Tears flowed from Noemi Garcia’s face Tuesday night as she sat in her trailer home wondering where she and her four children would end up next month. COVID-19 claimed her job, and it would soon claim her rented Hidalgo County home.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars set aside to help Rio Grande Valley families like Garcia’s avoid eviction are sitting unclaimed and nearing expiration.

Local, state and federal leaders anticipated the financial consequences of COVID-19 on low-income families. They set aside money to help pay for rent and mortgages. Months after the programs went into effect, only a few have received assistance.

“I felt everything was crumbling,” Garcia said as she considered her children’s immediate future without shelter.

When the pandemic hit, she was working as a bartender at a flea market and earning $7.75 an hour, plus tips. Now, her four children — ages 12, 10, 8 and 7 — are attending school virtually and tethering the single-parent to their rented home.

One day, Garcia, which is an alias to protect her identity, stumbled upon a Facebook post from Hidalgo County. It advertised a service that could help her family through the crisis.

Millions of dollars set aside to help Rio Grande Valley families avoid eviction are sitting unclaimed and nearing expiration. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

COMMUNITY SERVICE AGENCY

The post is one of many ways the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency, or CSA, is trying to attract applicants.

Slightly over $7 million were earmarked for this countywide program. In the middle of July, they started taking and granting applications.

So far, 1,944 applications have been submitted to the CSA. Of those, 1,415 applicants were denied. They didn’t meet the residency requirement — one of three conditions.

In order to qualify for the assistance, applicants need to live in unincorporated areas, Granjeno, or Sullivan City. They also have to provide proof their finances were directly affected by COVID-19 through lost wages, employment or contracting the illness. Third, they can’t exceed a certain level of income.

The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court decided those who live within the limits of a city can seek relief from their municipal government which received federal virus relief funding.

Although it was the main disqualifying requirement, the commissioners court tailored a different one to cast a wider net.

“Given that the money wasn’t moving very quickly,” CSA Executive Director Jaime Longoria said, “I went back to commissioners court in the middle of August.”

The court decided to raise the income requirement.

As a result, applicants are eligible even if they earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level — that’s $78,600 for a family of four.

There was no remarkable change in the volume of applications.

“We really have tried to get the word out,” Longoria said.

They’ve purchased 400 signs measuring 4-feet-by-8-feet that are hanging across the county, interviews with media outlets, and partnered with other agencies to tell residents there’s free money.

As of Thursday, slightly above $400,000 has been distributed. About 95% of the funds are still unused. The money is sitting in a pool that will evaporate Dec. 30 — a predetermined expiration date for all funds derived from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

SIMILAR STRUGGLES IN STARR, CAMERON, AND WILLACY

Programs helping residents with state and federal funding in Starr, Cameron and Willacy counties are similarly underwhelmed with applications.

Residents struggling to pay rent or their mortgage in the Lower Valley can turn to the Come Dream Come Build organization.

“We had never done tenant-based rental assistance,” CDCB Executive Director Nick Mitchell-Bennett said. “You would think maybe we would have more.”

The organization started offering assistance on May 2. As of Thursday, 240 applications were started, 87 of those received funding assistance, 13 were denied, and 58 are still pending, according to Mitchell-Bennett.

They can help people in all counties, but the applications are mainly from the Lower Valley. Of the 158 completed applications, 128 are from Cameron County residents, 29 are from Hidalgo County residents, only one Willacy County resident submitted an application to them, and none were from Starr County.

In total, they’ve assisted with about $200,000, far under the millions the state has made available to the CDCB.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on advertising to put the information out there,” Mitchell-Bennett said referring to the ads they’ve bought on social media platforms.

The organization pulls their funding from multiple sources including the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs under the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance, or TBRA, program.

The state also funds another program in the Upper Valley, Affordable Homes of South Texas Inc. based in McAllen. Residents living in Hidalgo and Starr County can apply for rent and mortgage assistance.

“I am surprised that we didn’t have more,” ASHTI Deputy Executive Director Mayra Martinez said of the turnout.

The program started helping people in July. As of Thursday, they’ve received about 275 applications, 150 families have received help, and about $275,000 have been distributed.

AHSTI and CDCB, along with the Housing Authority of the city of San Benito serving Cameron County share a pool of money with the state. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs allocated $8.1 million for TBRA.

Close to $6 million remains unused across the state, according to Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs Director of External Affairs Michael Lyttle. Programs across the state have until Dec. 30 to use these funds.

The lack of interest in this money puzzles those ready to help.

