The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched thin community resources, but some of the hardest hit may be those striving to keep a roof over their heads or just find shelter.
Meanwhile, property owners and landlords — many sympathetic to their tenants’ plights — are trying not to go bankrupt. Social-service agencies are assisting, but many wonder if it’s enough and for how long.
One of those aided by a relief organization is Tiffany Shelton, who lives in a Southeast Side apartment with her daughter and niece.
Before COVID-19, the certified nursing assistant had a reliable weekly workload, providing health care services for three to four patients in their residences, and working at a nursing home.
Since the outbreak and resulting public-health restrictions, Shelton had to choose between servicing only one of those clients or the nursing home.
She applied — and got hired — for jobs at two businesses, but those nursing facilities saw local outbreaks. So, Shelton had to settle for her lone home health care patient.
“I’m barely making 21 hours a week, give or take,” she said. “Things started to spiral. Bills started to stack up.”
Shelton contacted SAMMinistries, which previously aided her.
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The organization is one of many extending life preservers to people struggling to stay afloat in the current emergency, which has caused job furloughs, layoffs and closures by numerous companies, nonprofits and governmental agencies.
In the disease’s wake, the United States lost 10.7 million jobs by September, according to the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.
Shelton is also among millions of renters nationwide hoping to stave off eviction.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide order Sept. 4 to protect an estimated 40 million renters from eviction through Jan. 31.
CDC officials reason that mass evictions would hasten COVID’s spread by forcing millions of people into close quarters with friends or family, or into homeless shelters.
However, landlords and managers of multifamily communities nationwide have used loopholes in the CDC’s directive. They filed 162,500-plus evictions in 27 cities tracked by the Princeton University’s Eviction Lab from the pandemic’s start through mid-December.
San Antonio hasn’t been tracking local numbers, but the city and Bexar County do offer emergency housing aid and other COVID-19 assistance to eligible residents, organizations and businesses.
The Alamo City received 45,037 household applications for emergency housing assistance, with 25,459 approvals by Dec. 29.
By the same date, the municipal program exhausted $66 million out of a committed $80.6 million in COVID-19-related local aid, including $53.2 million to temporarily assist renters or mortgagors. The city has helped more than 68,380 individuals.
See also: Landlords adapting to COVID rules
Veronica Soto, San Antonio’s Neighborhood and Housing Services director, said even before this emergency, the Alamo City faced a challenge dealing with its chronically homeless and expanding affordable housing.
“There’s a lot of gaps and lot of needs. Now, we have a full-blown housing crisis,” Soto said. “The people who before were house-burdened, experiencing homelessness, or were on the brink of homelessness, are now a larger number.”
After the pandemic hit last spring, many people managed to get by with an income-tax refund and/or federal stimulus check.
Those who lost jobs received unemployment bonuses. Now, most can’t rely on such short-term fixes.
“People who had never come for public assistance, who never imagined they’d be seeking assistance, are now seeking help to pay for their mortgage,” Soto said.
Some local leaders say even more should be done for residents in the greatest danger as the pandemic continues, especially with flu season and winter on the way.
San Antonio District 3 City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran praised county justices of the peace, who render legal decisions on eviction notices. They identify at-risk renters and link them to available assistance.
Viagran’s council staff has pointed many constituents toward aid. She also allocated more than $140,000 from the District 3 budget for more emergency aid.
“Because they were losing their job, because they were at risk of getting evicted, our council staff had to work hand in hand with those individuals and our city staff to get them all the resources that were there,” she added.
District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño and his staff successfully got a homeless initiative expanded in San Antonio’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget, extending outreach services into downtown and across the other council districts.
These efforts, including cleanups of areas with high numbers of homeless people and connecting those individuals to social services, began in the Dellview neighborhood.
Treviño said the pandemic is an additional barrier to resources available to the homeless and to residents fighting to head off displacement.
“As this pandemic continues to be an expanding crisis affecting our most vulnerable communities, designing opportunities for lifelines of support is imperative to ensure that we all make it through this unprecedented time safely,” Treviño said in a statement.
District 10 City Councilman Clayton Perry backs Trevino’s push for additional federal relief funds for hospitality industry workers who’ve been hit particularly hard.
“San Antonio’s response so far has been helpful, but I’d like to see assistance go further to help people who have lost their jobs due to COVID,” Perry said.
