Ashley Sloterdyk works at the Polk County Justice Center helping qualify households for emergency rental asssistance - here he shares his story of what it has been like. If you or someone you know is struggling to pay rent as a result of the pandemic, help is available! Learn more from www.ImpactCAP.org.
I had been following the Justice Center initiative with a mixture of admiration and concern — 1,017 Polk County families had been rescued from eviction due to their income being impacted by the pandemic, but how much longer could the financial and emotional reserves hold out?
One of my daughters serves on the planning committee for the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, and I had a personal connection with Eric Burmeister from some 20+ years ago when our sons were in high school together, so I reached out. Conversations with both my daughter and Eric, along with an interview with Angie Arthur, Executive Director of Homeward, left me believing a 64-year-old business retiree with a touch of nonprofit experience might be able to make a difference, so off I went to report for duty at the Polk County courthouse.
It was the day after Labor Day 2021 and the courthouse was absolutely crazy. The moratorium on evictions had been lifted and this was where renters would meet their last line of defense to losing their place to live. I was given two laptops and a tablet and told to get to work. First step was ensuring every person’s information was in the system. There were 60+ cases that first day and well over 100 on some other days. At the time, we were working in a makeshift, unfinished area on six- and eight-foot plastic tables, negotiating with landlords, and getting continuances and writing checks to save people from eviction. In short, if they could demonstrate a COVID-related impact to their household income that affected their ability to pay rent and were past due on their rent, then they could qualify for funds from IMPACT Community Action Partnership and Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) to be paid to their landlord. I have never seen such a swing of emotion—sorrow and desperation as tenants walked in the door; deepest appreciation and joy as they left.
Given the length of time we have been working and the number of people served, it feels like the cases should being going down, but they aren’t. And now, as the pandemic stretches into two years, we are seeing Polk County residents who have hit the 12-month limit for assistance and there’s nothing we can do for them. We also can’t help about a third of those facing evictions because they don’t make it to the courthouse. I’m not sure what to do about that, but I have faith that those reading this column may be able to help. On the positive side, we are developing relationships with property managers and landlords, and they are making renters aware of the assistance. And the other day I was able to work 8 cases that shared the same landlord. This made for a very efficient process and that cooperative approach is happening more and more.
Recently I experienced my first “air hug.” It had been eight weeks since a mother and her adult child had applied for help. They had been to three continuances, and we were finally able to help them. They were crying tears of relief and joy and the mother impulsively went to hug me and I had to stop her given social distancing related to COVID. She said she’d give me an air hug instead and we both wrapped our arms into the air and laughed with tears in our eyes. There are a hundred more stories like this and every one of them include real people in our community who are then able to reset their lives. I ask them to please take this opportunity to take care of their bills, get a job less impacted by the pandemic, and truly hit the reset button. I can see in their eyes that they embrace the words and have a renewed hope in their future.
One last thing, my favorite movie of all time is It’s a Wonderful Life. In short, banker George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, has so many problems that he is thinking about ending his life by jumping from a bridge. His guardian angel, Clarence, rescues him and shows him what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all his good deeds over the years. I like to imagine what our community will look like thanks to these “good deeds” provided through eviction prevention programs. I like to imagine the children who can stay in school and graduate and become wonderful teachers, health care workers, and whatever they dream of. I like to imagine the adults whose dignity is protected, and hope is restored. Indeed, every life has purpose — those who today may need help and those of us who may be able to help.