Angela Leaper picks up gifts from Trina Ducey at the Redemptorist Center. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

On Dec. 18, wrapped gifts lined the hallways of the Redemptorist Center, where families came to pick up toys and holiday meals handed out by volunteers in face masks and shields. Each year, social service organizations in Kansas City work to make the holidays special for those in need. 

But this year, many families are in need of a different kind of assistance.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, more people in the Kansas City area are reaching out for assistance with rent and utility payments, according to information from United Way of Greater Kansas City’s 211 line. They also still are looking for help with traditional holiday needs, such as meal baskets and toys. Kansas City agencies have stepped up to provide assistance for an increasing number of people, due to both the closure of smaller food agencies and more people losing their jobs or having to care for children at home during virtual schooling.

“There are families struggling to pay rent, and they still want to give their kids a Christmas that looks like a Christmas they had before,” said Shilo Foster, a case manager for Bishop Sullivan Center, which helps provide food, employment services and household assistance in the Kansas City metro area.

The 211 phone line operated by the United Way of Greater Kansas City directs people to different types of assistance. The most common needs year-round are emergency assistance for utilities, including electric, gas and water, according to Kristen Womack, the 211 manager. 

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, United Way has seen an increase in need for assistance with rent payments and other housing needs, such as community shelters, low-cost home rental listings and rental deposit assistance.

The majority of people coming to Bishop Sullivan Center, the agency in Kansas City that United Way directs the most people to, have been seeking rent assistance. The agency has seen a significant increase in such requests, Foster said. In August 2019, Bishop Sullivan helped 33 families with about $11,000 in rental assistance. In comparison, this August, it helped 67 families with $33,000 in assistance.

“It’s taking people longer to get back to where they were,” Foster said. “Many people are not able to get back ‘on the road’ as quickly as they used to. Either they are having trouble finding a job, or have children who are going to school virtually, the daycare is closed, things like that.”

At the Redemptorist Center, 80% of people have sought rent assistance, said Julie McCaw, its executive director.

“The problem is that they’re not one or two months behind, but they’re four months behind, so we’re having to work with other agencies to tackle it because of the cost,” McCaw said.

McCaw said there was a large burst of people needing rent assistance at the beginning of the pandemic, but it slowed down for a while after the beginning of the national eviction moratorium. However, McCaw said the need for rent assistance came back full force starting around October.

Foster said even though there’s currently a moratorium on utility shutoffs in Kansas City, many still need help paying bills.

“The risk of disconnect may not be there, but if your unemployment is running out and you don’t have any funds coming in, these bills are just getting really, really large,” Foster said. “People are stressed out.”

And because shutoff moratoriums are in place, there are some sources of utility assistance many people are currently ineligible for, even though their bills are still adding up.

The Mid America Assistance Coalition provides payments for heating bills for people living in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties who qualify. Shelly Stroessner, director of programs, said the moratoriums have substantially reduced the number of crisis dollars that are able to go out.

Everyone is still eligible for energy assistance, which is a calculated credit that goes to their primary heat account. However, if someone’s primary heat account is eligible for disconnection if not for the moratorium, that person cannot receive crisis funding, which they could usually apply for. People can only receive crisis funding if they have a disconnect notice or are already disconnected. Stroessner said that in November and the first half of December, MAAC has given less than half of the crisis funding it gave out last year.

People still need food, gifts and clothes

While the main needs have been for rent and utility assistance, people still are seeking access to other services, such as food pantries and holiday food baskets.

While many agencies usually offer community meals on holidays, they aren’t available this year with the pandemic, so there has been a larger demand for food baskets instead, Womack said.

“We get a lot of people in need of providing holidays for their children,” McCaw said. “This year was more than double the requests we got last year.”

Both Bishop Sullivan and the Redemptorist Center report having to serve a larger population than normal, in part due to many smaller, volunteer-run food pantries closing during the pandemic. McCaw said in the past, the center served about 1,900 families a month. Since March, it has served over 70,000.

Lorena Garcia and Carl Gonzales load up their gifts. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

“I think more people are struggling with how to give something normal to their families, especially children,” Foster said. “But also to come to terms with not having the resources for that.”

McCaw said the Redemptorist Center could use more donations of food and warm clothes, especially that men can wear while working manual labor jobs.

But most of all, it could use monetary donations. McCaw said financial donations tend to pick up around the holidays, but slow down right after. And Womack said funding for agencies tends to dwindle toward the end of the year.

“Those kinds of monetary donations would be amazing, just so we could assist more with the financial needs,” McCaw said. “It just allows us to serve more people.”

Looking for help or to donate? Here are the Kansas City agencies offering assistance with rent, utilities and food that 211 most often refers people to:

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.