Commonwealth and Nation Face Housing Crisis: ELCA Congregations Respond
“God heard the cry of a homeless people and delivered them out of oppression in Egypt. Jesus, “who [had] nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), ministered with compassion to the poor and vulnerable. In practicing hospitality, we are promised to encounter the living Lord: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
ELCA social message “Homelessness: A Renewal of Commitment.”
The ELCA Social Message on Homelessness teaches, “The Gospel does not provide ready-made solutions to homelessness. God’s love in Jesus Christ does, however, move us to care for homeless people as God cares for all. Christians who have shelter are called to care, called to walk with homeless people in their struggle for a more fulfilling life and for adequate, affordable, and sustainable housing.”
As temperatures continue to drop and the CDC Eviction Moratorium concludes December 31, 2020, thousands of residents in Pennsylvania and millions of people across the country face the prospect of homelessness. COVID-19 has exacerbated the national housing crisis and stretched congregations and organizations assisting those living on the edge beyond their individual capacities. People experiencing homelessness do not live in a vacuum. Homelessness exposes adults and children to greater risk of disease, hunger, and violence, including sexual assault and trafficking.
“As the pandemic has continued on, we have begun to see more and more people who can no longer hold on to their rooms, apartments, or homes,” said the Rev. Joel Folkemer of Union Lutheran Church in York. “We are seeing and meeting more and more people who are homeless. There is a growing number of homeless encampments throughout the city and stretching out into the county. Union Lutheran Church has become one of the places that people feel safe to sleep outside. We often have between 6 – 12 people sleeping on our property at one time.”
Lutheran Disaster Response and congregations across the state are preparing to assist with cold weather sheltering. Congregations typically participating in cold weather sheltering programs have needed to reassess their procedures due to the pandemic. For sheltering programs that can open, capacities have been reduced and volunteer assistance has been altered. Communities across the commonwealth are experiencing an increase in homelessness now, despite the moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and some counties, like York, are seeing sheltering already at capacity because of COVID restrictions.
The Rev. Matthew Best, St. Stephen Lutheran Church, New Kingstown, PA, and chair of the LAMPa Policy Council shares, “The biggest challenges our homeless friends face since the beginning of the pandemic are: safe places for them to go, access to restrooms, access to places where they can wash hands, being in community, continuation of work.
“We shifted our truck stop ministry to our pavilion in order to continue to meet as a community outside. We are working to connect people with more services, we provide more gift cards to people for gasoline than previously. In addition to an increase in gift cards, much of our expenditures have been on car repairs – often a person’s vehicle is not just a vehicle, but where they sleep.
“Additional challenges on the horizon have to do with people receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, mental health related to social distancing requirements, and struggles with personal hygiene.”
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), this number of people at risk of experiencing homelessness is beyond the capacity of our current shelter system. Providing emergency rental assistance would avoid $27 billion to $56 billion in COVID-19 eviction-related emergency shelter costs and prevent overwhelming the services in place that are needed by people already experiencing homelessness.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania (LAMPa) recently signed onto a National Low Income Housing Coalition letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requesting an extension and some implementation fixes to the eviction moratorium that expires on December 31, 2020.
Susan Brandt, a member of Tree of Life Lutheran Church, Harrisburg and Christian Churches United (CCU) Board Member reports, “CCU launched a plea for funds to a COVID-19 relief fund in the Spring. Use of these funds has enabled CCU to shelter homeless individuals in hotels at a time when shelters were forced to close due to the inability to distance people.
“CCU administered the Dauphin County CARES Relief Act funds designed to keep people from homelessness due to their inability to pay rent because of loss of jobs and/or income. CCU supplemented, where possible, the CARES funds for people whose landlords were unwilling to accept the lowered rent payments offered through the CARES Act. Because the PA legislature was unwilling/unable to agree to adjust the qualifications for the federal funds allocated to PA from the CARES Act, much of that allocation will be unspent while the homeless will continue to struggle.
