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With eviction moratorium ending, nonprofits worry for those in need

Many social service agencies and nonprofits across southeastern Connecticut have seen large increases in people seeking assistance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to food.

The generosity of community members and foundations, paired with federal CARES Act support distributed through municipalities, has kept them plugging along. But with winter approaching and the federal moratorium on evictions set to end Dec. 31, they're worried about what comes next.

Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said she feels like "we're a little bit in the calm before a huge storm" but feels "a growing sense of alarm. What's going to happen when the unemployment benefits run out, and some people are left with nothing? What's going to happen when the moratorium lifts and people are suddenly faced with eviction?"

One positive, Zall said, is that CARES Act funding has allowed the center to assist "a substantially greater number of people to find housing this year than last." She said they've helped 150 people leave the shelter for housing since June.

For overflow space this winter that will allow for social distancing, the center will use the sanctuary at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

While the New London Homeless Hospitality Center serves individuals, Always Home in Groton has the mission of preventing family homelessness.

Executive Director Betty Smith said Always Home is seeing about the same number of families as in 2019, a record-high year with 40% more families than 2018. But this is with the eviction moratorium in place, and she said many people haven't come to Always Home yet because they haven't yet received a notice to leave.

Smith said many families they serve were "working poor" before the pandemic, working one or two minimum-wage jobs — at restaurants, in retail, at a grocery store, at a child care center.

"So naturally the first thing that we saw was that people were losing their jobs, and so then the next thing that happens is the families are falling behind on their rent," she said. Smith said many families are two, three or even up to six months behind on rent.

She wants to see a review of the entire eviction policy and practice in Connecticut. In the shorter term, Smith wants to see the eviction moratorium extended and an opportunity to get rent payments, on behalf of tenants, into the hands of landlords who are also hurting from lost income.

Nonprofits provide food and fuel to those in need

Nancy Gentes, executive director of Madonna Place in Norwich, said she's very concerned about evictions, saying that government money to help with housing isn't enough to meet the need and that simply continuing to push back the moratorium doesn't solve the problem.

Federal lawmakers are working on a $908 billion COVID-19 relief proposal, which doesn't include another round of $1,200 direct payments to Americans.

Gentes said she thinks families need cash, especially considering unemployed people are no longer getting the $600-a-week federal boost. The new plan would provide about $300 in extra federal unemployment benefits.

Madonna Place offers parenting classes, peer groups and counseling, but Gentes said during the pandemic, all programs "have switched to more of a focus on basic needs."

"We seem to not even be able to keep up with the demand for food," she said. Madonna Place has been making food boxes for families, which she said is huge because many don't have transportation to get to another food bank.

The Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut didn't normally do food distributions, but Executive Director Allison Blake said the "incredible increase in food insecurity" led the organization to launch a campaign called Halt Hunger. The agency did a food distribution once a week, including diapers and baby supplies, serving more than 1,400 families between March and November.

The organization received grants to distribute food and Chromebooks, and to purchase diapers, meaning it didn't have to divert funding from other programs to support new COVID-19 efforts. But going forward, Blake is concerned about the impact of the decline in fee revenue from various programs, such as child care.

Requests to Catholic Charities Diocese of Norwich for basic emergency needs like food and baby necessities have doubled, said Father Brian Maxwell, outreach coordinator, in an email. Rental assistance has increased 23% over last year.

"Catholic Charities, Diocese of Norwich has never experienced as many families and individuals coming to us seeking assistance," he wrote. He said there have been a lot of new faces, pointing to people who have lost their jobs or had hours reduced, and people with family members who are sick, whether from the coronavirus or another illness.

Waterford Youth and Family Services has also seen a lot of new faces at its food bank, which has seen an eightfold increase in the number of people being served, director Dani Gorman said.

The agency has also been serving a significant number of elderly residents, and since staff don't want them to leave their homes, volunteers have been doing more deliveries than before.

Waterford Youth and Family Services is also providing mental health services, and helping people with heating and energy costs.

Jan Larson, a volunteer with Care & Share of East Lyme, said the all-volunteer organization will be meeting Thursday to disburse about $24,000 for the coming year, for help with rent, electric bills or heating oil.

Care & Share has been paying electric bills and partnering with area oil companies, and paying for things like car insurance and phone bills. Larson said Care & Share sees about 75 families every month for its food pantry and delivered 120 Thanksgiving baskets to clients.

"I think our donations have been robust, both food and gifts, and monetary donations," Larson said. She added, "People are generous, and we do our very best. I mean, that's our job, to be good stewards of the money that people give."

e.moser@theday.com

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