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Kathleen Burke Barrett column: COVID-19 and homelessness in the Tri-Cities: Why the bigger picture matters
COVID-19 and Homelessness

Kathleen Burke Barrett column: COVID-19 and homelessness in the Tri-Cities: Why the bigger picture matters

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A single mother worked as a waitress, and just made her rent and utility payments each month. When COVID-19 shut down her restaurant, the bills began to mount, including her rent. She faced long days with kids doing online school. With libraries and most government offices closed, she waited on hold for hours seeking assistance. Her landlord began to talk about eviction. But without nearby family, and the pandemic raging, where would she and her children go?

For most of us, 2020 was a tough year. For those who are in poverty facing housing insecurity, the fear and stress were overwhelming.

The issue of homelessness is not a simple one of housing, but rather it is at the heart of a complex web of disadvantages that make even the most basic elements of daily living — buying food, doing laundry or getting a job interview — Herculean tasks. Imagine trying to apply for assistance — or a job — when you don’t have a computer, internet service or a printer.

St. Joseph’s Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services team is well acquainted with the issues of housing insecurity and poverty. In fact, we were founded in 1834 — now one of the longest running nonprofits in the nation — to provide a home for orphans. Today, along with our other services to children and families, we serve as the lead agency for the Crater Area Coalition on Homelessness (CACH). Yet, this past year has stretched us and challenged us to evaluate every option and take every avenue to provide solutions.

In June, Flagler became one of about 30 regional providers for the Virginia Rent Mortgage Relief Program (RMRP). Using federal dollars, the state, through RMRP, assists eligible households facing eviction or foreclosure due to COVID-19.

In becoming a RMRP provider, our team catapulted into a new area: eviction prevention. We dove in headfirst, and less than a week later provided the first funds. And we did this while we were working remotely for the first time.

RMRP required us to ramp up staffing, software and systems to handle a flood of inquiries. We were inundated by nearly 600 calls, which required hundreds of calls more to secure landlord agreements, get documentation and follow up on requests.

In the end, the St. Joseph’s Flagler team helped 253 households representing 693 individuals in the Tri-Cities area of Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights to avoid eviction. Of those households, 191 (about 75%) included children. We distributed more than $1.5 million in RMRP. Flagler also helped with the many associated expenses not covered, such as utilities, transportation, COVID-19 personal protective equipment and mattresses. The challenges especially are great in the Tri-Cities area, compounded by older housing stock and high utility bills.

At St. Joseph’s Villa, we take a holistic approach because poverty rarely is just about homelessness or food insecurity or unemployment. We sometimes provide phones because you cannot get an apartment if there is no way to contact you. We help clients obtain IDs and paperwork, which might have been lost in the process of eviction. We connect clients to mental health services, because you cannot find your way out of homelessness when you are fighting just to keep going.

As President Joe Biden’s administration extends the federal eviction moratorium and assistance for renters, the needs for those who are grappling with housing insecurity continue. While we are glad for rent assistance, we hope to raise awareness of the need for a more holistic approach.

Homelessness and housing insecurity never have been more acute than during this pandemic. At St. Joseph’s Villa, we never stop believing that together, we can make a difference by seeing the whole person, their assets and challenges, and connecting them with the resources they need.

Kathleen Burke Barrett has served as chief executive officer for St. Joseph’s Villa since 2006. Contact her at: (804) 553-3200 or info@sjvmail.net

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