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The Bear River Association of Governments human services department received more than 1,200 calls in June from locals needing assistance with rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to BRAG’s Lucas Martin, that number will only go up in coming months as representatives in new positions created both at BRAG and at the Cache Refugee and Immigrant Center work to provide more access to underserved populations in the valley.

“We’re trying to level the playing field, really, if there’s language barriers, if there’s challenges with time, if they don’t have access to computers or the internet, if they’re elderly and don’t hear very well and so making a phone call could be very difficult,” Martin said. “All those become barriers when you’re working on applications that are over the computer and over the phone.”

And due to COVID-19, that’s how support agencies like BRAG — whose office is still closed to the public — are operating.

“The remote nature of services right now makes that harder,” said Jess Lucero, the board president at CRIC, “but so do English-language challenges and any number of outside barriers that we encounter with our clients.”

For example, Mackenzie Bowcutt, CRIC’s executive director, said 90% of CRIC’s refugee clients were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak at JBS. CRIC served more than 400 households through grocery and hygiene kit deliveries, and Bowcutt said she expects roughly the same number to apply for rental assistance.

Until recently, the process to apply for BRAG’s Rental Assistance Program was convoluted and required applicants to first apply for unemployment — even though the applicants would be denied. And with Utah’s Department of Workforce Services being flooded with claims as unemployment jumped nearly 3,000% in April and May due to COVID-19, it sometimes took applicants weeks to hear back.

But without the denial from DWS, applicants would be denied RAP funding from BRAG to prevent clients doubling up on COVID-19 funding.

Lucero said DWS and BRAG were very responsive in fixing the system to allow clients to submit paystubs directly to BRAG rather than going through the unemployment application process, which shaved hours off each application process. Streamlining the process and helping clients navigate the system is CRIC’s primary goal, according to Lucero.

In order to address language and technology barriers, CRIC also created four new positions (three Spanish-speakers, one Tagrinya-speaker) as housing assistance advocates.

“This is just a really critical gap in our community,” Lucero said, “and one that, if we can’t respond to it effectively, really stands to cause a pretty significant housing crisis in a really tight rental market.”

Martin added the partnership with CRIC and the new positions at both agencies will be instrumental in getting the funding to the community.

“We had two case managers, and that’s been doubled to four now,” he said. “But even with that, they’re running all the time to try and meet these needs. And so that’s where this partnership with CRIC will help a lot, because if we’re getting … applications that are missing documents, that can be a lot of time spent going back and forth with clients trying to run the documents down.”

CRIC is also recruiting volunteers for two-hour weekly shifts to help with applications for those in need of assistance.

Martin said currently, 45% of those receiving aid from BRAG’s RAP funding identify as Hispanic or Latino, but as more resources become available to help the population apply for COVID-19 related funding, that number will likely rise.

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