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Welcoming Center assists immigrants facing housing and utility debts following COVID's impact

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Matt Rourke
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AP
Immigrants were especially hard hit by the impact of COVID-19. Two years into the pandemic, many have accumulated large utility and housing debts but do not qualify for government financial aid.

Housing and food insecurity issues are already a struggle for immigrants, and the COVID-19 pandemic financially devastated many by limiting their work opportunities.

Many central Illinois immigrant families were left with overdue utility, rent or mortgage bills when the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns hit.

Stimulus checks and other forms of government aid are not always accessible for immigrants. Stimulus checks depend on previous years of filing taxes, which some immigrants simply do not or cannot fill out.

The Welcoming Center initiative through the Immigration Project in Bloomington-Normal has stepped in to support immigrants through legal matters, in dealing with mental health needs and with financial aid.

Social Services Director at the Welcoming Center Sarah Mellor said the Welcoming Center is prioritizing assistance for people that fell behind on rent after not working because of quarantine or because their job was either closed or work was limited.

Mellor said the industries that were hardest hit by the pandemic, such as factories and restaurants, may be open again for regular business now. However, the issue now is that many immigrants accumulated debt in utility bills or housing payments because they were ill with COVID-19 or because they were out of work.

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(From left) The immigration project staff photographed include caseworker Oumaima Boulhna, Welcoming Center manager Rocío Peralta, social services director Sarah Mellor, and executive director Charlotte Alvarez.

“I would say that immigrants were especially hard hit and especially vulnerable to the financial impact of the pandemic just because they don’t always qualify for large government assistance that is based off Social Security numbers and based on citizenship or past records of having been in the country,” Mellor said.

Mellor said the Welcoming Center has been able to stop 20 evictions that were already in court proceedings through a court-based rental assistance program through the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

“That involved a lot of advocacy with the landlords because they were already in court ready to evict the person,” Mellor said. “We interceded. We provided interpretation so that the landlord and the tenant or the landlord’s representative and the tenant could communicate better and provided evidence to the judge that the person had applied was qualified for financial assistance.”

Mellor said the programs the Welcoming Center offers help both the tenants and the landlords recoup the remaining bills and start fresh. They are present at every eviction court session on Wednesdays and Thursdays at the McLean County courthouse to provide legal support through Prairie State Legal Services, to provide interpretation if needed, and to fill out the court-based rental assistance applications.

Mellor said people that qualify can earn up to $25,000 in rental assistance through this program.

“We’ve also worked with landlords in several of these programs because what we’re seeing is that the landlords don’t necessarily want to evict the person, but they need to start getting income from their rental properties,” Mellor said. “It’s kind of a tough situation for everyone, and if the landlord is able to get some money and get back on their feet so that they’re not suffering from these financial impacts of the pandemic, then they will.”

Through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides financial support for COVID-19 related funeral expenses that happened on or after Jan. 20, 2020.

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Sarah Mellor
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Sarah Mellor is the social services director at the Welcoming Center in Bloomington.

Many immigrants do not qualify for this program either.

Mellor said the Welcoming Center also provides financial support to immigrant families that do not have access to FEMA support and that have had family members die from COVID-19.

Mellor said anything that people can do to support their immigrant neighbors by referring them to the Welcoming Center makes the entire community stronger.

“Immigrants make up a large part of our workforce. They contribute to our economy just like every worker. So, when they’re put in disadvantaged situations maybe due to COVID or whatever, they deserve the same support as everybody else because they’re part of this whole system, this statewide system, that impacts the services that we receive and the economy,” Mellor said. “I know right now, there’s actually a worker shortage, so supporting people so that they can get back to work and recover financially from the pandemic is just as important for immigrants as it is for everybody else, for citizens alike.”

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