Sadie Keller: Amid Pressing Need and Uncertainty, Affiliates Rise to the Challenge

February 16, 2021

A mother hugs her daughter

Sadie KellerAs part of our ongoing conversation on homelessness, we asked members of the Family Promise network and individuals working to serve families experiencing homelessness to share their personal thoughts and reflections on Family Promise and the issue of family homelessness. These writers are true thought leaders, using their skills and expertise to develop and implement creative solutions that are changing the lives of parents and children in their communities. This article is by Sadie Keller, Affiliate Services Associate at Family Promise National.

A few years ago, Eva VanHook, executive director of Family Promise of Bradley County in Cleveland, TN, was busy finding shelter for families experiencing homelessness. The Affiliate served about 15 individuals every year. Now, VanHook is also working alongside landlords to keep families in their homes. Project Home, Family Promise of Bradley County’s homelessness prevention program, supports families on the front end. The goal is to help families avoid the trauma of homelessness altogether. Last year, Project Home served 245 individuals, including 148 kids.

When COVID-19 hit, Family Promise of Bradley County began sheltering families in motels, and volunteers, who were accustomed to lending hands-on support, were hesitant to help in person. Operations changed overnight, but VanHook had a plan. Through prevention, she saw the opportunity to respond to the community’s needs and keep families stably housed.

Along with two interns, VanHook’s staff of three has been working around the clock since March 2020. “The demand for prevention assistance is higher than we’ve ever seen,” Bradley says. Before the pandemic, having a waitlist at all was uncommon. Last month, they had 25 families in the queue for services.

“When families call us, it is such an emotional conversation because we know we must intervene immediately,” she says.

Most of the heads of households the Affiliate served in 2020 had jobs. But a pandemic brought reduced work hours and fewer shifts, meaning that many families are one unexpected bill away from experiencing homelessness. Some families who call face immediate eviction, while others reach out proactively because they are behind on rent. Too often, the family is on the brink of homelessness and Family Promise is their last resort.

VanHook’s team is addressing a problem that spreads far beyond Bradley County and Tennessee. The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic recession have forced legislators and community leaders to grapple with an often-overlooked group: renters. Millions of Americans are out of work or working fewer hours, and too many are in the impossible situation of deciding which critical bill gets paid first. In December 2020, nearly one in five households were behind on their rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In a moment when staying home helps keep children healthy, these families can’t keep a roof over their heads.

In January, the Biden Administration announced the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which includes $25 billion in rental and utility assistance. Biden had previously ordered an extension of the federal eviction moratorium through March 31, 2021. Housing advocates argue that the proposed eviction freeze still leaves millions of renters vulnerable; the disjointed amalgamation of local, state, and federal rules makes the bureaucratic process difficult for the average renter to navigate. But for the city, county, and state governments withstanding an extended economic downturn, this possible round of $25 in billion rental relief is welcome support. Whether the American Rescue Plan becomes law will require a few more weeks of federal negotiation.

At the pandemic’s every twist and turn, our Affiliates have tried to grasp this crisis from a family’s perspective. Numerous have established or expanded prevention programs to support families who are behind on their rent or at risk of eviction. When the first round of rental assistance was distributed in March of 2020, Family Promise Affiliates were part of the national effort to keep renters in their homes. The majority of 2020 assistance programs (55%) partnered with nongovernmental entities to review applications, select recipients, and even distribute funds. Across our network; at least 53 percent of Family Promise Affiliates received CARES Act funding to serve families in this crisis.

The Housing Initiative at Penn, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and the NYU Furman Center recently released an analysis of the first round of COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance. The brief examined the cascading effects of 220 different financial assistance programs and the aid provided to renters and the U.S. economy. According to the study, the average assistance given was $1,200 per household per month, and most programs supported renters for three months or fewer.

The research confirms what our Affiliates have known all along: our families and communities have unmatched levels of need. The analysis found that, even early on, renters’ demand met or exceeded programs’ supply of relief, even among only eligible applicants. The number of renters looking for assistance is truly astounding. From the report, “one [program] reported having 11 times more eligible applicants than it could serve.”

Family Promise of Lawrence, Kansas was one Affiliate that received CARES Act funding. Dana Ortiz, the executive director, says the grant Family Promise of Lawrence received from Help Us Move In (HUMI) in 2019 helped set the stage. “With HUMI, we learned the ins and outs of operating a prevention program and developed a clear intake system,” Ortiz says. “Then COVID hit.” Knowing their capacity was limited, Family Promise of Lawrence joined forces with another local organization, Tenants to Homeowners. In mid-July, Family Promise of Lawrence and Tenants to Homeowners, in collaboration with six other local agencies, began allocating county funding. The impact was amazing.

Between July and December 2020, Family Promise of Lawrence distributed $596,478 in rental assistance to 323 families, including 596 children. “It was exhausting but incredible hopeful,” Ortiz says. “A large part of our community works in hospitality, and many of those folks lost income and struggled to pay rent. Keeping families housed in a pandemic was critical.”

Affiliates expanded quickly and without reservation, in part because they knew their services would be needed more than ever. By doing so, they set the stage to serve their communities in the long run. “The need is not going away,” VanHook says. “Yes, we gave a lot to households who needed it,” Ortiz reflects. “But more importantly, the community has embraced the need to collaborate around homelessness prevention. If we can do this together, that’s a huge win. Before, our organization was seen as one player in the community, and now we are seen as leaders in homelessness prevention. We have new people, especially landlords, willing to be part of the solution. It’s a sea change in our community.”

Family Promise has a wide reach, and our more than 200 Affiliates have seen a record number of families in need over the past 12 months. According to a Moody’s Analytics study released last week, one in four renters is relying on stimulus checks to pay rent, and one in three is using credit cards and savings. Moody’s estimates that before the distribution of the $25 billion rental assistance, the typical renter who is behind on rent or utilities will be almost four months, or $5,600, behind. Combined countrywide, those behind on their rent will owe $57 billion.

The effects of that rental debt will likely be felt across the American economy for decades. With the next round of rental relief hopefully on its way, it is unclear exactly which questions families will face, and when. But there’s no doubt that Family Promise Affiliates will be part of the answer.

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