Christie Love has found herself faced with hard questions and few answers.
The lead pastor at the Connecting Grounds, a Springfield church that serves the homeless, says she hears from new individuals and families every day, panicking with the prospects of eviction and homelessness on the horizon.
She’s not the only one. Community groups throughout the region have found themselves as the last bastions for many struggling to make rent payments with the federal eviction moratorium expired, future guidelines are in limbo and the Delta variant spreads infection and uncertainty.
“We have just watched as the numbers continue to climb,” Love said. “Constantly, a steady new stream of people … they’re saying ‘I’m about to lose my house, I just lost my home, what do I do, where do I go?'”
Nonprofits, churches and other groups in Greene County are fielding dozens of calls a day, setting up appointments to fill out rental aid applications. County officials are asking the circuit court to provide leniency for upcoming evictions while tenants anxiously wait for their checks to be cut. And although the CDC has announced a new 60-day moratorium, confusion and frustration continue to abound.
Last week, Greene County officials met with members of six local groups that are partnering with the county to help residents apply for aid. All six had similar reports — appointments for the next few weeks were completely full.
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Community Partnership of the Ozarks, one of those agencies, is booked into September, and staffers keep a “cancellation list” to call when someone can’t make their appointment. Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, another of the six groups, has its calendar full for the rest of August. Brooke Ash, caring communities director for Community Partnership of the Ozarks, said the rush had some renters feeling dejected.
“I think the frustration for a lot of people in the community is there’s such a high call volume amongst all these agencies that sometimes they feel like they’re just calling and calling and calling,” Ash said. “Our phones are tied up a lot of the time.”
Ash estimated the group receives “pretty easily a couple hundred” calls every week, so many that they had to ditch earlier efforts to track the numbers. Those calls are coming from all over the county, and not strictly from low-income residents; the pandemic, now reaching a new pitch in southwest Missouri due to the Delta variant, has forced many to ask for help for the first time.
“COVID has brought to us people who have never needed any sort of assistance, who have been classified typically as middle class,” said John Farmer de la Torre of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri. “Folks who have been hit so hard by the pandemic through loss of hours, furloughs, loss of employment. A lot of them are in dire straits.”
The convergence of the virus, expired moratorium and fluctuating rules, Love believes, is untenable.
“We have this perfect storm of crises that are meeting at the same time, and something has to shift,” she said. “We just do not have the resources to sustain this kind of increase on the streets of Springfield.”
Seeking legal leeway
The crush of requests has the county and organizations brainstorming how to prioritize the most urgent cases — those who have eviction hearings scheduled and coming up soon.
As of Wednesday, the Greene County Circuit Court has 256 open eviction cases, according to an email from court administrator Kylie Young to Scott that was sent to the News-Leader. Of those cases, 101 have been filed in the last 15 days; 98 are between 20 and 90 days old; and 65 are longer than 90 days old.
County officials have asked the court multiple times if judges could provide leniency on eviction cases going forward to give tenants the chance to receive aid money, Scott said. Greene County Circuit Court did not respond to requests for comment on the status of that decision.
Farmer de la Torre said he expected the rush of renters seeking aid and facing eviction to grow even larger in the coming weeks, but any leeway from the court could have an “enormous impact.”
“I really think now that the moratorium has expired, we’re at the front end of a wave,” he said. “It’s going to take four to eight weeks for this wave to reach a crest. If there’s a bit of leniency and willingness to work with tenants, the funds are there to mitigate this problem.”
The White House, unable to unilaterally extend the moratorium on its own due to a June Supreme Court ruling, called on Congress to pass an extension two days before its expiration. The body was unable to do so before the ban, which had been in place since September, ended Saturday. A new two-month moratorium announced by the CDC this week is targeted at areas of high COVID-19 transmission — including almost the entirety of Missouri — but it rests on shaky legal footing and could run into trouble in court.
Making ends meet:Where to get help applying for rental assistance and aid
Missouri rental aid distribution takes time
Missouri didn’t impose an eviction moratorium itself like other states, but it did receive ample federal cash to distribute for rental aid. Biden administration officials have called on state and local governments to make use of those federal funds in recent weeks.
