By Cherish Cronmiller | OlyCAP Executive Director
When I was applying for the position of executive director in December 2019 from my former home in Ohio, I searched the web for “Olympic Community Action Programs” and “OlyCAP.”
I wanted to read any articles I could find about the agency. I wanted to know, how often did OlyCAP get coverage and what about?
It was a surprise for me when I saw this fundraiser for the agency, the Peninsula Home Fund drive, through the major newspaper on the Peninsula.
My first thought was, “Wow, this is an incredible partnership.” I read the accompanying stories of people and families helped by the funds, in awe of the generosity exhibited by this community.
As a certified community action professional, I know all too well the struggles that come with not having flexible funding. When you look at our various grants, one might be inclined to think that the agency has plenty of money. However, agencies like ours operate primarily through funding from government grants, federal grants that flow through the state or county, state grants, and local county grants.
These grant dollars are vital to running our Headstart programs, senior nutrition, food bank distribution warehouse, energy services and housing, but they come with a lot of restrictions. People must prove they are poor through paperwork galore.
To access these grant-funded services we must meticulously document the applicant’s household income, why the need exists, and vendor information. People must meet certain income criteria and payments are often capped.
When a community member is in crisis and needs something, we are often unable to help when these strict criteria for programs aren’t met, or the need exceeds the allowable payout maximum.
In these cases we usually have to send people to churches or nonprofits that have unencumbered funds, that’s to say, funds without such restrictions that keep us from giving someone a life preserver when they might be financially drowning.
All too often we see people using credit, or payday lenders to try to survive, which puts them in a debt cycle that is difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
Community action agencies focus on helping people maintain or obtain self-sufficiency. When community members are on fixed incomes, or have jobs that don’t pay a self-sufficient wage, a one-time emergency quickly becomes a crisis.
If someone has a medical procedure and have to pay an out-of-pocket amount or deductible, where will that money come from? If someone has a car break down they need as transportation to work, where does the money come from to pay that unexpected cost?
Some people might say they should save some money to cover unexpected costs. Well, it is hard to save money when you are living paycheck to paycheck (or pension check to pension check.) This lack of assets is known as “asset poverty.”
Conventional wisdom says that a household should have a savings cushion equivalent to three months of household expenses saved to be minimally prepared for an emergency. Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity lists the percentage of households in Washington state without sufficient savings to maintain for three months without income is 21.5 percent.
People are usually just one emergency away from having to play “which bill goes unpaid this month?”
The COVID pandemic illustrated the extent to which families on the North Olympic Peninsula are stretched thin. The loss of job, a reduction in work hours, the lack of child care, having to feed children, needing to increase technology in the home and getting internet access for work or school have all caused changes in household income.
Before any state or county assistance was available, you, the readers and supporters of Peninsula Daily News, stepped in and started writing checks with the mid-March launch of the Peninsula Daily News COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.
OlyCAP was able to start helping community members with these quick-response relief dollars from this fund back in March. Since then, we have put more than $295,700 of your donations back into the community through 619 transactions; 401 households have been served.
Most — some 74 percent — were used for rental assistance, especially for people who did not qualify for rental assistance through the state-funded relief programs because they did not meet the criteria. Some 14 percent of funds went toward helping with various utilities, electric, water and sewer bills.
It was interesting to see the large number of people we heard from who have never before used assistance from a social service agency.
With the onset of the pandemic these folks, for the first time in their lives, didn’t know how they would manage to pay their rent.
Likewise, we heard from small landlords who were worried about paying their mortgages because they were suddenly not receiving rental funds from their tenants unable to pay.
In these instances we worked with both landlords and renters together to make sure that funds were used wisely.
Besides serving so many first-time customers, the other thing that struck me about the Peninsula COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund was seeing the donations that came in. Some donations were $25; others went up to $15,000. Many donations were in the realm of $50 to $250 — people, just giving what they could, to help their neighbor.
Some unpleasant things occurred in 2020, but PDN Home Fund contributors should feel a real sense of community warmth about what they were able to help make possible for others during this year.
I may have been impressed by the stories I read before coming to OlyCAP, but I have been more impressed by the way staff stepped in and stepped up to meet the challenges of this year, adapting to serving customers remotely and administering the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, and the way the PDN community quickly showed an outpouring of their support to help their neighbors when things got tough.
We at the agency are worried about what will help when the eviction moratorium and stays on utility shut-offs are lifted, but with your donation and support, we hope to be here for neighbors in crisis through the next year.
Thank you for your potential support.
Cherish Cronmiller began work as the Olympic Community Action Programs executive director in February.