Covid-19Magazine Exclusive

Saving the American Dream

Soon after the COVID-19 shutdown early this spring, members of the Salvation Army’s advisory board in Akron, Ohio, saw the ominous clouds of an economic storm gathering.

Many businesses across the country closed or severely cut back operations. Millions of people lost their jobs or were furloughed, and some found accessing unemployment benefits a challenge.

When it came to housing, local governments imposed moratoriums on evictions. While that helped in the short term, people who owed mortgages and rents were still under the storm clouds. The moratoriums just gave them more time to pay.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has extended its nationwide eviction moratorium to Dec. 31, leaving many people anxious that they could be evicted in the heart of winter.


Reading the forecast

Major Steven Stoops, the area coordinator and corps officer at the Akron (Citadel), Ohio, Corps Community Center, said his advisory board voted to take $50,000 from an investment account to help people struggling with housing costs.

“Way back in the spring, our advisory board had the foresight to picture this happening in the fall and voted to draw down that money so we could help people,” Stoops said.

So far, the corps has spent about $15,000 and has helped 15 families, Stoops said.

“We expect it to pick up,” he added.

Stoops said some other community organizations can only help a homeowner with mortgage costs, but not delinquent escrow payments. Many homeowners escrow their home insurance.

“Some of the programs the government put in place are ending,” he said. “We’re free to make the rules as we see fit, so we’re helping the people now with those items.”

When people call 211 in Akron, they are directed to The Salvation Army, where they can fill out a detailed application.

“We know that home ownership is the biggest investment anyone will ever make,” Stoops said. “It’s also a key part of the American Dream. Whether you’re born here or come as a refugee or as an immigrant, it’s always a huge part of the American Dream.

“It would be really sad if you acquired the American Dream and then something like COVID makes you lose it and you get foreclosed. The Salvation Army wants to be that safety net. We want to make sure our neighbors here in Akron stay as whole as possible when this is all over. It makes me feel great and it’s the right thing to do.”


Seeing the people

Krista Whitaker, community relations and development coordinator for The Salvation Army’s Lexington Area Services, said she is seeing “a good number” of people coming in for rent assistance. She said many had trouble accessing unemployment benefits, which is often done online and causes a lot of frustration due to long waits.

“People might be trying or wanting to pay their rent, and they qualify for unemployment, but can’t get those funds,” she said. “We’re seeing those people come in and we’re trying to help them. I don’t think we’ve seen the peak of that here. I do have a great deal of concern.”

Whitaker said the city of Lexington has applied for federal funding and local non-profits are pulling together.

“I think everybody is trying to anticipate and do as much as they can now, but I don’t think anyone has that crystal ball to know what’s going to happen in January or February,” she said.

Brenda Downing, the Southern New England Division’s social services director, said she is also concerned about the future once the moratoriums are lifted. She fears mass evictions will happen.

“There’s going to be significant need and I keep saying that I really do believe we’re in the calm before the storm, at least here in our area,” she said.


Handling the truth

Kate Borrero, the corps officer in Meriden, Conn., said that the moratoriums are “a great security, but the expense is still there. That’s a problem.” At the same time, funding to help is limited.

“It’s just building,” she said. “It’s just increasing. When these moratoriums are lifted, we’ll have families and individuals who are going to have a real difficult time paying all that back rent.”

Borrero said The Salvation Army has been able to help people budget their limited resources.

“We walk them through their current income and spending patterns,” she said. “We try to help them make good choices and set goals for weathering the storm financially. I think that’s one of the better ways that we’ve been able to help people, aside from the financial assistance.”

While being a pastor during COVID-19 has been difficult, Borrero said she has been an encourager and found inspiration in the John Wesley quote, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” She said some people coming for assistance have opened up to her about their feelings.

“It’s just about being sensitive to moments to speak truth and encouragement that can only come from the Lord,” she said.


Shifting the priority

Major Darren Mudge, the corps officer in Reading, Pa., said his caseworkers are providing rental assistance to prevent evictions.

“We are seeing people on a daily basis who are coming through or calling,” he said. “We’ve got people filing paperwork daily.”

In the early days of COVID-19, Mudge said the focus was on food distribution, but that has changed.

“Now, we’re kind of back in our wheelhouse in terms of being able to help people with other needs.” he said. “The food we gave them would help for a week. Now, we’re looking at ways we can help people for the long-term.”

Mudge said the corps operates a Pathway of Hope (POH) program in a city where the unemployment rate is more than 14 percent and 60 percent of people live in poverty.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’re not alone,” he said. “There are other agencies we’re coordinating with to try and put together a comprehensive plan to help people.”

Mudge said he enjoys being on the “front lines.” In the past, someone might have visited a caseworker, but Mudge would never meet the person. Like Borrero, the pandemic has brought him face-to-face with clients.

“It was much more of a hands-on thing for us as officers to be there on a daily basis and to see people,” he said. “It was great for us to have that kind of front-line experience.

“We got to know folks and build relationships in our community. That, for me, was fulfilling.”

by Robert Mitchell