For Richard and Anne Jorgensen, the cost of food, heating, housing and medical bills has piled up over the past few years.
When they applied for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program this summer, they were happy to be approved for three payments of $1,400 a month to cover rent for their apartment in the East Deering neighborhood of Portland.
The federal program, which has served more than 34,000 households in Maine, was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to help struggling Americans with rent and utility costs.
For the Jorgensens, it has helped them stay in their flat while coping with a resurgence of Anne’s uterine cancer, which was initially diagnosed in 2012 and returned last year.
Their home isn’t perfect — paint is peeling off the dining room ceiling and scratches, likely from a former tenant’s dog, mar the front door — but it’s cozy and full of pictures of family and friends.
Besides, that’s what they can afford. “In this neighborhood, at our age, where are you going to move? said Anne Jorgensen, 76, adding that their current apartment is also close to major medical providers.
In September, they reapplied for an additional three months of rent payment. Richard Jorgensen said the Opportunity Alliance, which runs the program in Cumberland County, told him they had been approved until January.
Then he received an email on November 1 saying his application had been denied.
“I got ballistic,” said 79-year-old Richard Jorgensen. “I felt like I had been punched.”
He said the couple had budgeted thinking they would have the rent payments until January. “Having a promise and someone taking it away is not how America should operate,” he said.
Officials charged with running Maine’s emergency rental assistance program said it was still intended to be temporary and as the money ran out, they had to readjust. In some cases, such as the Jorgensens, this has meant having to tell families they can’t pay as much or for as long as they thought they could.
The Opportunity Alliance thought the funding would last until at least December, but MaineHousing then announced on Sept. 29 that it was suspending the program as the money was running out, said Mary Cook, ERA program director for the alliance. Community action agencies stopped taking applications and started laying off staff.
“We had to reassess and remove some people,” Cook said. “We hadn’t anticipated this as an agency. If we hadn’t stopped processing applications and laid off staff, we wouldn’t have been able to continue serving people.
She said the Jorgensens were among approximately 800 tenant households expected to receive payments through November, in addition to the 168 households staying in hotels in the area for which payments will extend through December. Cook could not confirm specific details of the Jorgensens’ case without their permission, but she said their story matched many of those 800 households.
“The general situation is what happened, which was people got approvals which we then had to withdraw or reassess and then re-commit to what we could pay, which was usually until November,” she said.
Scott Thistle, a spokesman for MaineHousing, said the agency had done its best to share the information it received from the US Treasury Department with agencies, but the temporary nature was a challenge.
“I think everyone was surprised that he wore himself out so quickly,” Thistle said. “The intention was always to stretch it longer but… at the start of the program we knew it was a one-off program and we probably wouldn’t see anything like it again in our lifetimes.”
Thistle said he didn’t know the details of the Jorgensens’ affair and said he hadn’t heard of similar issues on a larger scale. “Each community action agency distributed the funding as it was available to them, and as the funding ran out there were probably people who got caught up in those middle stages,” he said. -he declares. “But the program has always been caveated with ‘while funding is available’.”
Last week, the Jorgensens learned that the Opportunity Alliance would still be able to cover their November rent, but that would be the end of it. Richard Jorgensen said he was grateful, but he said he still felt like he was being forced off the edge of a cliff.
FORCED OFF A CLIFF
“It’s federal money and they should have had some oversight of where that money is going and how much is left, rather than a promise that you’re going to get money and then it’s taken back” , did he declare.
As a retired dentist, Jorgensen said people probably expect him to have a lot of money. But he and his wife, a retired teacher’s aide, incurred many expenses when she was first diagnosed with cancer.
They also had credit card debt and ended up filing for bankruptcy, he said. Today, Jorgensen said he has about $30,000 in savings and lives mostly off Social Security and retirement benefits from his wife. Their future is clouded by worries about medical bills and the rising cost of food, heat (which is not included in their rent) and gasoline. They will likely cut back on Christmas gifts for family or food in the months to come.
“It was a feeling of relief,” Jorgensen said, reflecting on what it was like to get help for three months. “When someone says, ‘You’re approved,’ you think, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have to worry so much,’ especially as prices go up and up.”
But then that changed.
“They’ve passed the moon,” he said. “The people most affected are probably those on fixed incomes, Social Security, Medicare, etc. Guess who this group is? Mostly seniors.”
Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.
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