by Fran Yeatts
“It felt like doing crisis counseling for hundreds of people each month.”
Samantha “Sam” Thompson manages our emergency financial assistance program at the West Seattle Food Bank, and she spends most of her time connecting with West Seattle tenants who need support with overdue rent or utilities. During the pandemic, the number of people needing support went through the roof, and while the lockdowns have ended, the economic impacts for people in West Seattle are ongoing. Our clients include people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, had their hours reduced, or are going to soon lose their unemployment benefits.
Since the West Seattle Food Bank merged with the West Seattle Helpline in 2020, our services now include both our shopping-style model of food distribution as well as emergency grants for individuals struggling to pay rent or utilities. The merger was well-timed, as need in our community exploded during the pandemic the following year.
Compared to 2019, in 2020 applications for Helpline services — the arm of our organization that provides help with rent and utilities — nearly doubled. Helpline staff and volunteers worked overtime, and to meet the growing need we increased the average amount of our financial assistance grants by 35%.
Meanwhile, our Food Bank services pivoted the entire distribution operation to keep our staff, volunteers, and clients safe — increasing our home delivery program by 100% compared to 2020, temporarily pausing our shopping-style model, and partnering with the National Guard who helped pitch in to make it all happen. During a single week in March of 2021 alone, we did more than 500 home deliveries to get food to our neighbors in need, and in 2020 we responded to more than 90,000 requests for food and provided over 19,000 weekend food packs for students at risk of hunger — 40% more than in 2019.
The scramble to adjust to the pandemic while making sure help was there for our West Seattle community was immensely difficult but was successful thanks to our dedicated staff, volunteers, and generous supporters.
The Impact of the Governor’s Eviction Bridge
On June 29, Governor Inslee issued a housing stability “bridge” proclamation, which extends some protections under his previous eviction moratorium through September 30. While landlords still cannot evict a tenant for past-due rent, evictions for other reasons are now allowed.
This bridge is a helpful step in that it buys time for new rental-assistance programs and protections to kick in, but the eviction crisis still looms large for many of our clients at the West Seattle Food Bank and for individuals across the region and state. Now, people who are behind on rent due to the pandemic are in a race against time to access rent relief and new rental protections enacted by the state Legislature — many of which are not up and running yet. Importantly, this includes SB 5160, which requires the State to provide tenants facing eviction with legal representation.
“Even now we still have hundreds of people who have received assistance through us or are applying for the first time who are frantic to get assistance before September 30,” said Sam. “The sheer number of people is staggering.”
The good news locally is that King County is using $145 million of federal COVID relief funds to set up a portal to help tenants pay past, current, and future rent. But the real work of getting those resources to people in need remains.
Because many small and nonprofit landlords are also impacted by the economic downturn, this financial assistance will help to maintain some affordable housing that may otherwise be lost. For example, Tory Fletcher, the assistant community manager at Arrowhead Gardens, which provides nearly 450 units of affordable senior housing in West Seattle, says the money is critical for keeping “our amenities, supplies, and staffing going — we rely on those funds to keep the organization running.”
In addition to dramatically increasing the amount of financial assistance we provided, we have also helped hundreds of people apply for relief funds. However, so far fewer than 10 have actually seen rental assistance.
There are a lot of people in limbo right now, and if the process doesn’t speed up, we will see an eviction wave come September — and in many cases, that means people will become homeless. That is the terrifying and heartbreaking reality we face as a community.
Fran Yeatts has been the executive director of the West Seattle Food Bank since 2001. The agency offers a food bank, clothing bank, and financial assistance for rent and utilities.
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