Jul 31, 2020

COVID-19 Financial Assistance: Stories and lessons learned from flexible housing assistance fund

As the coronavirus pandemic took thousands of Minnesotans out of the workforce beginning in March, it became clear that new financial assistance was necessary to keep families afloat. While several new sources of public support became available, Family Housing Fund (FHFund) worked to identify and begin to fill assistance gaps. In early April, we allocated dollars to emergency housing assistance intended to support households who are ineligible for most types of public assistance, including undocumented immigrant families. We partnered with Communidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), working across the metro, and the Tenant Resource Center (TRC) in Hennepin County to administer the funds and learn about the families served. Their stories provide a glimpse at the great need created by the pandemic and show that newly-created public benefits still do not meet the needs of many households. Additionally, this experience can inform best practices for quick and effective distribution of emergency aid.

Stories from the families

Households assisted by our funds experienced a COVID-19-related loss of income, loss of childcare, or illness. Many assisted clients suffered reductions to hours or lost their jobs doing hourly work in hotels, restaurants, or as self-employed contractors. Some expect to be called back under uncertain timing, while others are now searching for new work. Some assisted individuals own a business (e.g. beauty salon) or are self-employed (e.g. cleaning houses) and are unable to reopen due to COVID. Two assisted clients were able to escape a moldy or unsafe rental home, while one client was able to escape a domestic abuser and find a new home. Clients described how these funds will help them find housing stability, but also how their uncertainty and struggle will be ongoing:

“This will help me until my husband can come back to the house. He is in a ventilator now. (It will also) help me until I feel better to go back to work.”

“This will buy me time. I need to figure out how I am going back to work having 5 children that I need to help with school.”

“This will help me until the restaurant will call me back.  I am trying to offer cleaning services but no one has contacted me.”

Most assisted clients are not eligible for government assistance. None of the 81 clients served were able to access Unemployment Insurance, Emergency Assistance, or Homeless Prevention assistance from their county, potentially due to mixed immigration status. Just one client was able to access cash assistance from a nonprofit, and only four were eligible for Federal / State aid.

CLUES also provides assistance dedicated to food, healthcare, and other basic needs and in some cases was able to bundle these resources with our housing funds in order to fully meet the needs of families who had lost income.  This spared clients significant time and energy otherwise required to pursue needed resources.

  • 3 in 5 received job-related services or referral (46/75 clients)
  • 1 in 5 received help with diapers (15/75)
  • 1 in 10 received medical-related services or referral (7/75)
  • 1 in 10 received food-related services or referral (9/75)

Lessons for administering emergency aid

Our partners were able to administer FHFund resources in a short period of time and informed us that this process was easier than their experience with traditional public aid systems. Importantly, clients were not required to show that they had already missed a rent payment to be eligible for these funds. Rather, clients had to show a loss of income due to the pandemic and provide a reasonable expectation that they would have difficulty paying rent as a result. This made for a swifter process for CLUES and the TRC and provided assistance both to households attempting to remain current on their rent and those attempting to get current again. Additionally, bundling this support with other resources and services is important to efficiently and effectively providing aid during highly challenging times. It puts the onus of navigating the complex system of social services onto the providers and experts rather than on the family in crisis.

The need for long-term relief

The insights gained from this work urge us to take greater action to ensure direct financial assistance with fewer eligibility requirements for the duration of the pandemic. We need a solution that works for the thousands of households left behind by the current COVID assistance system. While parts of the economy are reopening, work and income remain uncertain for workers in many industries, particularly service and hospitality. As the additional $600 federal unemployment relief expires today, thousands more families will face housing instability similar to the households assisted by our partners. The State of Minnesota has allocated $100 million for housing assistance, but we know that the need is great and will be ongoing. When these funds expire at the end of this year, we will need a strategy to support the many families still out of work due to the economic collapse. We must work together as a community to help all of our neighbors maintain their housing.

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