Two elderly widows who were best friends needed help to pay their rent, which they could only afford by skipping decent meals. After days living off little more than oatmeal and coffee, they finally went to the Kodiak Brother Francis Shelter for help.
Brother Francis Shelter was able to help the widows — and others like them who have had trouble paying rent during the COVID-19 pandemic — with emergency assistance thanks to a partnership with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.
Funding for COVID-19 emergency rental assistance comes from the FY2021 Omnibus and COVID Relief and Response Act, which was signed into law in December. Alaska received $200 million, which was distributed to tribal housing authorities, the municipality of Anchorage and Alaska Housing Finance Corp.
Brother Francis Shelter partnered with the corporation to distribute $3.2 million of that money in Kodiak.
Through the program, funds are paid directly to landlords to cover utilities, back rent and up to 12 months of assistance, with the possibility of receiving an additional three months of assistance.
The program is available to renters who meet certain program criteria, including being at or below 80% of area median income calculated after their COVID-19 hardship began.
Why would the Brother Francis Shelter, a small organization with a budget of $500,000, take on the big task of distributing such a large pool of money?
“We chose to do it for one reason only,” said Monte Hawver, the shelter’s executive director.
“We have a large percentage of minority population that are poor, that are aging out. They are not getting work at the canneries anymore, and they are in imminent danger of eviction.”
Worried that those most in need without access to computers or proper documentation, as well as those who don’t speak English, might miss the aid, the Brother Francis Shelter decided to take on the partnership.
The shelter hired housing advocates who speak English, Spanish, Tagalog and different Tagalog dialects, and they called the families they knew would need help.
Hawver said that after the news got out about the program, phones started ringing off the hook, and lines formed in front of the building.
Through all of their homeless prevention programs, the shelter has assisted 436 families with more than $1 million in direct assistance since July. About $800,000 has been from the COVID-19 emergency rental assistance program.
“There is seldom a day that goes by when you don’t have two to four individuals break down crying in front of rental relief specialists,” Hawver said. “Some are so happy because they are getting support that they badly need, and some start crying because they explained the problem.”
Hawver said that one out of three Kodiak families applied and was accepted into the program.
“There were hundreds of families that were eating either cheap, poorly nutritious food or nothing at all because all their money went to rent,” he said. “They don’t get much unemployment.”
He called the COVID-19 emergency rental relief a “shot in the arm” for Kodiak, as money from the funding flows directly to landlords — who are also losing out when tenants cannot pay rent — and into the community.
Those who get unemployment are the lucky ones. Some of those in need do not know how to apply for unemployment.
To properly distribute the COVID-19 funds, the shelter staff has had to overcome challenges, such as lack of leases and proper documentation.
“Many of them didn't have a lease,” but instead had month-to-month agreements, Hawver said.
At the beginning of March, when the program began distributing funds, the shelter could not meet with clients face-to face, so applicants had to apply for the funds online through the shelter, communicating with housing specialists over the phone.
Hawver said that the process was challenging and took longer. Applicants who needed help applying would send pictures of their documents to housing specialists, who then uploaded the documents into the online application.
Hawver said the COVID-19 emergency relief funding programs from the shelter, as well as funding from the Kodiak Island Housing Authority, should meet the local need for emergency rental assistance.
He said the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this year will be an even larger program than the most recent economic package, but how Alaska and Kodiak will handle that funding remains to be seen.
The AHFC and the Brother Francis Shelter have been working together for the last 20 years. During that time, the housing corporation has been one of the largest contributors to the shelter’s homeless prevention program, Hawver said.
Earlier this year, the shelter also received a $752,000 grant to make upgrades to the shelter and help avert eviction of families in temporary financial distress.