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Phoenix family evicted after rental help delays

Phoenix hiring more staff for rent assistance
Shuntera Brown family
Posted at 7:12 PM, Sep 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-08 22:24:43-04

PHOENIX — In December 2020 Shuntera Brown, her 15-year-old twin boys, and nine-year-old daughter were all diagnosed with COVID-19.

Two of the kids had what Brown described as "very mild symptoms." But she and one of the twins were hit hard.

"Our tastes went away. Our sense of smell went away. And for me, my back, it was horrible. The back spasms. Like sitting up like this--wasn't possible for me. My body pillows were my best friends," Brown said.

She couldn't work for three weeks and says being sick came with additional costs.

"I took it serious. So, I wasn't one of those people still going to the stores and putting other people's lives in danger," she said. "Everything was delivered. Cleaning supplies, groceries. Everything. I really didn't go out for 20 days."

Even after recovering physically and going back to work, she said she was never quite able to recover financially.

"I've worked the whole pandemic. I'm a working-class woman. It's just, I'm struggling. I incurred extra bills over this pandemic," Brown said.

She filed her affidavit for CDC eviction protection in February but says she found a way to pay rent-even if it was late.

But by April it became a struggle. By May Brown said she called 211 for information about rental assistance and was given the phone number to the City of Phoenix to apply.

"I was calling a number at least ten or more times a day to no avail," she said.

Phoenix residents were supposed to be able to apply for pandemic-related emergency rental assistance in two ways: set an appointment by phone directly through the City of Phoenix Human Services or apply through Wildfire, a community action agency that the city hired to handle online applications.

Brown told ABC15 she didn't know the online application was an option until it was too late. On June 10, Wildfire stopped taking online applications saying they were overwhelmed. That left people only one option to apply: call on Mondays which is the only day Phoenix sets application appointments by phone.

Her first eviction hearing was held in June. While a judgment was filed against her, she was not removed because of the CDC affidavit she filed. But in July Brown's landlord went back to court to contest the affidavit saying she had not shown proof that she had applied for rental assistance.

But with the portal down and not being able to get through by phone to set up an appointment, Brown said had no way to apply when she needed it most.

It's a point she attempted to make during her second eviction hearing on July 20.

"I've been wracking my brain trying to find rental assistance. Like I said I've tried to call many times. I couldn't get through. I even went to the building. The doors were locked," Brown told the judge.

"Ma'am the documentation you provided does not show that you've applied for rental assistance," the judge said. "He's (the landlord's attorney) is asking you a direct question: what organizations have you applied for rental assistance?"

Without proof of an application for rental assistance, the writ was granted. Brown's family was removed from their apartment on July 26.

In a statement, the city told ABC15, "We understand the stress involved for anyone in the eviction process like Ms. Brown, and we are working to get money out as quickly as we can to meet the overwhelming demand for assistance."

The city hired a contract administrator in July to review the application process and "identify opportunities for improvement," the statement said.

About $32 million of the $51 million Phoenix received in emergency rental and utility assistance has been disbursed, helping more than 10,700 residents according to the most recent numbers.

But more than 2,600 online applications are still waiting to be processed, including Brown's.

While she said she never was able to speak to anyone her application went through when Wildfire began accepting applications again in August. However, according to the confirmation email she received, it could take up to 90 days before it is reviewed.

"The rental assistance program taking so long is kind of defeating the purpose," Brown said.

As a result of the review, in August the City began hiring for an additional 50 positions to help collect tenant documentation, which is the most time-consuming part of the process according to officials. They also say hours of operation at the Family Services Center where appointments for in-person applications take place, is expanding to six days per week.

But for Brown's family, the damage is already done. With an eviction and back-rent owed, no one will rent to them, and they are essentially homeless. Spending most nights going between cheap motels and Airbnb homes that are being funded in part by a GoFundMe page started by friends.

"We're just trying to get stable into a place," Brown said. "That's the main goal for me and my kids because right now they're distance learning. I hate it. Because they're not getting what they need."