Fayetteville resident Carrie Williams’ children caught COVID-19 in July.
Williams quit her job to care for her children as they recovered.
With her income source cut, she’s about two months behind in paying rent.
But Williams, who is an Army veteran, is finding the door is closed to her for COVID-19 financial relief.
Williams said she is struggling financially but is told she makes about $40 too much to qualify her from any type of assistance, whether it’s COVID-19 relief, rental assistance, childcare assistance or food assistance.
She’s applied for assistance programs, reached out to nonprofits and written emails to local, state and national officials but keeps hearing the same thing — she’s “in agray area.”
“I came from a poor family but pulled myself up from New Jersey and joined the Army and tried to do the right thing,” Williams said. “I’ve never received any assistance before, but now the one time I need it, I’m left in the cold.”
COVID-19 affects local veteran
Williams served a little more than nine years in the Army and spent another five years as a government contractor.
In November, she received a job she’d been wanting for years as a civilian government employee for the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.
Williams wanted to continue to support the military.
“I’ve always worked, even after the military, I never took a break, “Williams said.
She still worked in the middle of the pandemic, but in July three of her five children, ages 3 to 11, tested positive for COVID-19, catching it as a “cluster effect” at daycare, Williams said.
Her daughter with asthma struggled to breathe for a month.
She said her bosses at the U.S. Army Special Operations Command tried to support her as much as they could.
“They gave me all types of leave — veteran leave and sick leave, but between five weeks straight… it was too much time,” Williams said.
Williams said she was still in a probationary period because she had not yet completed a full year on the job meaning she hadn’t accrued any more time.
She used up all of her sick leave and said she made the difficult decision to resign from her job, opting to quit instead of being fire and penalized, thus putting herself in a position where she couldn’t go back to work for the government.
That’s when she started having financial setbacks but was told she doesn’t qualify for local assistance.
Making too much for COVID-19 relief
Williams hoped the $2,440 she receives a month for disability through the Department of Veterans Affairs would sustain her.
Not only is it not enough, but it’s also the reason why Williams is being denied assistance from nonprofits and government assistance programs aimed at COVID-19 relief.
Williams said she’s constantly told she’s in a “gray area.” She is on a bubble of needing assistance but making about $40 more than income requirements.
While Cumberland Community Foundation provides funds to charitable organizations instead of direct services or aid, director Mary Holmes said she’s heard of instances similar to Williams.
“Government direct aid seems to be aimed at low-income families with greatest financial need,” Holmes said. “We also see that as a priority for individuals who donate to help others — funds are meant to help those in greatest need.
Crystal Moore Williams, community impact director for United Way of Cumberland County, said Carrie Williams is correct.
Government funding that is available in the local community follows U.S. Housing and Urban Development income, because organizations and entities are using funds as mandated by the government, Crystal Williams said. She is not related to Carrie Williams.
Families can’t receive food stamps, Medicaid, child care assistance or any other government assistance if they are even $5 over HUD’s income guideline.
“This has become the untold story of those in need — the families who fall through the cracks are those that are slightly above the HUD guideline for income-based programs,” Crystal Williams said.
Carrie Williams has applied for the Fayetteville Rental Assistance Program.
Officials who administer Fayetteville and Cumberland County’s Rental Assistance Program told the Fayetteville City Council last month that they’ve helped about 636 families but have a backlog of more than 6,300 families.
To be eligible for the program, applicants must reside in Fayetteville or Cumberland County, one or more people in the household must have qualified for unemployment benefits or had their income reduced due to the pandemic, they must be at risk of homelessness or make 80% or less than the area’s median income, according to the website.
Cumberland County’s median income is $46,875 and Fayetteville’s is $45,024, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To be eligible for the program, a household would need to make $37,500 or less if they live in the county and $36,019 or less if they live in the city.
Katrese Hale, a planner in housing and community development with Triangle J, told the council in April that a family of four making 80% of the median income is $46,500, which allows a $1,163 monthly rent payment. Options are there for those making 80% of the median income, Hale said. Families at 60% or below are the ones having a difficult time and have few options locally. In Fayetteville, the biggest gap is among people making less than $35,000 a year, she said.
According to Connections of Cumberland County website, the group stopped receiving Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds April 26.
Those who have sought help from the state’s Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions Program, or HOPE, have been encouraged to seek assistance from their local rent assistance programs. A voice recording on the HOPE helpline says Cumberland County is no longer served by HOPE.
Williams calculated the expenses her $2,440 veteran disability check goes toward — $898 for medical insurance for her children (Williams receives her own medical care through the VA); $400 for utilities; $580 for a car payment; and $1,125 for rent.
She is separated from her husband, who she said is a combat veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Williams is behind in bills, trying to prioritize keeping the water and lights on first, her car loan and $200 a week to feed her five children.
“By that time, there’s no money to put toward rent,” Williams said.
Cumberland County’s Department of Social Services is not currently administering COVID-19 relief programs, said Brenda Reid Jackson, director of Cumberland County Department of Social Services.
“Unfortunately, the federal/state assistance programs administered by DSS are means-tested programs,” Jackson said.
Not all household expenses, such as cable or cell phone bills, are considered when determining eligibility based on expenses, she said.
“If ineligible for the programs we administer, we often are dependent upon community and faith-based programs to assist citizens whose income exceeds the program’s limits,” Jackson said.
Williams said she’s reached out to local faith-based organizations but was also denied assistance.
Not qualifying for help from veteran organizations
Williams found that many veteran-geared nonprofits only provide emergency assistance if it’s tied to a service-related incident
The national Veterans of Foreign Wars tells her for those discharged after Sept. 11, 2001, their financial hardship must also be a direct result of military service-connected injury or illness.
Army Emergency Relief’s website states it is for regular Army soldiers or their family members, National Guard or Reserve soldiers, soldiers who retired “for longevity or physical disability” or veterans who retired at age 60 and their family members.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, it allocated $200 million to 238 nonprofit organizations across the country to provide housing rental assistance to extremely and very low-income Veteran households eligible under VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
Volunteers of America of the Carolinas Inc. is the only Fayetteville and Cumberland County-affiliated program that the VA selected to allocate more than $4.38 million in funds for fiscal year 2022.
Representatives of Volunteers for America told Williams last month that she’s over the income limit for assistance.
With expired eviction moratoriums, Williams said she’s already received a notice for her own eviction.
She’s applied for unemployment assistance but fears she’ll be evicted before any assistance arrives.
Williams has already waited three months, as unemployment officials try to get the Army to verify her prior wages and still have her case marked as pending.
Last week, Williams said she dipped into her 401K to try to catch up on rent.
She dreads the penalties she’ll have to pay.
She reached out to LegalAid of NC when she was getting behind in her rent and received the eviction notice.
“Everyone tells me the same thing, ‘You’re in this gray area and make just a little bit too much. These programs aren’t for you,’” Williams said.
She said she’s never applied for assistance before and thought programs were to “just get people back on their feet.”
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “I have five children. Thank God the Army taught me to be resilient. I know I have to figure out something. I can’t just sit there.”
Williams said she wouldn’t be seeking assistance if it weren’t for COVID-19.
“The virus doesn’t just affect lower-income people,” she said. “It’s affected all of us.”
Staff writer Rachael Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-486-3528.
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