Published July 24, 2020, by Frank Gerjevic
From Anchorage Cares to AK Can Do to the municipality’s COVID-19 Rent and Mortgage Assistance Pilot Program, the purpose hasn’t changed – get Alaskans swift help that keeps people housed, safe and fed throughout the income losses of the pandemic.
The $1 million Municipality of Anchorage program, funded by federal pandemic money, has strict qualifications so there are a few more hurdles to clear in this iteration of help through United Way’s Alaska 2-1-1 helpline and Lutheran Social Services.
Here are brief stories of some of our neighbors who have received help, and the difference that help has made, from interviews at Lutheran Social Services with the help of director Alan Budahl and program coordinator Joseph Mongold.
Seon J Kim
Seon J Kim is a barber by trade who owns his own Spenard shop, Classy Clips. Originally from South Korea, Seon has lived in the United States for 37 years and had his shop since 2010. He saw his business dwindle in the first days of the pandemic then shut down in March. Shaggy customers made for a surge right after late April’s reopening, he said, but since then he’s served two, three, maybe five customers a day compared to the 13 to 15 before COVID-19 struck. That’s not enough to make a living. That’s not enough to cover the rent on his shop, which runs $2150 a month.
Yet, he says, “I’m a very lucky guy.” His customers may be fewer, but they’ve brought him essentials for staying open in the pandemic – masks, hand sanitizer and alcohol. “Makes me cry,” he said. The owners of the building he rents cut his payments to $1500 for six months. “That’s a big help. I really appreciate them.”
And on Friday (June 19), he was stunned to receive a rental assistance check for $1000 at Lutheran Social Services. He hadn’t expected to show up, provide documentation and walk out with a check to his landlord in just 15 minutes. He thanked Joseph, then turned at the door and gave a wave, too choked up to say thanks again.
Bossworth had logged six months of steady work as a warehouseman at US Foods in South Anchorage, making $19 an hour for the food distributor that supplies restaurants. Then “everything started falling apart.” Layoffs were based on seniority. Six months isn’t much.
Bossworth and his wife have three kids – ages 3, 2 and 1 – and his wife is a stay-at-home mom. He didn’t file for unemployment – “we had a little good savings,” so he and his wife thought they’d weather the storm. They did, for a while. But the storm hasn’t stopped. Bossworth landed another job, at Alaska Mill and Feed, but it pays four dollars an hour less.
“Our budget is different now,” he said with a smile. That budget got a boost with a rent check.
“I really appreciate this,” he said. “Now I can catch up with some other bills, like the car insurance.”
William Phillips and Jessica Agoney
Sometimes applicants just come up against the friction of life. Jessica Agoney qualified for help, having lost her Instacart gig when restaurants took a hit. She had some records of her work, but not the pay stub with Instacart’s name. She’d previously provided some verifying information to another staffer at Lutheran Social Services, but now Alan couldn’t find it.
“I need a little more than what’s on. the phone,” Alan Budahl said. That’s because the city’s criteria are strict; no record, no payment. The purpose is to guarantee good stewardship of public money.
Phillips and Agoney thought they had already provided documentation in a previous visit, but Alan couldn’t find the record either online or in hard copy, and then email communication glitched into send-receive error messages. Alan’s frustration mounted; the appointment schedule, already booked beyond the close of business, was backlogging deeper into the evening. He called the city to find out if phone documentation would suffice, but couldn’t get a sure answer.
Jessica waited. William smiled.
“I’ve got seven kids,” he said. “I know how stressful life can get.” William had heard about the assistance program from a friend on Facebook and called 2-1-1, then did his own Facebook post to spread the word.
“I’m gonna pay this out of my funds and let you go,” Alan finally said. Lutheran Social Services has no latitude with the city’s money, but Alan has some with the agency’s own.
The COVID-19 rental assistance fund is one of the bridges that government’s, nonprofits and private companies have built to get people through the pandemic. This bridge spans time rather than distance.
Kelsei Wright, 32 and the mother of a 10-year-old son, appreciated the bridge. Before March 9, she was an office assistant at a motor home company, working the hours her son was in school. She’s since applied for a job at Brown Jug.
