ROCHESTER — A single mother of five recently found stable housing after becoming homeless as a result of domestic violence.
Salitha Philip, a program manager with Olmsted County’s Family Support and Assistance Division, said finding housing wouldn’t have been possible without access to $2,000 in emergency assistance.
“She luckily had a job, but because of the situation the landlord needed the prorated month, the first month rent and double deposit due to her credit score,” Philip said of the woman who didn’t want her name revealed.
To reach the required amount, she used $2,000 from her personal savings, $1,799 from her 401k account and $1,048 provided by Family Promise, which works with homeless families.
The last $2,000 that she needed came from the county program that provides emergency help with housing and utility bills, when when that money is needed to solve an immediate need for families.
However, funds are running out, due to increased demand in recent years.
Dan Jensen, the associate director of the Family Support and Assistance Division, said the current level of applications for help point toward that fund, supplied by the state government and intended for families with children, running out in January.
It’s money the county received in July that was intended to last through June.
A separate emergency assistance program to help households without children has also been seeing added requests, but it runs on a calendar year, so new state funds are expected in January.
Jensen said both programs ran dry in September, and the county had to close the program. It can be tapped by qualified low-income residents only once in a 12-month period.
Philip said the single mother of five initially applied for help when the county had no funds and was temporarily turned away.
Fellow program manager Laura Larson said 70% of the 3,511 households helped in the past seven years have never returned for assistance through the program, 18% made two requests made in the same period, and only 34 households have returned on a near-annual basis.
While support through the program was broadened during the pandemic as families and others faced a variety of housing challenges, added federal and state funds have been used and the county has needed to scale back to pre-pandemic parameters to ensure the existing funds last as long as possible.
It means assistance is capped at $2,000, with up to $400 being available to cover utility bills. Additionally, the maximum value of assets to qualify for the program has been lowered from $10,000 to $3,000 per household.
With the limited resources, Jensen said a key component of the program is working with landlords to ensure the financial support will fully solve the emergency, rather than just postpone action.
“This must resolve the situation and make the situation whole,” he said, adding that social workers make sure eviction won’t be considered if payment is made.
With Olmsted County courts seeing multiple new eviction cases filed on a near daily basis, Philip and Larson cited a variety of instances when a one-time struggle could have resulted in notices from landlords.
They included one client who used his rent money to pay his mother’s emergency medical bills, other clients who struggled with reduced work hours and a disabled mother who was hit with an unexpectedly high utility bill.
“A lot of these are facing eviction, so they are able to stay (in their homes after receiving help),” Philip said.
The need for county-based assistance lessened last year, when the state’s RentHelp program had federal funds available to help renters who fell behind on monthly payments during the state’s eviction moratorium.
However, people’s need continued after the state program closed and prices on rent and other household needs continued to climb.
Larry More, family advocacy specialist at Three Rivers Community Action, said calls for help continue to increase, making it difficult for area agencies to provide the needed support, if county funds are not available.
He said his agency receives funding for rental assistance every three months, but the money doesn’t last that long.
“We would see that our funding would be gone every two to three weeks,” he said.
Likewise, Major Candace Voeller of the Rochester Salvation Army said her agency budgets support on a monthly basis, which means people are routinely referred to the county or other agencies.
“We cannot meet the needs of everyone that comes to us, so we need to ask people to check back to us next month,” she said.
Jensen said county staff has been able to use $157,000 contingency funds and a $80,000 repayment from the state to fill the anticipated gap through the end of the year, but future efforts remain uncertain.
One possibility being discussed is to continue accepting applications and providing support when needed to keep people housed. The county would then need to find ways to fill any gaps before state funds are available.
Deputy County Administrator Travis Gransee said the county already has programs that operate that way when costs can not be predicted on a year-to-year basis.
“I think that is an option for the board to consider,” he said.
County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said failing to provide the emergency assistance could end up being more costly for the county, since evicted families would likely rely on added community services.
“It’s hard to articulate or document the ripple, and it’s hard to document the cost savings,” she said.