As I think about 2020 so far, I am reminded of the cloud of uncertainty people felt when the year 2000 was upon us. So many were sure the end of time had come and now we hear echoes of those same sentiments.
Whatever the case, there is work to be done while we are still here. Because social service nonprofits have remained on the “essential workforce” list, Common Grace Ministries and other nonprofits have been able to continue to serve throughout the pandemic. We have had to respond in light of the governor’s executive orders, Indiana State Department of Health transmitals, CDC guidelines and our Noble County Health Department’s recommendations.
While making rapid and never-ending decisions, it has been a substantial challenge to keep services going and yet protect the health and safety of volunteers, employees and those with whom we are in relationship … our neighbors.
When the news of COVID-19 began to break, I can confidently speak for all of us as Noble County nonprofits and township trustees when I say we were bracing for an onslaught of need. The United Way began convening a nonprofit organization weekly meeting on March 23. We watched and waited as the stimulus was released; the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (the $600 per week unemployment add-on), went into effect; and companies began receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to help maintain their workforce. Some companies continued to hire while others furloughed. Also on March 23, Gov. Eric Holcomb imposed the first moratoriums on evictions and utility disconnection in Indiana. Social Security and Disability payments were not reduced, SNAP benefits were increased and people who do not normally receive SNAP benefits received a one-time payout of over $300 if their child/children receive free/reduced lunch. These benefits arrived in the mail or were added to the EBT cards without application.
As nonprofits and township trustees, we are well-acquainted with the effects of moratoriums on utility disconnection. Each year, in accordance with Indiana Code 8-1-2-121, there is a moratorium on utility disconnections from Dec. 1 to March 15 for those receiving assistance through the Indiana Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Every year, we witness those who do not pay their utility bills because they know they cannot be disconnected. Thankfully, this is not the majority of people who receive this assistance, but still we brace for March 15 knowing we will see utility bills as high as $1,500 or more.
With every extension of the governor’s moratoriums, our concern for what the bills will look like intensifies as does our concern for landlords and utility companies that are not being paid. In addition, with the moratoriums now including not only utilities, but rent, water/wastewater, telecommunications and broadband, the potential debt at the end of the moratorium could be staggering for those who do not attempt to keep their bills current. With the first moratorium coming only eights days after the end of the LIHEAP moratorium, it is possible that we could see people who have not paid a utility bill since December 2019. And so we remain braced for what might come even though we have strongly encouraged people to make contact with us if they are unable to pay their past due amounts.
Lori and Chris McCoy, Wayne Township trustees, report seeing “less than 50% of the people they saw at this time last year,” seeking poor relief. Lori said it best, “I know what people think is going on, but that’s not what is really happening. My phone is not ringing.”
Tammy and George Wolfe, Orange Township trustees, report seeing only one person from March through July 10.
Cindy Kennedy, Washington Township trustee, whose numbers are also down, said, “I expect to see people who are not two months past due, but as much as six months.”
Donna Schwartz, Elkhart Township trustee, and Fran Heintzelman, Sparta Township trustee, both report their numbers are “steady and have not gone down but have not gone up considering last year’s numbers.” These trustees represent a cross-section of Noble County with a shared understanding of why the numbers are down or steady at best.
In order to be attentive to food insecurity, I began convening a weekly Noble County Food Pantry Zoom meeting on March 31. We have continued to meet every two weeks with Brad Graden and Margarita White of the Community Foundation of Noble County to keep an eye on the needs and collaborate on resources and information from authorities.
As with other nonprofits, the numbers have been down. Rome City Helping Hands volunteer, Sandy Moore said, “Our numbers are half of what normally has been seen in the three zip codes we serve. We are still not back to pre-COVID numbers.”
Amy Schroeder from West Noble Food Pantry reports “the numbers have been down, but the donations are up.”
Bonnie Brownell from Central Noble Food Pantry provided numbers that also indicate a gradual decline from an average of 41 households per week in January to an average of 27 in May. She reports the numbers picked up slightly in mid-July with the farm wagon out of service. Our Friendship Connection 2019 average number of households per month was 147. We are averaging 125 households per month with our lowest point at 86 in May.
Brad Graden, executive director of the Community Foundation of Noble County, has consistently participated in both the NPO and the Food Pantry Zoom meetings. He reports seeing these “common themes” regarding numbers served and has led the community foundation to be a crucial support to those of us who are working to make sure people are not being missed. He has witnessed collaboration among not only the pantries, but community organizations and groups who have come together to provide food and personal protective equipment (PPE) that allows nonprofits to continue to safely work throughout this time.
Many of us have spoken to individuals and groups who are quite surprised to learn what is happening.
I am so proud to be a lifelong resident of Noble County, where people not only step up, but step out of their comfort zones to make sure neighbors are cared for. Whether we are delivering food to seniors and those in quarantine, or producing PPE for skilled nursing facilities, or just gathering resources so we are at the ready and standing by to help those who will be in need of assistance when the moratoriums end, we are “Noble County Strong” and we will be there!
Some will say things like, “they chose not to pay, let them deal with it.” To you I say, “they” may not need a second chance — it could be a first one if they never learned how to budget in normal times, let alone challenging ones such as these.
Landlords who have not been paid for several months may not remain sustainable and then where will those families go?
Don’t be surprised if utility bills go up for all of us after months of providing services without being paid in some cases.
I speak for Common Grace Ministries when I say, we do not just give them money, food or furniture Band-aids and send them on their way. We take time to provide every person who comes with education in spending and savings planning, we connect them to jobs as we are able, connect them to resources beyond our doors and serve as their advocates when they are hitting walls. We build relationships with them and connect them to others and to God.
On behalf of all who are standing by to serve our neighbors: We are in this for the long haul, come what may.
We hope you will join us. Connect with your favorite nonprofit and ask them what you can do to help them. When Common Grace Ministries was first formed, a Nov. 1, 1996, Our View column posting the job description for the first director in The News Sun opened with this 1 John 3:18 scripture: “Let us stop just saying we love people, let us really love them, and show it by our actions.”
What action will you take today?
God bless you and God bless Noble County.