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Denton County residents are becoming homeless waiting for aid

Jacob McCready
For the DRC
Jasmine Johnson and her 2-year old daughter, Harmony, are staying in a local extended-stay hotel after being evicted.

As a property manager for the Denton County Housing Authority, Jasmine Johnson is in the business of helping vulnerable renters navigate the housing system. But when she lost her previous job early last year after catching COVID-19, she couldn’t get aid — and eventually found herself homeless with her 2-year-old daughter, Harmony.

“I followed all the steps, I went to all the appropriate people, and I still was failed in that regard because I still did not receive assistance,” Johnson said.

After missing three weeks of work and finding out that she was losing her job, she went to United Way of Denton County to apply for rental and utility assistance in March. By early April, she had gotten a threatening letter from her landlord at Lakeshore Apartments and, emails show, she stopped getting responses from the staff member handling her aid application.

“I’m going up there every week to two weeks trying to chase down assistance that I felt like I shouldn’t have to do,” Johnson said.

She took her notice to vacate to United Way in the hopes it would speed up the process, but she said it didn’t. Though she won her initial court case the following day because of improperly filed documents, her landlord would not accept partial payments or work with her, Johnson said, and filed another eviction case against her in July.

“Even though I got a new job, there was no possible way I could catch up,” Johnson said.

Again, Johnson said she turned to United Way and was told the employee she was working with was no longer handling applications.

“They assigned me another eviction specialist, and she was great, but the timing had run out because this was a process that had run for months,” Johnson said. “They implied they were going to try to approve me, but it never happened and I got evicted that following week, and me and my daughter were homeless.”

Jasmine Johnson.JPG
Jacob McCready
For the DRC
Jasmine Johnson sits at the small dining table of her extended-stay hotel room, where she and her 2-year-old daughter live after being evicted from their apartment last year.

It’s a fear that Frisco resident Tracy has lived with since October. Tracy, an hourly worker who asked the Denton Record-Chronicle not to use her last name as she looks for new employment, fell behind on rent when she caught COVID for the second time in August. She also applied for rental assistance through United Way five months ago and said she has been waiting for aid ever since.

“There’s just been a ridiculous amount of back-and-forth, and in January my application was finally approved, but it’s just said ‘pending payment’ ever since,” Tracy said. “My caseworker hasn’t been responding to me for almost two months.”

Gary Henderson, president and CEO at United Way of Denton County, said he and his staff know there are thousands in the county who need help and are relying on their agency to get it.

“If you’re hearing about people who are waiting right now, absolutely,” Henderson said. “The demand right now is crazy overwhelming.”

More than 1,200 applications are waiting to be reviewed, with more coming in each day. Though the agency has pushed through more than $3.4 million in rental and utility assistance since the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, ERA2, opened in October, Henderson said there just isn’t enough to go around — the nonprofit expects to run out of funds by the end of July.

With rent prices expected to keep climbing this year and the cost of food, utilities and just about everything else on the upswing, the need isn’t likely to abate anytime soon.

Because of the limited funds — the program is backed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury — Henderson said United Way, in cooperation with the Denton County Commissioners Court, agreed to serve the most vulnerable populations first. Those criteria include having an eviction notice, making 30% of the area median income (AMI) or below, and having a child, senior citizen or disabled person in the home. That means that someone who applied a few weeks ago and meets those criteria could get assistance before much older applications are reviewed since automated dashboards push those applications to the top of the pile.

Johnson and Tracy said they weren’t made aware of those criteria, which Henderson said is often by necessity — dedicating finite staff hours to proactive communication would mean less time spent on pushing assistance out. United Way employees know the need is great for all the applicants who come to them for help, but with limited funds and staffing, the agency is limited in the help it can provide.

“If someone’s about to lose their housing, just because they don’t have children, they’re not senior, they’re not on disability or their income is 52% AMI, it doesn’t make the need any less compelling,” Henderson said. “For people who are in this situation, it is incredibly stressful, and I just wish we all could do more for them. I wish we had more resources. So, every frustration they have is absolutely justifiable.”

Jasmine 2.JPG
Jacob McCready
For the DRC
Jasmine Johnson and her 2-year old daughter, Harmony, are staying in a local extended-stay hotel after being evicted from their apartment last year.

Tracy went to court again Wednesday. As she was waiting outside the courtroom, she got a surprise — the online status of her application had changed to reflect how much assistance she would receive, so the court granted her a 60-day abatement.

“If there was a picture of what something coming through at the eleventh hour looks like, it would be this situation,” Tracy said. “It’s just insane that the application was put in in October, and it’s taken until mid-March that I finally have an actual figure.”

With five dedicated staff members at United Way and four staff members at partner nonprofits reviewing applications, about 54 per day are being processed.

“We have yet to be able to work on an application that doesn’t have an eviction notice,” Henderson said. “And the applications we’re working on right now have notice-to-vacate dates from December or January, so even with first priority, we’re not talking about someone who just went to court for the first time today.”

After rental assistance dollars run out, Henderson said, staff will try to connect remaining applicants with community resources like faith-based nonprofits that typically offer rental assistance, but those resources tend to be much less than the pandemic aid the ERA2 program has provided. With many other COVID-era programs coming to an end, like the rapid rehousing program the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs ran through last year, it leaves people facing eviction without many options.

“A million dollars in one month is more — pre- or post-pandemic — than all of the different county nonprofits will have in total for an entire year for eviction prevention, and this team moved it in one month,” Henderson said, referencing rental assistance delivered to Denton County residents in January. “But we only serve the tip of the iceberg, right? That’s sort of the paradox of this situation.

‘A million dollars out in the community that’s about to go away’

After a stint in her car, Johnson and Harmony now live in an extended-stay hotel full-time. With an eviction on her record, every rental she has applied for has turned her down, and she doesn’t meet the requirements of even most second-chance apartments with an eviction so recent.

“At this point, I have to either pay off what I owe, which is extremely expensive, and now they’ve added a ton of interest on, or sit on it for seven years and hope that I can find a second-chance place that will take me in with a huge deposit,” Johnson said. “Harmony’s whole early, evolving life is going to be in a home that she knows her own mom does not even feel comfortable in. That’s where I am.”