Finding stability

Carolyn has been working hard to keep up with housing costs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak, her hours have become shorter and unpredictable. Some weeks her take home pay is just over $100. As a single mother to three kids, it was getting harder and harder to make ends meet. “They slashed my hours. Me trying to keep up on rent, taking care of the kids—it was getting hard,” says Carolyn.

In the summer, she started working with the Housing Stability program at Neighborhood House to help her with housing-related costs at the home she rented in St. Paul. She’d been able to keep up with rent, but she had gotten behind on utilities. After missing just two months of her electrical bill she owed $700.

Her landlord soon sold the property and the new owners wanted to move in. So she moved in with her parents and started taking care of her mom and stepdad who have health problems.

But that electrical bill is still in the back of her mind. She explains that she won’t be able to move into a new place and get electricity with the amount of debt she owes. “It’s stress on my head that I didn’t even think about,” says Carolyn.

Affordable housing becomes unaffordable when factoring in the high cost of utilities. Homes with less expensive rents are often inefficient, having limited, if any, insulation and old windows that let in outside air. “Our families’ utility bills are huge,” says Housing Stability Manager Shellie. “When one month’s bill is more than half of your rent, it does get overwhelming.”

Jan, a housing specialist caseworker, is helping Carolyn get set up with energy assistance when the time comes to move to a new place, and for now she’s paying toward the debt. “Wherever I move I’m going to need lights,” she says.

They’re also working on getting the first month’s rent and damage deposit secured for Carolyn’s new home. With the high cost of rent and the loss of job hours due to COVID-19, it’s not easy. “The places here are $1,000 or more for rent!” says Carolyn. But Jan is committed to doing everything she can to get Carolyn what she needs to move into a new home.

Finding safe, affordable housing is difficult, and even more so during the pandemic. Rents in the city are expensive, and some landlords require two times a month’s rent as a security deposit. For families living paycheck to paycheck, securing housing can become nearly impossible. Luckily, there are programs to help cover these costs and organizations like Neighborhood House that help connect renters to resources. “Using systems to help families find the resources is like a puzzle, putting all the pieces together to get families the money they need to move into housing and maintain it,” explains Shellie.

Meanwhile, working has become stressful for Carolyn. “It’s nerve wracking for a person like me, a single parent,” she says about her unpredictable schedule. “I need all the hours I can get.”

Working in a grocery store and as a Personal Care Aid puts Carolyn on the front lines of the pandemic, interacting with a number of people each day. “It’s scary on top of that. Not wanting to get sick, not wanting to take it home, give it to my kids or my elderly mom,” she says. It’s a double-edged sword: she needs to work as often as possible so she can take care of her kids, but the more frequently she works the more she puts herself and her family in harm’s way.

Neighborhood House is here for Carolyn to help with whatever she needs—even if it’s just lending an ear. “Jan is a big help. If I just need to talk, she’ll listen. She’ll even give me her input,” says Carolyn.

The Housing Stability program works with each family individually. Sometimes it’s as simple as a phone call and other times it’s a more in-depth and longer-term partnership. Staff look at all available resources, beginning with those outside of Neighborhood House, to get participants what they need. They work to secure funds for things like missed rent, damage deposits, and utility bills, and then create a plan for the participant to cover these costs in the future.

“I don’t think there’s nothing [Neighborhood House] don’t have the resources for or the advice to tell you where to get the help you need,” shares Carolyn. “It’s not even the funding part that’s so awesome about them. It’s more about the people that work there. They make me feel better.”