Asheville – The complete tally of damages being caused by COVID-19 is yet to be determined. In addition to the increasing infection and death counts, individuals in the best of health have found themselves without a job and soon unable to pay rent.
Even before COVID-19, homeless populations in major cities across the United States had reached record numbers. In many smaller populations across the U.S., these numbers are often ignored by local news media – perhaps under the influence of local law enforcement, investors and tourism boards. In Asheville alone, the increasing number of homeless camps and panhandlers on highway ramps is apparent.
Winter is coming. Though not officially here until December 21st – temperatures have already dropped below freezing, increasing the risk of both frostbite and hypothermia for those attempting to survive outdoors.
The national debt is now over $27.4 trillion, having passed the $20 trillion mark in 2017. In January, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) projected the national debt would rise to $36.2 trillion by 2030. With COVID, they’ve adjusted that number to $44.2 trillion. (CAGW is the same organization that releases the annual Congressional Pig Book, which this year exposed $15.3 billion in earmarks it deems superfluous.)
To date, the federal government’s financial response to the pandemic has included $2.59 trillion in CARES Act funding which supported stimulus checks for individuals, Paycheck Program loans for businesses, as well as other federal pandemic response agencies. The loss to government will actually be much greater due to legislatively mandated tax deferrals and reductions, as well as $3.92 trillion in Federal Reserve emergency lending authorized for “credit, loans, and loan guarantee programs.” The next round of stimulus is expected to be around $2 trillion.
Included in the CARES Act was $150 billion allocated to states. Of this, North Carolina received $3.6 billion, most of which funded state agencies’ pandemic response. Other allocations supported hospitals, homeschooling, employee retention, and nonprofits. Just over 8% of the total was passed through to counties and municipalities.
In two rounds, Buncombe County received a total of $9,568,844 to spend on public health and medical response, payroll for essential government workers, administrative costs, and sub-appropriations to municipalities and fire districts. Expenditures to date include payroll, testing sites, sanitation, office reconfiguration, housing assistance, homeless shelters, quarantines, and food delivery. At a recent meeting, staff told the commissioners the unspent balance would be invested in adaptations for virtual education, childcare subsidy, as well as rent and utility assistance.
Outside the previously-mentioned programs, the county received COVID relief revenues totaling $5,430,86 (which supported more of the same), as well as the county’s Election Services, Library, Planning, and Sheriff’s departments. Planning received over half of this total. At the time, the county was still hoping to receive $900,000 in Community Development Block Grants and a yet-to-be-determined amount from FEMA. Also, $1,378,080 in non-federal aid was raised from 1,183 donations to the One Buncombe Fund, a pandemic response that provided direct payment of shelter and utility bills for employees displaced by COVID and offered small business loans of up to $10,000 with generous terms.
Currently, the county is taking applications from families needing rent and mortgage relief. Applicants must earn no more than 200% of the poverty level for their household size, receive approval for their plan for paying their bills in future months, and explain how COVID forced them into their current predicament.
The county is also soliciting applications for its Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP). The program directs federal funds to Eblen Charities’ long-serving program for assisting low-income, disabled householders with gas, oil, and electric bills. The program is made possible through cooperating local utilities and fuel companies. Awards cover only one bill per crisis. Original disability qualification requirements could be waived in January, should funding remain available. Eblen also has a program for rent and mortgage assistance.
Like many other charities, Eblen continues to accept contributions for delivery to the needy. This has been complicated this year, as people are afraid to accept food and clothing that may be contaminated, and contributors are afraid their sanitation efforts might prove inadequate. Furthermore, big collecting events have been cancelled, collection sites aren’t really safe, and, if they are, they won’t be seeing much pedestrian traffic.
Partnering with Ingles, Beverly-Hanks, iHeartRadio, and Duke Energy, Eblen recently completed a Thanksgiving meal fundraiser that fed 850 local families. In collaboration with AvL Technologies, Eblen deployed mobile Homework Hotspots to ensure students are not prevented from completing assignments due to parents’ inability to provide internet. Eblen is also assisting low-income families with access to medical services including eyecare, dental care, medication, transportation to physicians’ offices, and even funeral expenses.