Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
“You are a Godsend,” the email began.
The message sent earlier this month to Eleanor Benavidez – who manages the city’s Alamosa Health & Social Service Center in Southwest Albuquerque – vividly detailed one woman’s financial anxiety as well as her gratitude for assistance received through Alamosa’s eviction prevention program.
“I’ve had hives, and looks like shingles from all the stress of not knowing where to go to get help and not knowing if I would get help. So you don’t know the feeling I am having right now. Thank you so much for helping me,” the client wrote in an email shared with the Journal. “I hope your holidays will be wonderful just as mine is going to be knowing I won’t get evicted and that I still have a roof over my head and electricity.”
Alamosa and the city of Albuquerque’s three other Health and Social Service Centers have been at the forefront of the city’s effort to keep COVID-19 from plunging more people into homelessness by paying residents’ outstanding rent and utility bills.
The city has provided eviction assistance for years, but the program has burgeoned out of necessity in 2020, assisting nearly four times as many households. The COVID-19 virus and related shutdowns have led to high unemployment and financial distress. A recent U.S. Census Bureau “Household Pulse” survey found that 42% of New Mexicans were having a “somewhat” or “very” difficult time paying their usual household expenses.
In the past nine months, the city of Albuquerque’s Health and Social Service Centers have provided 953 households with assistance paying rent, utility bills or some combination of both, said Mayan Armijo, the city’s community services operations coordinator.
That’s compared with 257 helped over the same span in 2019.
Still, almost 400 people are on the city’s waiting list for help.
Armijo called the need “huge,” with the majority of all calls the centers field now coming from people specifically seeking rent or utility bill assistance rather than other programs.
“We help as many people as we can,” he said. “We do have to refer out to other agencies based off of what our capacities are at this particular point.”
The city has spent just under $900,000 on such assistance since the pandemic started. That includes a $121,000 grant the city gets annually for such programs, as well as $700,000 in federal coronavirus relief money the city received through the CARES Act. The rest came from private donations, including some through the city’s One Albuquerque Fund. This year’s additional funding was more flexible, allowing the city, for example, to help undocumented immigrants and refugees who would not normally qualify.
The city’s Health and Social Service Centers serve mostly low- and moderate-income individuals with a range of programs that include food boxes, clothing banks and other forms of assistance.
Some of the clients seeking help today are already familiar with the centers, but pandemic-related job losses have brought a new wave, Armijo said.
“I would say there’s a lot more new families that have signed up for our programs,” he said.
Some clients this year qualified for up to $5,000 in aid, paid directly to their landlords or to the utility company to cover outstanding balances.
In some cases, even that is insufficient. Armijo said he recently saw one applicant who was $7,200 behind.
While the New Mexico Supreme Court in March paused evictions for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic for tenants who cannot afford rent, it did not cancel rent, meaning the amount due can continue accumulating.
The need has consumed all $700,000 in CARES money the city program had this calendar year. Armijo said there is a separate $1 million pot coming available in January. It will be less flexible than the 2020 CARES funding, but he said, “I’m sure we’ll spend down that money.”
The city accepts donations for the program. To contribute, send a check made out to “FCS Health and Social Services” to the city’s Los Griegos Health and Social Service Center, 1231 Candelaria NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107.