On Friday, July 17, Keith Armintrout started packing up his two-bedroom rental in Longmont, beginning with his clothes, non-perishable foods, and pots and pans.

He was bracing for eviction, and with nowhere to go, the plan was to move as much of his stuff as possible into a storage unit he rents, and sleep in his 1991 Toyota Camry with his cat, Sweetness. For the first time in his life, 67-year-old Armintrout was going to be homeless.

“My anxiety went off the charts. My blood pressure went up. I was scared as hell, I really was,” he said. “I used to camp, so I have some camping supplies and I figured, OK, I’ll go out and get a few items, cook ’em, because I wouldn’t have a way to keep things cold. I’d find someplace to go and I’d sleep in my car at night. And that was scary, point blank.”

Armintrout is one of millions of Americans, and potentially hundreds of thousands of Coloradans, facing housing instability as a result of the pandemic. Advocates have warned for months of a coming deluge of evictions and while the data show that only a few hundred had been filed in this state as of earlier this month, there’s worry that this will get worse soon, as a number of factors combine to create what one attorney called “a perfect storm”: federal unemployment benefits that have kept millions afloat expire at the end of this week, Colorado’s eviction moratorium is over and unemployment here remains at near-record levels.

Armintrout’s a handyman by trade, and he usually makes about $60,000 a year. But he’s got a respiratory condition that puts him at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus, and makes it hard for him to breathe with a mask on. So he has barely worked since March, earning about $3,300 since then — less than half what he owes for rent alone in that period, not to mention food and medicine and gasoline.

His landlord told him she couldn’t afford to let all that back rent slide, and later, in Boulder County court, a judge sided against him. He had until this past Wednesday to come up with the money, or he’d be on the street, he said.

Armintrout was saved, nearly at the literal last minute, when local advocates connected him with the county rent stabilization fund, which he said has agreed to cover more than $7,000 in back rent and rent for next month. (The county can’t comment on payments on behalf of individual clients, a staffer said, but it did confirm that it offers this assistance in general.)

This means he’s got a roof over his head until at least the end of August.

And then?

“I don’t know,” he said. “God sent these people to me. He sent me the help. I know he’ll find me a position, or a way for money to come in, so I can pay my rent.”

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Catherine Azar sits in front of her home in Lafayette on July 23, 2020. Azar has been unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic, is struggling to collect unemployment, and is facing eviction from her home.

“Can you imagine?”

Catherine Azar, 70, is in a similar spot. She also lives in Boulder County — Lafayette, to be exact, just a short drive from Armintrout — and also has been unable to work since the virus hit. Azar does therapy work with show horses, among other animals, and shutdowns in the equestrian world have severely restricted her hours.

Last year, she said, she made about $65,000. She gets $521 from Social Security every month, and she’s lately gotten some help from family members. But other than that, she said, her income since March is “nothing.”

Unemployment benefits have helped keep many people housed and fed in Colorado this year, but not everyone qualifies. Azar said she’s been repeatedly denied. A state Department of Labor and Employment spokeswoman said about 10% of claims are rejected, and people in that group, anti-eviction advocates and attorneys say, are at the front of the displacement wave.

“Those are the people getting notices on their doors now,” said Zach Neumann of Colorado’s Eviction Defense Project.

Sure enough, on June 18, Azar received such a notice: she had 30 days to pay about $7,000 in back rent, or she’d be evicted. Earlier this month, as that 30-day period was nearing a close, Azar’s landlord told her to be gone within a week. Like Armintrout, she was bracing for homelessness for the first time in her life.

“If I can’t pay them, how am I going to rent something else?” she said. “How am I going to rent a truck for all my stuff? They were essentially saying they’d throw me out on the street.

“Can you imagine?” she added, through tears. “After an entire lifetime? And I’m high-risk. I’m 70 years old. I’ve had a heart attack, and another near-miss on a heart attack, and I’m diabetic. I’m like the poster child for high risk.”

Azar’s been scrambling to find a last-minute solution. A friend helped her set up a GoFundMe, and she’s in touch with the Eviction Defense Project. But Neumann is the first to admit that his group, and others offering resources and legal representation, can only do so much for someone who’s short on rent.

“If you’re a non-paying tenant, you just don’t have a lot of options,” he said.

Asked whether she’d reached out to the county for the same kind of assistance Armintrout got, Azar said she had no idea that was an option. Getting the word out is a huge challenge for the county, said Mackenzie Sehlke, who works in public affairs at Boulder County Housing & Human Services. She said the county is confident it can meet vulnerable tenants’ needs through the end of this year, but that of course can only be true to the extent that people even know to call them. The county set up a hotline — 303-441-1206 —and lists resources online in both English and Spanish.

Wrote Sehlke in an email to The Denver Post, “Access to a safe and stable home is crucial for all of us at all times, and especially now.”

Colorado Senators Joann Ginal, left, and ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Colorado Sens. Joann Ginal, left, and Julie Gonzales converse during a recess at the Capitol in Denver on June 11, 2020. The two were on opposite ends over an amendment that would have extended Colorado’s eviction moratorium. The amendment never was introduced.

State government’s response

There are other, non-county resources available, too, including from a recent allocation of $20 million that was approved by the state legislature. That’s a big number, but it won’t go very far; in May a similar rental assistance program in Houston, which had $15 million to dole out, had to suspend new applications after just 90 minutes.

The housing industry maintains confidence that there won’t be as massive an eviction wave as advocates predict.

“You’re not going to see a 10-fold increase in the evictions number,” Drew Hamrick, senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, said last week. “The landlord doesn’t make any money on empty units, and obviously we all need a place to live.”

Gov. Jared Polis doesn’t seem too worried, either. Unlike governors in other states, several Republicans included, Polis recently let lapse the eviction moratorium he ordered early in the pandemic. In its place, he’s requiring landlords to give 30-day notices — a little more time than the usual 10 days given for tenants to stave off eviction.

Asked on July 16 to explain why he decided against extending the eviction moratorium, he told reporters, “People generally should be back at work and earning money.”

The state’s own numbers don’t exactly bear that out: unemployment actually rose last month, and it remains higher than it ever was during the Great Recession a decade ago. Five Colorado counties had unemployment rates above 15% in June, the state reported.

Because of this, some are holding out hope that Polis, a Democrat, will change his mind and reinstate the moratorium. In Arizona and Massachusetts, two states run by GOP governors, moratoria are in place through October. That was the target end date for a moratorium extension that the state legislature considered in the spring, but Senate Democrats, despite their majority in the chamber, could not agree on terms and they adjourned the session having passed no extension and thus kicking the matter back to the governor.

Azar’s and Armintrout’s fellow Boulder County resident, the Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, said that as more evictions loom, he feels disappointed that the legislature punted.

“The legislature couldn’t get it done,” said Fenberg, who supported extending the moratorium. “A large part of the blame is on us, not just the governor. We need to take on some of that responsibility as well, and I hope come January” — that’s when the next legislative session is scheduled to begin — “we’ll be able to. That’s not to say that come January we will pass a moratorium, but we need to do more.”