Pinellas starts pilot emergency assistance program
- By SUZETTE PORTER
For years, Pinellas County kept a pot of money to help people with emergency financial needs. It was part of its arsenal to prevent homelessness.
But the program fell victim to the budget axe wielded by previous county administrator Bob LaSala.
“We went many years without an emergency fund,” County Administrator Mark Woodard said March 24 during a presentation about a new pilot program that will restore money to provide a one-time hand up for those in need.
County Commissioners unanimously approved a six-month agreement with 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares to administer a pilot Adult Emergency Financial Assistance Program.
“I’m glad we’re bringing it back,” said Commissioner Pat Gerard. “It is a wonderful program.”
Health and Human Services director Lourdes Benedict believes there is a great need in Pinellas for the program. She said in 2014, more than 7,000 people called in needing help.
The pilot will cost $850,735. An initial $700,000 is budgeted for direct client services over six months, April through September, with 2-1-1 receiving $150,735 for operation and administration. If all goes well the county’s agreement with 2-1-1 could be renewed for two additional six-month periods at which time the program will be reviewed to gauge its successfulness.
The pilot is similar to the Family Services Initiative funded by the Juvenile Welfare Board to assist families with minor children. It also is administered by 2-1-1. The county’s new pilot is intended to assist eligible adults without minor children.
“It was pretty much a no-brainer to take our money and mirror what the Juvenile Welfare Board is doing”, Benedict told the Commission.
Citizens can ask for help with a “real emergency” one time a year, she said. But the program is flexible enough to allow additional help upon approval of the Exceptions Committee.
“It could be an unrelated issue,” she said “We would look at the scenario and see how to help them.”
Benedict said 2-1-1 had already begun to hire. The target launch date to begin the pilot is April 13.
Woodard updated commissioners on the Pinellas County Care Fund, which staff believes will generate about $22,400 a year to help adults with emergency needs. County Utilities’ customers will be able to make a voluntary contribution to the fund online. The care fund also will be administered by 2-1-1.
The pilot program will be open to Pinellas County residents with proof of residency. Their income level must be less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which equates to $11,770 for one person, $15,930 for two, $20,090 for three, progressing up to $40,890 for eight people in a household.
Persons requesting more than $1,000 aren’t eligible if they have more than $1,000 in liquid assets, which include money in checking accounts, 401K accounts, bonds, stock or cash value of life insurance.
Applicants have to prove their emergency by showing overdue rent or mortgage notices, utility shut-off notices or overdue bills. Emergency transportation to get to work or appointments is available with proof of employment or an appointment reminder notice. Money also is available for work-related expenses, if an applicant has a statement from their employer and can provide estimated cost.
Some requests can only be approved by the program director, including educational courses or testing fees, bus tickets for relocation, utility deposits, co-pay for emergency medical or dental service, emergency home repairs or necessary telephone or internet service required for a verified job.
There is a list of items the program won’t pay for, including rent deposits, legal fees related to criminal activities, telephone or internet not required by employment, cable TV, alcohol, tobacco, firearms, lottery tickets, gift cards, insurance premiums and more.
Benedict said requests for help up to $300 could be approved by 2-1-1 staff within only a few hours. Requests for $301 up to $1,000 must be approved by a supervisor. Requests for more than $1,000 must be approved by the Exceptions Committee, which includes Benedict and 2-1-1 executive director Micki Thompson or her designee.
Benedict said it was important that the program have as much flexibility as possible.
“We don’t know what people are going to need,” she said.
Woodard gave one example of how the program could help. In the scenario, a person needs $200 for a car repair. Without the money to make the repair, the person can’t get to their job. If they can’t get to their job, they could become unemployed and in danger of becoming homeless.
“This will be a bridge on a temporary basis to prevent homelessness,” he said.
Woodard added that the new program aligns with the commission’s goal to focus on community.
“We’re doing things for people,” he said.