In Medellín, a museum takes an essential role in the city's pandemic response

Museum director Cathalina Sanchez-Escobar (left) distributes care packages in Villatina Campo Santo, Medellín. (Courtesy of Museo Casa de Memoria)

When Covid-19 first hit Colombia in early March, Cathalina Sanchez-Escobar knew she had to do something to help. As the director of Medellín’s Museo Casa de Memoria (House of Memory Museum), she had an advantage: Medellín's city government was already looking for ways to include cultural institutions in the city’s pandemic response.

It wasn’t long before the municipally run museum, which documents the impact of Colombia's armed conflict, took the lead as a social services provider in Medellín’s Comuna 8 neighbourhood. Sanchez-Escobar personally helped deliver basic foods to those who hadn’t benefited from other available aid. Staff have also connected people with the city's new homeless shelters, and members of the cultural department that the museum belongs to have been using music to spread the word about social distancing.

Cathalina Sanchez-Escobar (right), director of Museo Casa de Memoria, stands in one of the museum's spaces that was being used to store Covid-19 care packages. (Courtesy of Museo Casa de Memoria)

This might not be the typical work of a museum, but Sanchez-Escobar says it really is an extension of the mission: The institution is leaning into its ability to transmit complex information in a simple, factual way. It’s also bearing witness to history, particularly in Comuna 8, home to many of those displaced by Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict.

“Our museum has always been involved in the community and now it is up to our imagination and creativity to find ways to help,” she says.

Latin America is now an epicentre of the pandemic: Colombia has recorded 36,635 cases and 1,515 deaths as of the end of the first week of June – a shadow of Brazil’s 650,000 confirmed cases and more than 30,000 deaths and Mexico’s 110,000 cases and more than 4,000 dead. Medellín has seen 649 cases and 4 deaths within city limits, out of a population of 2.3 million. The Colombian capital of Bogota, meanwhile, has seen nearly 13,000 cases and 313 deaths in the same time period.

Sanchez-Escobar says the mayor’s office assigned each of the members of the cabinet and their secretariat staff to a specific geographical region of the city to assist the pandemic response. Additionally, the culture secretariat, which runs the city’s extensive network of libraries, is running citywide literacy and health promotion campaigns online, while the privately run Divas Gallery, in the city centre, is lending support to sex workers.

Medellín’s health secretary Andree Uribe says the physical and mental wellbeing of the people of Medellín is fundamental for the recently elected administration headed by Mayor Daniel Quintero.

“We continue to work on the strengthening of the communication channels with the citizens,” she says. “The coordination with the arts and culture, influencing the wellbeing of the citizens, is also helping us to cover one of the areas most affected by the pandemic – mental health.”

The building that houses Medellín's Museo Casa de Memoria in the city's downtown area. (Courtesy of Museo Casa de Memoria)

Sanchez-Escobar says on top of reinforcing health messaging, the Museo Casa de Memoria used its links with the community, the museum’s facilities and its workforce to distribute care packages, containing basics like rice, to Comuna 8.

“We're not doctors, but we are connecting with the programs of the health secretariat,” Sanchez-Escobar says. “We promote health messages and are helping to reinforce the importance of social distancing.”

Medellín’s Culture Secretary Lina Gaviria, who is also a dancer and events producer, says the head of each secretariat, including culture, was out on the front lines.

“I'm a producer, I know how to feed a 1,000 people backstage, but I’m not used to the logistics to give people 2,000 care packages,” she says. “But when I was able to give one to an 80-year-old resident, we both burst into tears.”

Comuna 8 community leader Altagracia Garcia says the program targeted people who hadn’t received any other support.

“There is trust between us. The Casa de Memoria Museum, they have always been a part of the community. With cultural events, they’ve always been serving the community,” she says. Most people have been complying with the city’s tight lockdown, which has been in force since late March, at times only allowing people to leave the house just one or two days a week.

Gaviria says that as of the second week of June, as some restrictions loosened, artists would be out in force, for example, putting masks on some of the city’s famous statues.

Museums elsewhere have similarly found ways to help people navigate these unusual times. Anthea Hartig, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, says Smithsonian museums have been working to serve US communities in a time of upheaval for schooling.

“As our doors were closing to the public and thousands and thousands of schools were having to send their students to learn from home, our education team and the museum as a whole, moved to support teachers, parents, caregivers and students with educational resources,” Hartig says.

The history museum’s curator of political history Nancy Bercaw, curatorial assistant Patricia Arteaga and oral historian José Centeno-Meléndez have been working on chronicling the lives of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients – also known as “Dreamers” – in the US. The team has been in touch with counterparts in Medellín to see what they might have to learn from each other.

Back in Medellín, Sanchez-Escobar sees the current crisis as an opportunity for growth.

“In the last few years at global conferences, we’ve been talking about how a museum can't just be a building where people come and have an experience,” Sanchez-Escobar says. “Covid-19 is the opportunity to see how we can get closer to more families.”

Andrew Wight is a freelance journalist based in Medellín.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.