CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Despite efforts to speed up the delivery of HOPE Program money, more than 30,000 North Carolinians are still waiting to receive rental and/or utility assistance and those delays are especially placing a burden on women.
According to the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, 80% of the 42,000 people who applied for help from the Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program are women. As of Tuesday, only 11,825 households were in the payment stage, according to the agency.
"We've just been kind of left in the dark"
Randi Berardi is one of the many left waiting.
"Every day I wake up and that is the first thing that is on my mind," the Charlotte woman said. "I don't have anybody to fall back on immediately."
Berardi, laid off from her job in October, said she is behind on rent. While she said her property manager has remained "very cooperative," the longer she waits, the more stressed she becomes.
"I am getting nervous now that it is past the end of December into January," she said. "We have just been kind of left in the dark. No communication. Nobody to talk to or get any answers from."
Karen Crawley of Concord is in a similar position. Like Berardi, she also received initial HOPE eligibility approval in November and said she has not yet received a payment. Meanwhile, she's several months behind on rent.
"I feel so bad," she said. "They always say once you get behind one time, it's hard to catch up."
"What's the hold up?"
The Office of Recovery and Resiliency is the agency tasked with quickly creating the HOPE program, approving applicants and then delivering the money.
"What's the hold up?" we asked Chief of External Affairs Haley Pfeiffer-Haynes.
"So, I would say we have been able to serve a lot of people in a very short period of time," she replied. "It's important to remember that this program didn't exist until late August...We're continuing to work to improve our processes to get this assistance out to folks and we're very proud that we've been able to deliver over $32 million in less than three months. That being said, help can never come soon enough."
The $32 million referenced makes up just 20% of the program's $167 million funding.
"Is that good enough?" we asked.
"We are always looking to improve what we're doing and it's not good enough until we have served everyone and that is certainly how we are looking at it," Pfeiffer-Haynes said.
Changes are in the works
According to Pfeiffer-Haynes, the state is reassessing how it operates the program, having learned it takes too much time and resources to manage all 42,000 cases individually, initially with no new staff. The agency hired 150 new employees to help in December.
The state is now working directly with large utility companies as well to reach more applicants at once and help people pay for power. The agency plans on a similar effort with property managers in the near future, Pfeiffer-Haynes said.
"Whenever you have to deal with one case by one case by one case, it is slower than if you could do something in a big batch and so that is what we are working towards," she said.
The agency is also moving away from awarding lump sums and instead hoping smaller, more frequent payments will reduce case work on the front end.
"We do not want this money to stay in our hands, but we need to administer it responsibly," Pfeiffer-Haynes said. "We still have our foot on the gas pedal. We are going as fast as we can and we really understand that people need this assistance."
Records show the state's efforts are making a difference. The number of households in the payment stage nearly doubled over the last two weeks from 6,080 on December 21 to 11,762 on January 4.
"I could kind of breathe"
For North Carolinians like Berardi and Crawley, the help can't come soon enough.
"Oh my gosh, you have no idea what that would mean to me," Berardi said. "it would be a huge relief. I would love to see it come through, so I can breathe a little bit."
It would go a long way toward helping them feel secure again in their own homes.
"It would mean a lot," Crawley said. "The stress would definitely go down. I could kind of breathe."
After The Defenders reached out on Berardi and Crawley's behalf, the state promised to escalate their cases.