Too much demand limits ACCESS resources

Staff at ACCESS Inc. are struggling to keep up with a deluge of calls from residents seeking housing assistance after losing jobs or homes to foreclosure.

"Over the last couple of months we have had over 600 calls for housing, and that's, wow," said Cindy Dyer, ACCESS housing director, adding it's about four times the normal number of calls.

Dyer said most of these calls are going to voicemail until staff are available to respond. They still are responding to calls they received in July, she said.

"We want everyone to know that we are getting back to them, but it's taking a lot longer than we imagined," she said.

ACCESS has three full-time caseworkers and one full-time temporary caseworker, and it is in the process of hiring and training another in order to meet the growing demand. The caseworkers try to match callers' needs with programs that would best meet them. ACCESS has about 10 different sources for housing assistance available, depending on the situation. Most of the calls are coming from people who are trying to avoid eviction or are facing unemployment or foreclosure, Dyer said.

"Generally, we have programs that help prevent eviction or help with the deposit to move into a rental," she said.

ACCESS has four certified housing counselors available to help people navigate through the system to see whether they qualify for a loan modification. Caseworkers administer the rental-assistance program. "We present the options they have available to them; we don't make decisions for them," Dyer said.

Dyer said ACCESS caseworkers began falling behind in July while they waited for the governor to sign the budget. She said the fiscal year change-over normally takes some time to complete, "so we had a three- to four-week window where we had no funds."

To accommodate the higher workload, ACCESS sought additional funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an economic stimulus program approved by Congress in February. Dyer said the funding coming from the recovery act would be a little more than $700,000 over a three-year period, but "we are being told we should see those dollars for housing in about October."

"All of it is a goal of keeping people housed or getting people housed," Dyer said.

Besides housing, people are in dire need of energy assistance, and help with utilities and food.

Over the past five years, the demand for food has increased 25 percent. In the last year, the demand has gone up 17 percent. From July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, ACCESS has collected more than 2.5 million pounds of food — a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

"Both programs and the community need have escalated because of the economy," said Gary Miller, ACCESS executive director.

A couple of years ago, ACCESS had the means to provide five to seven days' worth of food for families in need. Now they can provide only three to five days' worth, or about 60 pounds per family.

"We would like to be able to provide enough food to last more than three to five days," Miller said.

ACCESS serves 25 percent of all Jackson County residents through their programs.

Miller said they are expecting the demand to increase over the next year as unemployment benefits expire.

"The issue we have is the demand is outstripping the supply," said Miller.

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