SOUTHERN INDIANA — As shutdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19 threaten the global economy, Southern Indiana advocates say the brunt could be harder for local families already struggling, and work to find ways to help them.

On Wednesday, Congress passed the CARES Act, a roughly $2 trillion emergency coronavirus relief bill aimed to assist individuals, businesses and healthcare capability within the U.S. The House approved the bill Friday.

It includes one-time payments of up to $1,200 for many American adults, $500 for each child and up to $150 billion to be split among U.S. states and territories.

While the relief is much-needed, Barb Anderson, executive director at community advocacy, planning and organization group Haven House services, Inc., said many living in poverty will still need more help.

“The recovery for them is going to be twice as hard [than] for a family who has immediate income job,” she said. “Because that $1,200, you’re paying 850 a month for rent...that’s going to take care of one month’s rent.”

And while many utility companies have stepped up to let residents know services won’t be shut off for non-payment for a time period during this public health crisis, money owed isn’t being forgiven; residents will still be accountable for making those payments.

Anderson said what the utility companies have offered has been “phenomenal,” but added people and community agencies need to be looking ahead.

“We have to talk about what happens after this is done because if we don’t, we’re going to get caught with our pants down,” she said. “How soon after this is over will the utilities allow you to stretch that utility out? And how much of a person’s budget is going to go to utilities if a person’s rent is past due?”

A mandate is also in place that prevents landlords from evicting people during this time; however, it doesn’t currently apply to people who stay long-term in hotels as their residence, of which Anderson said there are many in Southern Indiana.

She said renters even with stretched thin budgets should pay what they can toward rent during this time, while not sacrificing necessities like food for their families. This will show landlords that they’re making a good-faith effort to pay even if it’s not everything.

“We need to encourage people not to evict people; we need to encourage landlords to put people on a payment plan,” she said. “There’s some negotiation that could take place but I think we have to put those things on the table.

“It’s going to take all of us to help fix this and we’re all going to have to sacrifice.”

Phil Ellis, executive director at Community Action of Southern Indiana, said he’s received a lot of calls recently from worried residents asking about rental assistance and help with paying utility bills.

“They’re very much worried,” he said.

The organization assisted 5,800 families in Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties last year with utilities. And while new applicants this year may still be eligible for that assistance, they won’t be if they already received it during the winter months.

The rental assistance is in the form of an eviction prevention program; the agency may be able to assist families with up to $500 in rent, but only when they have received an eviction notice. They helped 85 families with this last year, but he said they’ve already started receiving many more calls about this during the current public health situation, and he’s concerned they won’t have enough in the budget to assist all who request it.

While there is more funding expected to come through the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority, it’s hard to project the need right now. Ellis said it will likely be several weeks after restrictions are lifted and businesses reopen that a picture of the effects will start to emerge.

“It’s really just a tough and trying time for everybody,” he said. “Just the guesstimation of the impact of it all [is] it’s going to be pretty bad. I think it will be a lot more severe than we anticipate.”

Indiana Rep. Rita Fleming, D-71, said there are already concerns when it comes to affordable housing in the area and elsewhere, which could be exacerbated by the economic blows to families.

“Even for people who are working, a person starting out at $15 or $17 an hour at Amazon can afford an apartment that’s $700 a month and there’s not a lot of housing that’s $700 a month,” she said. “Plus your utilities, your used car payment and your food.

“So it’s hard to tell these folks it may be months before this is resolved when [some] people who are working are barely making it.”

She added that she would like to see some of the expected funding go toward bolstering first responder operations, healthcare and testing for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“I think Clark County is doing a good job of being proactive,” she said. “The cases are still increasing that is used to keep people safe now could be money that could be saved from having to put people on ventilators and treating those critically ill people.

“So I think looking at preventive measures as best we can now, even though it’s here, will continue to keep people in Clark County safe.”

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