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Emergency rent, utility assistance help struggling families stay afloat

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 La’Trell Smith Owens was working the front desk at a hotel when the coronavirus blew into Virginia last March. As states started putting restrictions in place to slow the spread of the virus, the travel industry was one of the hardest hit.

“My hours got cut short, and my husband, who worked at the same hotel, got laid off,” said Smith Owens, who was pregnant at the time with baby Amarah, now 4 months, and has an older daughter, Anaeja, age 14. She and her husband, Larry Owens, rent a house in Winchester.

With my husband laid off and my reduced hours, we just couldn’t keep up with the bills. If I could stay on top of the rent, the utilities would get behind. ... Thank God, Catholic Charities helped us with rent, and food as well.” La’Trell Smith Owens

He applied for unemployment but before it came through he found another job, though “nowhere near full time,” she said. In September, she also found a new job, as a front-of-the-house manager at a steakhouse. But her hours have fluctuated from 40 or 45 a week down to sometimes just 30 or 25. Often it has been hard to make ends meet.

“With my husband laid off and my reduced hours, we just couldn’t keep up with the bills,” she said. “If I could stay on top of the rent, the utilities would get behind. ... Thank God, Catholic Charities helped us with rent, and food as well.”

Smith Owens’ experience illustrates the kinds of rental and utility emergencies that are becoming increasingly common during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Catholic Charities and other nonprofits that provide emergency assistance and help administer government relief funds.

Mary McNamee, an emergency assistance case coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities, hears about clients’ struggles firsthand as she conducts the intake for emergency rent and utility assistance. 

“There’s an overwhelming amount of stories, to be honest,” McNamee said. “It used to be about 20 intakes a month. Now I’m not even counting any more. It seems like a never-ending thing.”

Due to coronavirus precautions, visiting an aid office to apply in person is a thing of the past; intake interviews now must be conducted by phone or email, which makes applying especially complicated for families struggling with language, lack of access to technology or other hurdles. With schools and many jobs moving online, the internet is quickly becoming an essential utility that competes with rent, heat and food. “There are a lot of services out there but unless you have access to the internet you’re in trouble,” McNamee said.

Catherine Hassinger, diocesan Catholic Charities’ Director of Community Services, said the agency provided $1.2 million in rent and utility assistance between March and December to nearly 1,000 households throughout the diocese. Some 55 percent was funded by donations and private foundation grants to Catholic Charities while 45 percent came from the CARES Act or other federal funding. While most of the funding was administered through Catholic Charities’ Emergency Assistance Program, $62,000 went to 35 refugee families through Migration and Refugee Services. 

Government relief funds have been a huge help and are supplementing nonprofits’ budgets. But government assistance also has been a moving target because, as Hassinger notes, how a program is administered may affect eligibility, with different income guidelines and rules for different jurisdictions. Applicants from Northern Virginia, for example, may not qualify for state programs because guidelines may be based on a lower area median income, or AMI, than county programs in Northern Virginia, even though housing costs are higher in the suburbs than in rural parts of the state. 

Hassinger worries that the rising number of new COVID-19 cases may lead to more government restrictions and “lockdowns,” which could lead to more job cuts. “We’re still seeing companies close their doors and people’s hours being cut,” she said. “We’ve not seen a drop-off at all in the number of people needing assistance.” 

All this has led to unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression, along with an increase in substance abuse as people struggle to cope with “the helplessness they feel during this pandemic,” she added.

Local governments and nonprofits everywhere are dealing with similar emergencies. More than 11 million households nationwide are behind on rent or won’t be able to pay next month, according to Census Bureau estimates, creating a backlog estimated at $70 billion. Landlords have responded by filing hundreds of thousands of eviction notices, cases that currently are on hold thanks to state and federal moratoriums on coronavirus-related evictions. Moratoriums have been extended several times, and now go through the end of January.

David Levine, president of Good Shepherd Housing in Alexandria, said his low-income population has been especially hard-hit by both COVID-19 and its ripple effects on jobs and housing. “It’s a thin line and they don’t have big financial cushions,” he said. The organization was founded in 1974 by members of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria after they found a Vietnamese refugee family living in a shack along Richmond Highway. Now an independent nonprofit, it manages about 100 affordable housing units in Fairfax County south of Alexandria. 

When eviction moratoriums eventually end, Levine said, “renters will still have to pay all the back rent. They are not exonerating you from the debt. A lot of people are going to have big amounts to pay and a lot will end up getting evicted.” 

“If that happens, we are facing a significant crisis,” Hassinger added. “Some of these individuals will be able to move in with families or friends temporarily, but we could be looking at a massive housing crisis.” 

McNamee agrees. “The gap is getting wider as time goes on, but thanks to support from many people, we’ve been able to string it together. There are so many people out there that have been so generous,” from donors to landlords who are doing what they can to help people. “We hear stories all the time, of people saying ‘Pay me when you can. We’ll work it out.’ ”

Smith Owens says her family’s back rent is now paid, thanks to Catholic Charities and another organization that provided assistance. And the $600 government stimulus check she just received has helped catch up with utilities.

With a young teen and new baby to support, she and her husband are trying to keep it together and avoid eviction. “We definitely didn’t want it to get to that point,” she said. “I’m doing the best I can.”  

Find out more

For links to a wide range of rental and utility assistance resources for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, go to Stayhomevirginia.com.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021