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Bartlett House faces challenges during pandemic

Director: We could see people who have never been homeless before

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is closing in on its sixth month, Keri DeMasi, executive director of Bartlett House in Morgantown, said phone calls to her agency from people who need help with housing and making ends meet have doubled. 

And if people start getting evicted or lose their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance benefits or lose unemployment benefits, DeMasi said it will only get worse.

“There’s going to be a residual effect,” she said.

 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzes the impact of federal and state governmental policies, compiled a report in late July showing more households struggled to afford food and pay rent as the pandemic lingered. The Washington, D.C., think tank also said evictions could climb as various federal, state and local moratoriums are lifted.

“We could see people who have never been homeless before,” DeMasi said.

“One of the challenges we face is lack of affordable housing.”

Eye-opening numbers  

In its report, the CBPP said an estimated 13.1 million adults live in rental housing, and one in five adults were behind on their rent for the week ending July 7. Around 96,000 West Virginians — 34% — said they are behind on rent, the highest percentage in the country.

 It also found 7 million children live in a home that is behind on rent, and 8 million  to 15 million children don’t get enough to eat because the money just isn’t there. 

Overall, 26 million adults — 10.8% of all adults in the country — said they did not have enough to eat for the week ending July 7, the report said. In December 2018, by comparison, the latest available Census data showed 3.7% of all adults said they had not had enough to eat in the last 12 months. 

The number of people receiving SNAP benefits is rising, too. The CBPP said while national data is not yet available, information from 42 states shows 6.2 million more people began receiving the benefit, an increase of 17.2%, between February and May.

“SNAP is a necessity,” DeMasi said. “People need it to eat. What about people who live in rural areas and don’t have a car and can only go to the grocery store once a month?” As of May, there were nearly 300,000 people in West Virginia who receive SNAP benefits, up 6% from February.

Then there are people who are neglecting medication to pay for other things, said Laura Jones, executive director of Milan Puskar Health Right, a free health care clinic in Morgantown. 

“Basically, I believe people who are not having a current health care crisis are postponing appointments to the clinic, Jones said in an email to The Dominion Post. “However, when they run out of important medications or realize that they will not have a job to go to or can’t afford their medications, we will see a rise in new patient numbers at the clinic. It is important for the state to watch for a rise in new Medicaid patients. People without income or low income will need Medicaid to cover their health care costs.” 

What’s needed

The CBPP said the next relief package should be robust enough and last long enough to ensure families can make ends meet and re-emerge in the economy when it is safe to do so. But when that will happen, remains to be seen because it is an election year, said Chris Plein, a West Virginia University professor of public administration.

“It’s a continuation of old style politics,” he said. 

Negotiations on a new COVID-19 relief package is stalled. President Trump said Wednesday he might use his executive powers to bring back the moratorium of evictions, boost unemployment benefits and suspend the payroll tax, The Washington Post reported. But, it is not clear  Trump has the power to do so.

“I think we can expect some sort of response,” Plein said. 

The next relief package, the CPBB said needs to be financially strong and last long enough to help people re-emerge into the economy.  Among the suggestions, the report said:

  • Boost SNAP benefits for all program participants. The recently passed House Heroes Act includes a 15% SNAP benefit increase, which equates to an extra $100 a month for a family of four. The CPBB said studies have shown benefits are too low, even during better economic times.
  • Significantly increase funding for homelessness, eviction prevention and housing vouchers. More resources are needed for rental assistance, including missed payments. 
  • Provide emergency grants to states for targeted help to people falling through the cracks. Additional funding is needed for states to provide cash or other help to people at risk for eviction.   
  • Extend expansion in jobless benefits. These expansions are important for low-paid workers, people of color. Most of the job loss has been on lower-paying jobs.

“More money needs to be pushed toward states,” Plein said. 

Ways to fix

The CPBB said the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for workers without minor children at home and the Child Tax Credit needs to be targeted more toward the poor and low-income children. 

A fully available Child Tax Credit could lift 1 million Blacks, 1 million Latinos, 850,000 non-Hispanic Whites, 120,000 Asian and Pacific Islander and 70,000 Native Americans out of poverty.

By expanding the EITC, workers who don’t get the tax credit and are basically taxed into poverty. The report said, “Some 19% of the workers who would be helped by the expansion in the EITC for workers without minor children at home are Black and 25% are Latino. Providing the full Child Tax Credit to the 27 million children who now receive a partial credit or no credit at all because their families don’t have the earnings or their earnings are too low to help struggling families.”

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