“With the end of this program, CCU expects to see a much-greater need in people trying to keep their housing. We pray that individuals, congregations, grants, and foundations will supply the funds needed to meet the needs.”
In the NLIHC Costs of COVID-19 Evictions Report, housing instability increases stress levels and leads to mental and physical health problems including depression, anxiety, suicide, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory conditions.17 Furthermore, evicted renters may postpone health-related expenses as they dedicate time and resources to securing housing, further threatening their health.18 Eviction-related displacement, homelessness, and unaffordable housing increase renters’ need for medical care, generating higher healthcare costs for families and communities. Housing instability, particularly homelessness, could also increase COVID-19-related health risks if evicted renters must move to overcrowded living conditions or congregate shelters.19 Increasing shelter entry is likely to cause further spread of the virus.
Our current and impending housing crises may have been reduced if accessibility to designated Federal Cares rental and mortgage assistance funds had been simplified in Pennsylvania. Before the election, the state house unanimously passed a plan to help tenants and borrowers pay their bills and stay in their homes, but it stalled in the senate. Similarly, additional Federal COVID-19 Assistance has not been passed by Congress.
The Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March, provided $3.9 billion for Pennsylvania. In late May, the General Assembly directed $175 million of these CARES dollars to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) to provide assistance for struggling renters and homeowners. The portion for rent assistance was at least $150 million, and $25 million was set aside for mortgage assistance.
During June, PHFA quickly developed two detailed, statewide programs for distributing this financial assistance expeditiously to renters and homeowners in need, following legislative requirements. This effort included extensive coordination with the organizations in all 67 counties that processed the renters’ applications. The CARES Rent Relief Program and the Pandemic Mortgage Assistance Program were both launched on schedule on June 29, as was required in the state CARES Act.
As of October 31, 2020, the PHFA had received a total of 68,338 CARES act assistance applications from renters and 37,274 CARES act applications from landlords. A total of 10,251 renters and 6,965 landlords were assisted by the end of October. A total of $169,536,785 rent relief program (RRP) was requested with $19,984, 662 RRP distributed. PHFA distributed a total of $52,024,500 CARES funding to counties by the 10/31/2020. By the end of October, 3,280 Homeowners’ Relief applications were received by PHFA. A total of $14,228,294 was requested with $1,926,463 disbursed by October 31, 2020.
Deacon Dr. Holly Hoffman shares what The WE CARE Team of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, Carlisle, PA, has found recently during the ongoing pandemic. “Due to social distancing requirements, our local homeless shelter is only able to shelter roughly half of the population they formerly accommodated. We are also seeing whole families lose their housing.
“We have joined forces with local partners within the church (Apartment Ministry) and with community/ecumenical partners (Evangelical Free church on Petersburg Rd. and CAN (Community Action Network) to repair and rehab 5 church-owned apartments that are offered at very low rent.
“We will be seeking a grant from the Partnership for Better Health to replace the boiler for the building that these apartments are in (est. $60-70,000 expense) plus we will seek other funds in order to do major cleaning, repairs and upgrading of the 5 apartments in question, with minor upgrades and repairs to the other 10 units that are already occupied and rented for low cost.
“We see that this need will only grow larger as the pandemic wears on. We do not have further resources to offer.”
The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimates a need for at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance to eliminate housing cost burdens and prevent housing instability for up to a year for low-income renters impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.15 An investment of $100 billion not only helps families avoid homelessness, but also helps families who would otherwise double-up with others or be consistently on the edge of homelessness. Rental assistance is a better public investment and less expensive than the costs of evictions on renters, landlords, and the public.
As congregations and organizations attempt to respond to the overwhelming needs of our neighbors, we are called to take action to prevent a needless disaster within the disaster of COVID-19. Learn more and contact Congress through our ELCA Advocacy Action Center. Send a message that homelessness is unacceptable at any time, especially during the pandemic.