Mesa will significantly expand the utilities assistance and eviction-prevention programs, using federal COVID-19 relief funds to avert a spike in homelessness.
Both efforts are under the Mesa Cares umbrella of social programs launched in response to the pandemic after the city received $90 million in federal aid earlier this year.
That lofty amount will swell by another $6 million in relief funds being allocated by Maricopa County through A New Leaf, a major social service agency that is acting as Mesa’s partner in processing applications for assistance.
The city now has $17.25 million earmarked for rental assistance, eviction prevention and utility aid, according to Deputy City Manager Natalie Lewis.
“We want to keep people in their homes,” she said. “We need the community that needs help to contact us now.
The city even has established a hotline, 480-644-5440, for people who need help.
The federal funds are not a blank check and come with different rules, some of which have deterred applicants because they must document their need, officials said.
The city’s pandemic-relief money must be spent by the end of 2020 while other federal funds must be spent by September 2021.
Other Mesa CARES funding has increased the number of food boxes, helped move homeless people off the street to slow the spread of the virus, funded the purchase of laptops for elementary school students and provided free COVID-19 testing and flu shots in certain zip codes.
Funds allocated to the eviction and foreclosure prevention program will grow from $1.4 million to $3 million, while the utilities assistance program will increase from $1 million to $8 million as city officials hope to prevent a rash of utility cutoffs scheduled to start after Oct. 1.
Mary Brandon, Mesa’s deputy community services assistant director, said her department has received 300 applications for assistance, but 200 applicants are having difficulty providing the documentation necessary to prove they have been financially impacted by COVID-19.
She said those who qualify have praised the program as a godsend because it can pay three months of back rent and can cover another two months under some circumstances.
A presentation to City Council said that 44 applications have been approved for $100,177 in assistance, with the average family receiving $2,300.
“They need something to prove they have been impacted by COVID. Those are the requirements we need that are holding back these people,’’ Brandon said.
To address this logjam, Brandon said city librarians are helping applicants obtain the necessary documentation.
While the city takes steps to reach more people in need, “we’re trying to make it easier so there are no roadblocks when they apply,’’ she said.
Brandon said the department also received another pot of $900,000 in federal grants that could be used to help 25-30 families, supplying them with vouchers that be used for Section 8 federally subsidized housing if more landlords can be located to accept them.
“Our hope is that we can use these for homeless families,’’ Brandon said.
Meanwhile, city officials are attempting to contact utility customers who are behind in their payments and facing city utility cutoffs scheduled to start next month, after a moratorium expires.
“I think we will be doing a great deal of assistance for those in our community who are in a hardship,’’ said Ed Quedens, Mesa’s business services director.
“It’s very commendable, what the city is doing, helping the people in the community. No one wants those accounts turned off.’’
He said the biggest problem has been that customers are slow to respond by asking for the assistance, creating a potential last-minute effort to prevent a disastrous surge of more than 10,000 cutoffs.
City Manager Chris Brady said the cutoffs will be staggered to prevent a crisis.
When there is a cutoff, “we are now in a health and safety crisis for that individual,’’ Brady said. “What we really need desperately is for these accounts to contact us.’’
“What we are really hoping for is to get the customers who are about to get cut off to engage with us, so we can work out a solution.’’
A presentation to the City Council demonstrated the problem, documenting that 102 Mesa customers have received $51,801 in assistance while 64 Salt River Project customers have received $33,558.
But Quedens conceded that he is disappointed that the aid received so far is vastly overshadowed by the 10,041 accounts that were delinquent by Sept. 15, with a balance of $5,159,374.
When the city first started monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on utility payments, 4,967 accounts were delinquent as of April 2 with a past due balance of more than $2 million.
Mayor John Giles said it’s obvious that many residents are in a dire financial situation. Brady said it’s not surprising that most of the past-due accounts are in the same west and central Mesa ZIP codes with a higher number of positive COVID-19 tests than other areas.
“I’m concerned; this is a big problem,’’ Giles said. “For whatever reason, people haven’t got the message there is help out there.’’
Residents interested in applying for the eviction and foreclosure prevention program should go to mesaaz.gov/evictionprevention. They also can email email@example.com or call the Mesa CARES Community Resource Center at (480) 644-CARE.
Any Mesa resident in need of utility payment assistance can visit mesaaz.gov/MesaCARES and click on the “Residential Utility Assistance Program’’ link.