In Central Nebraska, More Families Are Struggling to Pay Rent Due to COVID-19, Layoffs
By Christina Stella , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
July 16, 2020, 5:17 p.m. ·
COVID-19 triggered reduced hours, furloughs, and layoffs across Nebraska: so far, 123,000 people have filed for jobless benefits since the beginning of the pandemic.
Though the state’s unemployment rate has lowered from April's 8.3 percent to 5.3 percent, non-profit organizations in central Nebraska say many families are still struggling to make ends meet.
Tammy Jeffs at the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska says the organization is busier than ever trying to serve struggling families. She ultimately hired extra staffers to process a higher volume of rent and utility assistance claims.
“We want to make sure that the utilities stay on and the rent is paid, because we don't want any cases of reports coming in of neglect on the part of parents due to the inability to pay...it's a preventative thing," she said.
"Anybody who's had a disconnect knows how much it costs to get reconnected ... We don't want any more people in a homeless shelter, we don't want any more people having to try to live it out of their car.”
Jeffs says families across the Partnership's 27-county service area are struggling for several different reasons.
"A lot of households that we are assisting are seeing issues with being able to meet their basic needs, rent, and utility costs because they were furloughed or needed to isolate due to exposure, testing postive, ill family being high risk," she explained.
Some are still waiting to receive any unemployment payments, and have gone weeks without income. In some early cases, the fault lay with Nebraska's Department of Labor, which initially scrambled to process a record number of claims in the spring. Jeffs has heard more recent hiccups in receiving unemployent are due to a lack of access to computers and reliable internet in some households, which has kept families from finishing applications and consistently reapplying.
"If you've ever tried to fill out Department of Labor paperwork on your cell phone, good luck," she joked.
Joblessness is now visible across several industries, including manufacturing, hospitality, and restaurants. But not all communities in central Nebraska pose equal concern: Jeffs has noticed families in Dawson County are particularly hard hit, and the organization is providing more services than usual in the town of Lexington.
According to Two Rivers Public Health Department, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the area’s Latino people and food processing workers: 70 percent of Dawson County’s 874 COVID-19 patients have been Latino, despite being only 34% of the county population, and nearly half work in food processing.
As of July 4th, nearly 200 people total are still sick. In some homes where loved ones contracted the virus, extra costs have quickly added up.
“If they have children still at home and somebody's hospitalized, they need to travel back and forth [to Lincoln or Omaha]. There are a lot of costs with that process," Jeffs said. "And then if the family member passes away, they're dealing with the funeral costs and taking care of that while still meeting their basic needs.”
Exposed families must also quarantine with sick relatives, which can also hinder access to groceries. The organization designed a food pantry delivery program within weeks so residents could isolate without having to worry about food costs or exposing others at the grocery store. It isn’t clear how long the pantry delivery program will run, but Jeffs says the organization is still accepting food donations.
Shelters Prepare To Serve More
Tri-city homeless shelters are also preparing for a potential uptick in people requesting emergency housing in the area. Daniel Buller, who serves as Associate Executive Director at Crossroads Center Rescue Mission in Kearney says resident numbers in the organization's shelters have increased 30 percent over the past week.
"We actually went to kind of historically low levels because of COVID, because all of a sudden, here's all these resources that people are dumping out there," he said. "And now we're seeing that they're not as readily available, and people are coming back to the shelters."
The majority of the new residents are individuals who were experiencing chronic homelessness prior to the pandemic, Buller said. He eventually expects some new faces, too, if COVID-19 continues to impacts the state's employment numbers and public health.
"We're trying to kick into gear. We've had plans for quite a few years now to build transitional housing. It's a 17 unit apartment building right next to us on the just release, and we already own that building," he explained.
"We do anticipate that we're going to see an impact from that, you know, as time goes on here. I just don't see how it can't happen."
Despite stresses on their resources, both non-profits say they've received robust support from their wider communities. And while some government resources to the area have slowed, Buller said shelter donations continue to remain steady.
"People have jumped in to really help us out with special financial gifts, different foundations and organizations have given very generously to help make sure that we can offer our services ... the impact that that's made is tremendous, you know?"
"Even when people think they can't do much, they're actually doing a lot for their community."