Kevin Croak was at the edge of a cliff.

He and his girlfriend, Heather Novak, were five months behind in paying the rent for their Boyertown apartment.

Croak was unable to work because of a physical disability. Novak had seen the hours at her retail job cut back to almost nothing in the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new job she took to replace it paid far less than what she had been making.

And the couple was expecting a child.

Money was incredibly tight.

"We went from living week to week to living almost hour to hour," Croak said. "It was stressful, we had nothing for the baby. We didn't have a bed for the baby."

In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 27 birth of Jaden Croak, the situation was so dire that Kevin Croak was often forgoing meals.

"I was giving my food to my girlfriend because she was eating for two," he said.

And then, the couple received a notice of eviction in the mail.

Out of options, they began searching for help. They were eventually referred to Family Promise, a Reading nonprofit that helps the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless.

Family Promise became the couple's savior, in November providing $2,700 to cover six months of rent.

"It saved us from being homeless," Croak said. "We don't have any family to ask for help. That was our only resort.

"If they didn't help us, we'd probably be living in our car."

Croak and Novak aren't alone in their struggles over the last 10 months. The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the American economy, costing millions of Americans their jobs.

Stimulus checks and unemployment payments have helped many. But others either haven't qualified or have faced lengthy waits for their benefits while bills continued to pile up.

The result has been an ongoing threat of an eviction tidal wave.

Both the state and federal governments have stepped up, with both Pennsylvania and federal eviction moratoriums being implemented. And the federal CARES Act has funneled large sums into programs like emergency rent assistance.

Help is out there, if you know where to look.

Flood of problems

The calls have been coming all day long, every day, Jack Williams said.

The executive director of the Berks Coalition to End Homelessness, which has received about $750,000 in CARES Act money for homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing for Berks County residents not living in Reading, estimated the need for help in 2020 was five times greater than the year before.

"It's chaotic," he said.

For example, he said, take an apartment complex just outside of Reading. In October 2019, seven tenants out of more than 400 units were in the process of being evicted and a total of 30 tenants behind on rent.

A year later, the complex had 40 tenants facing eviction and nearly 90 behind on rent. In all, the complex was owed about $300,000.

The team that manages the site, Williams said, told him the complex is actually doing well compared to complexes the company owns elsewhere in the state.

Kimberly Talbot, executive director of the Reading Human Relations Commission, said she likewise has seen an increasing number of people facing the specter of eviction.

"It seems to be on a rolling basis," she said. "I'll think I have a handle on it and then, boom, I'm hit with a wave of hundreds of phone calls."

The commission has been charged with distributing $2.2 million that Reading has received from the federal government for homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing and shelter assistance.

Talbot said many of the people she has helped lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic, and that many waited for months to receive unemployment benefits.

Others, she said, work for temp agencies and have only been able to find work a day or two a week because of the impact COVID-19 has had on businesses.

Talbot said the federal rent assistance money, as well as additional funding that soon should be arriving from a new federal COVID-19 relief bill is not going to waste.

"I just know I'm spending it," she said.

Sometimes, however, the money isn't being spent as quickly as some would like.

Talbot admitted the entire process sometimes moves slowly, that there has been a lag in getting money where it needs to go.

"Landlords have not been happy, and they don't hesitate to tell me that," she said. "All I can do is apologize. We're doing the best we can."

Talbot said her office has been understaffed for the amount work it has faced, and that City Hall being closed because of COVID-19 has forced her into the difficult position of running the rent assistance program from home.

But, she added, the commission has been able to add a few interns and hire two part-time employees, which is helping improve the speed of the process.

Of moratoriums

One of the biggest efforts to address potential COVID-19-related evictions, and the deluge of homelessness they could cause, has been moratoriums.

Berks County and Pennsylvania issued moratoriums on evictions in mid-March, forbidding tenants from being kicked out for nonpayment of rent.

The state moratorium was extended into the summer, but the county and state bans have since expired. Some state legislators are pushing a plan to institute a new, expanded moratorium, but action has not yet been taken on it.

The federal government has also issued a ban, one which is in place until the end of the month. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered that anyone being evicted must have the process halted so the tenant can apply for assistance.

President-elect Joe Biden announced this week that part of his COVID-19 relief plan includes extending that moratorium through September.

The federal moratorium requires tenants to fill out an application and attest to the fact that their inability to pay rent is related to the pandemic. 

Those running local rent assistance programs say the moratoriums can be a double-edged sword.

Elise Chesson, executive director of Family Promise, said that in order for tenants to receive most federal rent assistance the legal process for an eviction has to have already been started.

"There are plenty of different pools of funding out there to assist people," she said. "But if they don't have that court order, you can't help them. I feel like there are a lot of people left in limbo who are in need."

Chesson said that if additional moratoriums were put in place, like the one being proposed at the state level, it could cause even more issues. She said more people could be helped if the federal government adjusted its restrictions on when rent assistance can be provided.

'Trying to do what's right'

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides federal rent assistance funding, said the department does have emergency funding that requires evictions to be in process.

But, he added, HUD has also made available community development block grants that could be a good fit for emergency rent assistance that could be provided before an eviction is filed with the court. Reading has received more than $2 million in those grants.

Talbot, like Chesson, also said the process is far from perfect.

"We're taking people to court because they can't afford to pay," she said. "And then we make the landlord, who is probably just as hard up for money as the tenant, we make the landlord pay in order to file. And that adds more to what the tenants owe."

But not all landlords and tenants are aware of the rules, Talbot said. Some don't know the eviction process needs to begin to get assistance, instead thinking the moratorium means evictions can't be filed.

Still, Talbot said, the federal moratorium overall has been helpful. Even if it does complicate matters a bit.

"There are a lot of people who would be locked out if not for the moratorium," she said. "A lot of tenants are being saved right now because of the moratorium."

Making sure everyone knows how the federal moratorium and rent relief work is an important piece of the puzzle, Talbot said.

While it hasn't always been the case, most Berks County judges and the majority of landlords are now aware of what it means and are working within its confines.

"The experience I've had with judges, in general, the experience has been amazing," she said. "I think everyone is trying to do what's right."

Help available

And for tenants, who might not be as well-versed on the topic as judges and landlords, there are several agencies across the county offering help.

Talbot said the city has put a link to the rental assistance application tenants need to complete on readingpa.gov. Anyone with questions or looking for direction where to turn can call the city's Citizen Service Center at 877-727-3234.

For those living outside of the city, Chesson said the best bet is to call 2-1-1 or visit pa211east.org.

"That's always an easy number to remember, and they act as a referral service for many of the agencies offering services," she said.

Chesson said the organizations offering help often focus on different populations, and staff at 2-1-1 can point people to the place best suited to help them. She also said 2-1-1 staff can go through the list of documents and other information needed to apply for rent assistance.

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