinson moved in that afternoon. They didn’t have much to move — Back had preemptively put some of their clothes in the car should they need to make a quick getaway, but they still had a couch, electronics and other belongings at their old place. Back wasn’t confident that they would be allowed back in to retrieve their stuff.
Still, he thought, their luck may have changed. A woman with a single-wide trailer in Largo also got in touch, saying she could no longer afford the rental for the lot it’s parked on. If Back and Robinson could pay for the land, the trailer was theirs. Back also had a lead on a house-painting gig. It was only outdoor work — most people don’t want to let painters inside their homes right now, for good reason, he said — but if it came through it would be enough to get them back on their feet.
So they have options for the future. But mostly, they’re relieved to be out of their previous house. When they last left, Back said, there’d been a half-dozen strangers there, none of them wearing masks. The owners of their new place were just the opposite.
“They have self-isolated, and they stay at home," he said. “They do their shopping online. Publix brings their food. They don’t have anybody over.
"We feel safe here.”
• • •
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