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Unemployed Americans face 'mixed messages' regarding rent moratorium: Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association

Mary Hamlett of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association joins Yahoo Finance's Zack Guzman to discuss the coronavirus' impact on unemployed Americans and how community organizations are attempting to help.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: We've been talking a lot about how states are navigating this pandemic since that additional $600 a week benefit rolled off at the end of July 31. For a lot of those workers who had been dependent on those to put food on the table, the longer that the impasse has carried on here between Republicans and Democrats to not agree on the next wave of stimulus-- President Trump had to go through an executive order to try and get states to release some more money and put more money up, navigating a $44 billion from FEMA creating a new Lost Wages Assistance Program there to help out.

But even that money is quickly dwindling here in the pandemic. We've seen more states quickly exhaust that money. And now, citizens are having to turn to help outside of the government here to put food on the table, as well as tap money here for other things as well, and living expenses just in general.

Here to discuss that with us is Mary Hamlett. She's the Vice President of Family Programs at Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, an anti-poverty group based in Memphis.

And Mary, thanks so much for taking the time to chat here. I guess the first question would be just, what kind of uptick in people tapping your guys' aid here, and what you've seen since we've witnessed that additional aid roll-off?

MARY HAMLETT: Thanks for having me on. What we experienced in mid-March, prior to the COVID expansion or being declared a pandemic, was we saw about 127 requests for services for utility, rent, and mortgage on a weekly basis. And at the beginning of August when the unemployment additional benefits ran out, that number rose to over 450 requests for services per week.

And most recently at the end of August, we saw 906 requests for services. So as this thing drags on and benefits run out, you can see how much the need has increased.

ZACK GUZMAN: And when we talk about all of that too, I mean, obviously, sometimes we've heard problems just in terms of people that haven't had to turn to organizations like yours before, or may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the way that the process works. Some people are even having problems with the unemployment process here as well.

I mean, when you're witnessing all this play out, obviously, you guys do a lot of good. But what's been different this time around?

MARY HAMLETT: One of the things that's been different this time around is there's so much mixed messaging, where people think that they have more time. The moratorium on evictions doesn't make people act as swiftly as they could to keep their bills up.

And that's really the concern, that the information is not the same. The group impacted is a lot larger, because we have so many quote unquote essential workers in our community. And this just overloads what we have available.

But then it also doesn't allow people to plan ahead, because you're being told that you have a moratorium. So they wait.

ZACK GUZMAN: And on this front, obviously we've covered how people turn to different organizations through crises like this. Government generally tends to be tapped first, and we've seen that happen. But when those benefits roll off and aren't there anymore, you start to get, you know, turning in different directions.

And what you've seen play out there in Memphis, I mean, what has been kind of, I guess, you know, the demographic breakdown of all this? We've heard so many stories about communities of color here being impacted mostly by this pandemic.

And that's true even when you look at the unemployment rates across the US. But how has that maybe been something that you've noticed as well in Memphis, since we've talked about Tennessee being hit so hard?

MARY HAMLETT: Well, Memphis is over 50% African-American, which makes it unique within the state of Tennessee and the US. So of course, when you look at numbers where people of color are more severely impacted, you can only imagine how much it hits Memphis.

So for a community where people were already living on the margins, it just multiplies how big the need becomes. And it is a challenge. It's a challenge for organizations like us to serve people in an effective manner.

And the other thing that's different is we no longer do face-to-face intake. Everything is done remotely. So the challenges around Wi-Fi, technology, computer access adds to people not being able to apply possibly when they need to. And that is the same, I believe, for unemployment benefits, just the system itself is not as user-friendly for some people as for others.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. And I mean, more on dealing with all that, just to wrap up here, we talk about how your guys' group here was formed. You had citizens and clergy in the community coming together to try and address a lot of the problems and poverty there in Memphis.

I mean, now that you're dealing with that and you're dealing with these struggles you're describing there, I mean, how scared are you that, you know, this could drag on for a while here, when we think about how many people are turning to you and how much is really needed in this pandemic?

MARY HAMLETT: Well, yes. MIFA celebrated 52 years of service to the community back on the 15th of this month, so we've been in this game for a really long time. When I initially joined MIFA, it was actually during the crash in 2009. So we saw groups of people who had never experienced a need come to our doors.

The difference here is that not only do you have people with a financial need, but you have people with health needs. And the community and the nation, I don't think, is prepared for the number of people that will need the medical attention.

For us as a service industry, it means that we have to use all the resources possible. CARES Act fund does help with that. And we are able to offer more to people than we have in the past.

But there is a short window to spend this money. So December 30, the money has to be spent. And we will have to look to the government after the end of the year to shore up again, because I don't think that we'll be at the finish line with this on January 1.