A rent check for $1,000 to Cook Inlet Housing is a blessing.
“Oh, now I don’t have to stress for another 30 days.”
Protective of her baby (she didn’t know as of June 19, but had “that gut feeling that it’s a girl”), Kirsten stays home, working reduced hours for the construction company where she had been a receptionist.
“I’ve been trying to find part-time work. I’m pretty persistent,” she said. If that doesn’t work, “I’ll try to tough it out by other means.”
As for the check, “this’ll actually catch me up on my rent and everything.”
“Pay stubs look good,” Joseph Mongold told her.
“The last one doesn’t,” Valentina said.
Rent help means “a whole lot,” she said. “The little bit of money we have, we buy food, and cat food and cat litter.” She has a 15-year old daughter and 26-year-old son staying with her. She’ll be 60 in October.
“I don’t wanna be homeless,” she said.
She had her documents – ID, lease agreement, pay stub – in good order so there were no speed bumps en route to $1000 in rental help, along with word to call 2-1-1 if she needs a second round next month.
“Holy crap, I didn’t mean to cry,” she said. “Man, I wanna go back to work.”
Work is the Starbucks in baggage claim at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, open from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a normal summer, and Chyanne said, “a hotspot for a lot of employees.” That was the joy of her job – “I was the bartender, so to speak.” She heard people’s stories of husbands, boyfriends, children, wives, girlfriends, wonder and woe. She listened and got to know her customers.
Another blessing of her job was health insurance. At 35, Chyanne is a cancer survivor.
“I have to take a lot of medications,” she said. “One pill can cost up to $400 a month.”
Now she didn’t have to choose between rent and medication.
“Glad we could help,” Joseph said as Chyanne left. At a wish for good luck in going back to work, she turned and smiled.
“I’m the therapist.”
Deborah (she wanted to use only her first name) had waited tables at the airport for HMS Host. She came to her appointment well-prepared with a furlough letter, ID and a pay stub.
“We know they’re not coming this year,” she said of the tourist traffic that most summers keeps her airport tables full. “We hope to have them back next year.”
The pandemic upended part of what’s been a good situation for Deborah – she had a paying job, and a break on rent at $500 a month, taking care of a place for a family that spends most of its year abroad. Ordinarily, she’d visit children and grandchildren in Texas when her landlords returned to Alaska, but that arrangement was another casualty of the coronavirus.
“I can’t go anywhere,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean she can’t do anything.
“Does anybody need a mask?” she asked. She carried two bags full of masks she’d sown, many with Alaska themes. She’d decided that with time on her hands she’d do something practical, so made masks fortified with an inner sleeve to accommodate a filter.
A 57-year-old woman (who preferred not to give her name) had a job as sales manager with a nationwide company booking vacation trips. When the 2020 cruise ship season crashed, so did her job.
So did her other job, a gig with the Census Bureau. She made a few trips to Alaska villages to encourage 2020 census participation before the pandemic ended the bureau’s off-road Alaska outreach.
“I don’t have any income,” she said. She appreciated the fact that the Municipality/United Way program wasn’t limited to families or couples, that it was open to anyone who had lost work due to COVID-19.
But she’d be happier to be working again. When Joseph Mongold advised her to call 2-1-1 if she needed help again next month, she whispered “Please not,” followed by “thank you.”
Mary and Aloysius Unok
Until the COVID-19 shutdown, Mary and Aloysius were doing all right. They’d moved to Anchorage from Kotlik seven years ago after Aloysius retired and began to receive Social Security.
Mary worked in food services at Alaska Native Medical Center when the pandemic cut her hours. “This will help, yeah,” Mary said of the $1000 check for rent. She echoed the surprise of many Alaskans caught in the coronavirus shutdown.
“I never thought we’d fall behind on our bills.”
“Before COVID-19, we got full time,” he said. Not now. Even with the reopening of AnchorRides service, he’s working reduced hours with reduced pay.
Ilaisa and his wife have five children, ranging in age from 9 to 21. He hasn’t applied for unemployment – “I didn’t apply for money.” He did apply for and has received food stamps for the kids. “I appreciate that,” he said.
$1000 in mortgage assistance will help keep his family housed as well as fed until he’s driving full time again.