Distributing Rental Assistance, One Family at a Time

September 30, 2021

Much has been written about the slow rollout of the $46.5 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance funding allocated by Congress to support tenants and landlords. The Treasury Department recently reported that states and localities have distributed just 11% of the existing funds. Pressure to speed up the rollout increased when the Supreme Court ended the national eviction moratorium in late August. While some states have their own moratoria, millions of families across the country are at risk of eviction and have yet to receive the funding allocated to support them. 

Effectively distributing rental assistance requires smart and dedicated individuals who will work alongside families while they navigate clunky administrative systems and state policies. Alexis Young, case manager at Family Promise of Orange County, CA, is one of those individuals. To help families access these funds, Young assists them while they collect documentation, fill out paperwork, and find stability.  

When her community went into lockdown in the Spring of 2020, Young noticed that many families who had previously received services from Family Promise began to reach out to ask for help with rental assistance. “They lost their jobs,” says Young, “and they were behind on rent.” Young’s team jumped on those requests for assistance, using Zoom or phone calls for case management and encouraging families to apply for the available assistance.  

While some reached out proactively, many families were not aware of the emergency rental assistance. Others were afraid to ask for help. “Certain factors make people more likely to wait until things get really bad before calling us or asking for help,” says Young. “They think they are supposed to do it alone.” 

In one week, Young went from helping 8 families at a time to 18. Each case is unique, so Young meets with each family for multiple hours a week to fill out the required paperwork, which can range between 60 and 100 pages. The most common thing that holds a family back from receiving assistance are missing documents. “When a family applies for rental assistance, it’s always a lot of work,” says Young. “Applications wants social security cards and birth certificates for the entire family, pay stubs, proof of income, and many families do not have all of that.”

Such burdensome requirements are a challenge for most families, but for families who have experienced homelessness, the paperwork is especially taxing. “When you move from one place to another, you lose things. Things are stolen,” says Young. 

On top of tracking down documents and Zoom case management, Young has learned the value of active listening when a family calls. “When a family reaches out, they have been through a lot already. It’s my job to listen, to reflect on what they tell me, to provide as many options as possible, and to let clients choose what best suits them moving forward. I try to ensure families have the opportunity to pick what will best work in their life.” And for her, the work is personal. “I always tell families that I lived homelessness, and I have been there. But to be homeless with children is another challenge. To be homeless with children during a pandemic is another level all together.” 

Getting families and landlords the allocated funding is a prerequisite to keeping them safe in their homes. Advocacy groups, alongside Family Promise, continue to push for process improvements, and certain legislators have attempted to eliminate the funding’s barriers. On September 8, Representative Maxine Waters introduced legislation to expand and expedite the help to renters and landlords under the emergency program.  

Despite the burdensome requirements and slow system, Young is proud of the impact her team has had in Orange County. “I looked at our numbers served and saw that, while so many people had lost their jobs and had hours cut, not one family we served has so far slipped into homelessness. That amazed me.” 

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