“There was a lot of money out circulating — stimulus money, the extra unemployment money, the extra money on the returns — that is no longer available,” Martinez said, adding, “so, now I think they’re finding themselves in need.”

The requirements that make people eligible vary, too. Each program requires determination to sort out the details and follow through on the required paperwork.

To be eligible for the AHSTI program, the applicant must have a lease, not a month-to-month arrangement. The program won’t cover owed rent, but will take care of current or future payments. Applicants will be asked to certify they’ve been impacted by COVID-19 and the primary applicant over 18 years of age must submit a valid state ID.

FEAR FACTOR

“I think that a lot of the fear is that one, the issue around taking any type of assistance could harm your immigration status,” Mitchell-Bennett, in Cameron County, said. “That’s not very helpful for an area that has a lot of immigrants.”

In Hidalgo County, Martinez said there’s also confusion among residents receiving help from multiple sources and how it could overlap and make them ineligible for certain benefits.

Residents struggling to make payments have other concerns.

Noemi Garcia, the single-mom of four children, said she’s concerned with repercussions from the state.

“I’m too scared of CPS that they’re going to say that … you’re not capable of maintaining your own kids,” Garcia said.

She was comforted after Tuesday night’s tears by an unexpected call from her landlord.

“He sent me a picture of a check for $1,000. I didn’t even know that was coming,” she said, adding that it was actually the second check for her.

The Hidalgo County CSA was able to help her for another two months.

Noemi Garcia, 31, a single mother with four children who receives rental assistance through the Hidalgo County Community Assistance Program, on Thursday in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

TIME RUNNING OUT

If the funds allocated to the CSA are not running out in pace with the deadline, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said commissioners are discussing how to make best use of the funding.

“We are waiting for municipalities to fully report where they have been using the funds,” Cortez said.

Some of the larger cities in Hidalgo County like McAllen, Edinburg and Pharr, have their own rental and mortgage assistance programs.

Pharr and McAllen have poured their own money into these programs hoping it will be reimbursed by the county later, but they have not reached the limit of people they projected would need help, according to Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.

Though the initial problem for the CSA was a deluge of applicants who didn’t fit the residency requirement, that eligibility restriction could be loosened.

“If some municipality has a continuous need for more funding but they simply ran out of it because the allocation we gave them is not sufficient, I, for one, and I’m sure the commissioners would be amenable to possibly allocate some of our funds to them,” Cortez said.

He added, “We’re all in this together.”

On Thursday afternoon, as Garcia’s kids were closing their school laptops for the day, brightly-colored clothing hung outside her house — some of it drying after coming out of the washer, some of it part of a garage sale.

She received a survey from her children’s school district asking if she favored in-school instruction. Garcia indicated she would like them to return to school, so she can go back to work and her long-term goal of returning to school.

“Right now I’m at the bottom,” she said, “but one day I’ll be where I want to be.”

WHERE TO GET HELP

For help from the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency, residents can visit hidalgocares.org or call (956) 205-7058.

Affordable Homes of South Texas Inc. can provide assistance online at renthelpRGV.org where applicants can choose between McAllen, Hidalgo or Starr County residency and between rent or mortgage assistance. The organization can also be reached at (956) 687-6263.

Residents in Cameron and Willacy counties also have the option of applying through the Come Dream Come Build organization. They can be reached at (956) 541-4955, and more information is provided via https://cdcb.org/covid-19.

In addition to these agencies, Valley residents can also receive assistance through the following agencies that receive funding through Community Service Block Grant Program CARES Act and Emergency Solutions Grants Program CARES Act. Their funding does not expire at the end of the year.

>> Cameron and Willacy Counties Community Projects, Inc. provides rental assistance through CSBG CARES Act funds

>> Hidalgo County Community Action provides rental assistance through CSBG CARES Act funds

>> Community Action Corporation of South Texas provides rental assistance through the CSBG CARES Act funds

>> South Texas Development Council in Laredo is serving Starr County with rental assistance through the CSBG CARES Act funds

>> Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley serving Cameron County with ESG CARES Act funds

>> Friendship of Women, Inc. serving Cameron County with ESG CARES Act funds

>> Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley, Inc. serving Cameron and Willacy Counties with ESG CARES Act funds

According to Lyttle, there’s more money that will be allocated to the Valley.

In a statement, he said, “A significant influx of approximately $167M in rental assistance will be coming soon to the state through additional ESG and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds related to the CARES Act. Amounts available for the Valley have yet to be determined as funding formulas are being finalized and reviewed by HUD.”