“There’s going to come a day where there’ll be mass evictions,” District 8 City Councilman Manny Pelaez said. “Some people will say (this level of aid) is not enough, but it’ll never be enough.”
Pelaez said the city can continue advocating for more emergency assistance to extend to at-risk renters, homeowners and other struggling residents.
San Antonio’s FY 2021 budget contains significant amounts of money to address homelessness, affordable housing and emergency housing.
Pelaez, like his council colleagues, also emphasizes the city’s workforce training program for jobless residents. Eligible participants get a $450 weekly stipend.
“Housing security includes workforce development,“ he added.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act helps fund many local government’s aid programs.
But, uncharted waters are on the horizon. Most significant CARES Act-backed initiatives were due to expire Jan. 1, 2021, and the new $900 billion federal stimulus package extends the CDC eviction moratorium through Jan. 31.
Soto and her counterparts expect another wave of residents seeking housing and other assistance.
It’s partially why San Antonio-area municipalities have been working with private-sector agencies and nonprofits, such as Castle Hills-based SAMMinistries, to support struggling community members such as Shelton for as long as possible.
“We have a robust program that pays rent to landlords and property managers for renters needing assistance,” said Nikisha Baker, SAMMinistries president and CEO. “We see a need to continue providing that resource.”
After the pandemic hit, Shelton’s apartment manager gave her and fellow tenants a list of resources where they could turn for help.
“SAMMinistries was the only place that called back,” Shelton said of her application process. “Everybody else we called was out of funds, they had a long list, or you had to be in their ZIP code.”
The organization also offers homeowners mortgage aid. Even so, Baker expects to see “an even larger number of families and individuals once the CDC moratorium ends.”
The local homeless population got hit hard in multiple ways, too.
Based on the Northwest Side, South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless is the lead “continuum of care” agency for the city and county — an alliance of service providers addressing homelessness and supportive housing.
Since the outbreak, SARAH has held weekly calls with partner agencies.
Many homeless are more at risk of exposure to COVID-19, especially seniors and those with underlying health conditions.
But, for months, the downtown shelter Haven for Hope used its intake space as a dormitory with several beds, and relocated at-risk residents to a city-leased hotel in order to accommodate social distancing on campus.
While in-person assessments at Haven for Hope have resumed, SARAH and other collaborators are sticking with telephone assessments.
“It’s been incredible seeing how people have come together,” SARAH Executive Director Katie Vela said. “We want people to remain resilient because we’re all in this for the long haul.”
One SARAH partner agency, Endeavors, serves homeless veterans statewide and elsewhere, from its Northwest Side office.
During the pandemic, it has assisted 4,000-plus homeless individuals in Texas and North Carolina, with more than 85% not returning to an unsheltered life on the street.
The pandemic’s effects have also had an adverse impact on veterans working in the food-service industry, and families with young children.
“We are currently servicing about three times the amount of clients that we would normally serve,” Chief Marketing Officer Shannon Gowen said. “We have been able to assist with rental arrears, utility arrears and vehicle repairs.”
Guadalupe, Comal and Kendall counties don’t have their own comprehensive relief programs, but Metrocom-area agencies such as Greater Randolph Area Services Program (GRASP) and Randolph Area Christian Assistance Program (RACAP) have stepped up.
Converse-based GRASP had been providing up to 25 families daily with rent, utility and food aid.
Nearly half of GRASP’s clients are new applicants who’ve never reached out for help prior to COVID’s arrival.
“As families return to work and school, we anticipate further challenges as some households are experiencing significant delinquencies for rent and utility payments and unable to catch up,” GRASP President/CEO Jay Higginson said.
GRASP and Schertz-based RACAP ran a Household Stabilization Program in Universal City, exhausting $150,000 in CARES Act funds that the municipality got from Bexar County.
“The Universal City household (program) was a success and, if more funding becomes available in the future, the program will be offered again,” Universal City City Manager Kim Turner said.
RACAP was boosted by monetary donations from the community, including residents who gave up their federal stimulus checks.
“Our communities really came through for us, and we were ready at the start,” program director Jessie Fisher said.
As for Shelton, her family’s rent was paid through 2020 thanks to SAMMinistries. But, despite her job-application efforts, her employment prospects are few and far between, and so are housing options.
“I’m just trying to stay above water,” she said.