More than a billion dollars of federal aid has been flowing into Georgia — all of it to help tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic.
But some eligible renters are finding that accessing this funding isn’t always so easy.
Irma Ozuna-Perez shows she’s smiling with her eyes. They’re all that is visible as she stands near a bus stop in her neighborhood in northeast Atlanta. She has her face mask on and the hood of her black jacket pulled over her head.
“As you see me, I’ve come dressed from work,” she says, originally speaking in Spanish.
She’s a housekeeper for hotels.
It’s been difficult during the pandemic. She hasn’t gotten enough hours — and that caused her to fall behind on rent. And when she fell behind on rent, her landlord stopped her gas service, she says. So her family can’t take hot showers or cook on the stove. Instead they use a small electric grill.
Recently, she thought she could get help.
She went to an event for Atlanta’s rental assistance program, run by United Way. Many applicants were Latinx that day.
“Everyone believed when they went to this event that they would get help,” she says.
She believed that, too.
Ozuna-Perez says a caseworker told her the program would pay her bills in 20 days.
But three months passed and that didn’t happen.
Protip Biswas, vice president of homelessness at United Way, shares an explanation. He says some families, like Ozuna-Perez’s, fell into a brief gap in funding.
The federal government gave cities like Atlanta money in a few rounds. When Ozuna-Perez applied, United Way ran out of the first round. But Biswas says they took those applications and processed them when the second round began.
Still, he says he knows any wait is difficult when a family is in crisis.
“Whenever I meet these families, I wish I could respond to them today because that’s what they need,” Biswas says.
In Ozuna-Perez’s case, it’s not clear what happened.
According to United Way, caseworkers tried contacting her again for more paperwork and didn’t hear back. Though, she says she didn’t receive anything other than a note in English saying there was no more money.
From her end, the whole experience has been pretty confusing.
A lot of immigrant families, especially with undocumented members, have struggled to get rental assistance, according to Katherine McKay of the Aspen Institute, which has studied programs across the country.
“Those are households that are likely to be lower income,” she says. “There’s also language barriers and reticence to ask for help.”
She says some programs early in the pandemic also excluded families with undocumented members because of residency restrictions for certain kinds of federal funding.
In the latest rounds of rental assistance, it’s clear there are no such restrictions (although some local programs still have asked for Social Security numbers when they open applications).
The more providers can do to reach immigrant families, the better, McKay says. This money is supposed to reach the people who need it most.
“The purpose is to ensure that this recovery is more equitable,” she says. “That’s why there’s so much money for social safety-net programs and things like emergency rental assistance in the American recovery plan.”
Biswas acknowledges United Way could do better.
He says the organization has marketed on the Spanish-language network Telemundo and tried to be flexible with documentation around pay stubs and rental leases.
Now in this second round of rental assistance, the agency has stopped accepting most applications as it works through the many it’s already received.
But Spanish-speaking families continue to have another chance at help.
“If you go to our website and apply in Spanish, that site is still open because we want the immigrant group to keep coming in,” Biswas says.
Ozuna-Perez’s application is among those still pending. United Way looked back into her situation, and caseworkers finally made contact with her landlord.
Ozuna-Perez says that is who this money is for.
She says she isn’t going to spend it on herself. The money goes straight to her family’s bills and rent.
Months behind now, and with late fees, she knows she won’t be able to pay all of that on her own.