Officials with the Bear River Association of Governments are worried that evictions could overwhelm already-strained housing assistance programs as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on.
BRAG received 1,200 calls in June from residents in Cache County who needed help with rent, utilities or other emergency funds, according to Human Services Specialist Lucas Martin. The surge came just after Gov. Gary Herbert’s eviction moratorium to prevent homelessness due to the novel coronavirus crisis expired. The increased level of $600 a week in unemployment benefits aren’t being paid out this week, either, because the program is set to expire at the end of the month.
“We want to make sure we get people taken care of so that a homeless-prevention crisis doesn’t turn into a homeless crisis,” Martin said. “That’s when the solution becomes much more complicated: when someone has been forced out of their home, evicted, and now all of a sudden they’re living out of the car. The number of challenges to the family and things that can go wrong go up substantially.”
BRAG received around $600,000 in funding to help residents meet their payments. But first, they have to apply.
“It’s highly likely, of course, there are many others that have not reached out for assistance yet,” he said. “It’s good weather and so for many of them, during the summertime especially, they can sleep in a car, and they can sleep up in the canyon or something, and it’s not nearly as much of a challenge.”
But Martin fears the system could be overwhelmed as the weather turns and the situation becomes much more urgent, especially if the rate of evictions is rising.
“My concern is that if we see a significant number of evictions,” he said, “that extra push could easily overwhelm already-strained homeless services in the area.”
By July 15, BRAG had verified 21 households that became homeless, with six more being investigated. But those are only the ones who’ve reached out to BRAG for help and doesn’t count individuals in shelters set aside for those escaping domestic violence, such as Citizens Against Physical and Sexual Abuse.
“I often have people ask me, ‘Do we really have homeless in the valley?’” said CAPSA Director Jill Anderson. “And my answer is, ‘I personally know over 300 individuals who were homeless in our valley last year.’ And their response is, ‘But where are they? I don’t see them.’ They’re not in the streets. They’re not in the park. They were in CAPSA’s shelter.”
With added stress and the looming threat of evictions, tensions in relationships can rise, further challenging households already struggling, ultimately leading to an increase in use of CAPSA and other domestic violence shelters.
The problem is compounded by precautions shelters are taking to lower the risk of COVID-19 spreading.
“When you’ve reduced your shelter capacity or had to start utilizing motels or other things to try and spread folks out, if you add another 20 or 50% folks on top of that,” Martin said, “that can really create challenges that we don’t have the infrastructure to take care of.”
While some have asked Herbert to issue another eviction moratorium, Martin said that may not help the situation, either.
“It’s complicated because in Logan, for example, we have a lot of landlords that are private owners, and they may still have mortgages,” he said. “And if they’re still paying mortgages on those properties, there are lenders. Just because they can’t evict the tenant doesn’t mean that the lender isn’t wanting the money from them.”
Currently, the state does not allow assistance programs for mortgage holders. Just for renters.
“I think it’d be worthwhile for the state to consider trying to have a program for private landlords rather than having the renters delay in their income,” Martin said. “Instead, going straight to those landlords who maybe would need help making those mortgage payments as a result of the tenants’ need to vacate.”
One thing that helped shelters during COVID-19 was that Utah State University students left the area early as a result of online-only classes, which freed up affordable housing in the area. But the leeway is coming to an end as students are set to return next month as classes resume on Aug. 31.