Last year in March, just two weeks after Edward Wood moved to Leadville to start his business, Woods & Company Property Management, Governor Jared Polis announced a state-wide shutdown due to the COVID-19 virus. Around the same time, workers throughout Lake County were laid off as businesses closed. Many, including Wood, struggled to pay rent and faced eviction.
Shortly after Polis’ announcement, Full Circle of Lake County (FCLC) conducted a community needs assessment that consisted of 150 interviews with families throughout the county. The assessment found 94 of the households were experiencing income loss related to the pandemic, and that 78 percent of the 94 households were Spanish-speaking. According to FCLC Executive Director Stephanie Cole, the majority of those families did not qualify for government assistance, such as stimulus checks.
“There was this absolute sense of doom and hopelessness,” said Wood, who began arranging to move back to South Carolina after he gave up trying to navigate the various application processes for government assistance. “I truly had no idea something like that would happen.”
That’s when Wood found a Facebook post about the Unmet Needs Committee (UNC), a group housed within FCLC that mobilized at the onset of the pandemic to help families experiencing rent insecurity. The committee worked quickly and called on other local groups like Lake County Public Health Agency and Lake County Build a Generation (LCBAG) to garner advice on how to best serve families in need.
“Families needed a no-questions-asked relief check that would help them pay for their rent and utilities,” said Cole, who added that many of the families who faced income loss could not access relief dollars because they were undocumented and needed specific types of identification that they did not have. “The goal became keeping people in their homes, no matter what.”
Within days, UNC began pulling funds from the Lake County Community Fund’s (LCCF) disaster relief reserve, which was established in 2018 to protect Lake County from the wildfires that raged across Colorado that year. But the fund had only $4,700 saved, according to LCCF Executive Director John McMurtry. In two weeks, the fund was spent. From there, UNC, LCCF and other local organizations launched an aggressive fund raising campaign that called on several different public and private entities.
Many Lake County residents who hadn’t lost their income donated their stimulus checks. Meanwhile, UNC began applying for grants from groups that didn’t question an applicant’s immigration status, such as the Colorado Health Foundation and the Colorado Trust. “Anywhere we could find money, we’d apply,” said FCLC Resource and Advocacy Manager Karla Alder. “That meant $50 here and $2,000 there — anything. We wanted to be that pipeline to relief for families who needed it.”
And, according to Wood, the UNC was tenacious about reaching people. As a former social worker, Wood found it difficult asking for the type of assistance he used to offer, so he decided not to follow up after reaching out to the committee. “But Karla was relentless,” said Wood. “She must have called everyday saying that she was there to help. And I’m so grateful for that now.”
According to data provided by FCLC, over 500 community members accessed financial assistance through the UNC in 2020. Since March 2020, the committee has paid more than $725,000 in cash relief with a monthly average assistance distribution of about $50,000. Throughout the entire pandemic, which is ongoing given the delta variant, not one person FCLC is aware of was evicted in Lake County, thanks in part to cash assistance, but also the legal partnerships that UNC formed.
Not long after March 2020, UNC reached out to Sam Gilman, founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project (CEDP), a coalition of volunteer lawyers who have fought evictions in courts throughout Colorado during the pandemic. LCBAG Director of Coalition Development Noah Sosin said many landlords negotiated with the UNC when it came to evictions. Typically, the UNC would pay 70 percent of a rent payment with 30 percent forgiveness. But for landlords who insisted on eviction, lawyers with the CEDP offered free representation in court. Currently, Wood is working with a lawyer to fight his eviction charge.
In April 2021, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, published an article highlighting the UNC’s work with CEDP, garnering national attention. “In Lake County ... locally raised funds do not cover 100 percent of rent, but they are distributed more quickly than state funds, which are more generous but take longer,” reads the article. “This state-level delay has meant that smaller landlords have tended to be more open to the continued use of local funds.”
Although the UNC has gone from seeing 25 to 35 cases a week to only a handful, Alder said the committee will continue working even after the pandemic ends.
“Inequities existed before the pandemic,” Alder said. “Undocumented and immigrant communities still face barriers in accessing assistance. The pandemic highlighted the need for this type of work and we will continue to connect our communities to assistance.”