Emergency Rental Assistance program gets high marks

It’s hard to get people to agree on anything.

For example, just 84 percent of Americans – and 66 percent of millennials – were willing to state with certainty that the earth is round, according to a 2018 poll by YouGov.

Keep that in mind when you see this number: Of 2,230 St. Joseph County residents who used the program, 87 percent have had a good or very good experience with the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program.

The ERA was launched in March 2021 to prevent families from suffering homelessness as a result of job losses during the Covid pandemic. EnFocus, a local nonprofit that empowers talent to build stronger communities, polled program participants last summer to see if ERA was working properly.

In addition to giving the program strong ratings, residents gave more details – 79 percent said ERA made it easier to cover their costs and 82 percent said it had a positive impact on their lives.

The survey was taken in conjunction with the auditor’s office, which serves as the chief financial officer for St. Joseph County.

In this county, the ERA provided those 2,230 households – many of which had children with single parents – help with rent, utilities and home energy costs.

To qualify, families had to meet three main criteria. They had to be experiencing a COVID-related financial hardship, be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and have a total household income below 80 percent of the Area Median Income. 

There often is an impression that the federal government simply dumps money into problem areas with no idea if there are positive results. That is why the county auditor called in enFocus for its expertise.

EnFocus streamlined the application process and handed the results to the county for distribution of the funds. Its fellows also helped to engage with eight partner agencies — including REAL Services and St. Vincent De Paul – to help with that effort.

Emergency rental assistance has been associated with substantial benefits for housing stability, financial well-being, and mental health for recipients.

Mike Hamann, St. Joseph County auditor and a longtime champion of fighting homelessness, noted, “This program was put in place to support vulnerable populations and address a very real need for local families during the pandemic. Not all counties were able to set up an efficient process. We were, and as a result, 2,230 households benefited.”

The auditor’s role is to evaluate the performance of county departments and agencies to ensure transparency and accountability. It performs an oversight role, evaluating the integrity of financial operations and compliance with laws, regulations, and rules.

Additional survey data indicated that 84 percent of 240 respondents felt less stress after receiving ERA. Of the program’s impact, one participant shared, “The ERA program helped me during COVID to manage the fear of eviction and find a balance for my family. My financial problems are not over, but ERA has helped.”

Of the partnership with St. Joseph County and impact on families, enFocus Project Manager Mike Bodgan said, “There is great satisfaction in knowing our work is helping people stay in their homes and recover from employment losses experienced due to the pandemic. 

“It’s been a pleasure working with our auditor on this program that has helped our residents get back on their feet.”

A nonprofit organization, enFocus recruits recent graduates into a two-year Fellowship program and develops them into the next generation of community and business leaders. Fellows work alongside experienced mentors in the corporate, nonprofit, education, and public sectors to discover, design, and implement innovative solutions to benefit the community.

Some 1,300 young professionals – more than 150 fellow and 1,200 interns — have worked on more than 450 business, technology, and entrepreneurial projects across northern Indiana.

For information, visit www.en-focus.org.