“No one in America should be evicted when federal funds are available, in the hands of state and local government, to pay back rent due,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
For Greene County residents, that aid comes through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) — money received directly from the federal government to distribute to renters who apply. The county has spent just under 40 percent of the $8.7 million received as of Tuesday.
That federal program also offers flexibility outside of just paying rent to avoid evictions — which the county has chosen to take advantage of. The aid can help fund relocation or legal expenses for tenants who may be able to pay rent but have other outstanding issues with their landlords, Scott said. Landlords can also apply on behalf of hesitant tenants to receive their payments.
More:Springfield couple gets back on their feet after losing their home due to the pandemic
Money through ERAP, Ash and Farmer de la Torre said, is being sent to tenants relatively quickly. But those living in the counties surrounding Greene apply through the State Assistance for Housing Relief Program (SAFHR), run through the Missouri Housing Development Commission. Farmer de la Torre estimated that the turnaround time for a SAFHR application was at least three to four weeks. The application itself, he said, is around 30 pages long and requires detailed information.
“There’s a real value add here for people to call us with applications,” Farmer de la Torre said. “We can help people expedite this process to get the checks out.”
In total, the state has received more than $320 million in rental aid from the Treasury Department. So far, just over $34 million has been distributed statewide through 6,812 applications, according to MHDC data.
That weeks-long wait has been a struggle for Love and her church, who have made calls to the groups to schedule appointments on behalf of residents only to find out it’ll be nearly a month away.
“It’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to be sitting there with someone who is panicking, saying ‘what do I do? What are my options?’ and not having an answer,” Love said. “It’s really, really difficult.”
The anxiety of Springfield tenants who don’t have an appointment for weeks or are coming up on evictions is understandable, Ash said, but she pleaded for patience and empathy while going through the process.
“Greene County has worked really hard to get this money out as quickly as possible, and every agency is working so hard too,” she said. “If you can, talk to your landlords and let them know that this assistance is available. If everyone is just patient, we have the money, and we’re working with everyone as quickly as possible.”
The agencies partnering with the county are Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, Community Partnership of the Ozarks, Consumer Credit Counseling Services, Council of Churches — One Stop for Early Childhood Program, OACAC and The Salvation Army.
Relieving the ‘pressure valve’
Not everyone is able to qualify for and access the rental assistance money, however. Love’s church, Connecting Grounds, often only sees Springfield residents when they have nowhere else to go and don’t qualify for funds. In other words, she meets those who fall through the holes of the safety net put in place for tenants — and she’s worried about the trends she’s seeing.
“The number of people living without shelter in Springfield just continues to rise,” Love said.
Since March 15, 2020, 29,352 evictions have been filed in Missouri, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. In a January legislative hearing, Missouri Housing Development Commissioner Kip Stetzler estimated that anywhere between 150,000 and 230,000 Missouri households were at risk of eviction.
Love, a data-driven person herself, is seeking that number for Springfield. On Thursday, Connecting Grounds posted a survey on its Facebook page asking those at risk of being evicted or who have been evicted in southwest Missouri to provide their information anonymously.
The current situation, Love said, is like “a pressure valve that needs relief at either end.” Preventative policy — keeping people in their homes — is one end, but it’s often complicated by a lack of affordable housing that has “worsened” in recent years, Farmer de la Torre said.
“The best way to deal with this is imply to keep people in their homes, which of course is the purpose of these pandemic relief funds,” he said. “It’s the best solution.”
The other end of that valve, Love said, was caring for people after they lost their homes. Springfield is lacking in legal places for people without a place to stay to set up tents, or to stay year-round without ID.
In a normal time, those worries alone would be enough to keep the city’s groups crunching to help everyone. But right now, it seems like more keep piling up.
“We have more and more people leaving housing and coming to the streets,” Love said. “We have an exploding COVID outbreak. We don’t have a quarantine shelter. It’s just all of these problems, compounding on top of one another.”
Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.