Help is now available for Westmoreland County residents struggling with rent and utility bills amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as the county has begun accepting applications for the distribution of $12.9 million in federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds.

The online portal for applications opened Monday, allowing county residents to seek assistance through the program, which is funded through a grant that was part of the federal coronavirus relief package passed in December.

Union Mission executive director Dan Carney said previously he anticipates being able to provide assistance through the program to 1,300 to 2,000 households, depending on demand and the level of assistance needed.

“They set aside money for rental and utility assistance for folks that have an impact related to COVID. It covers anybody who is at 80% of the area median income (AMI) and has either had to collect unemployment because of COVID or can demonstrate loss of income or financial hardship or some sort of significant cost related to COVID that has caused their housing or utilities to be unable to be paid,” Carney said. “It will provide 12 months of assistance — that can be 12 months backwards, a combination of backwards and forwards — and it’s determined in conjunction with some supportive services. If someone needs help going into the future, we can wrap some housing stability case management around that household to help them look at their budget and their plan for stabilization so that we can get them back on track in paying their rent.”

The program prioritizes households below 50% of the area median income and people who have been unemployed for 90 days or more prior to their program application, Carney said.

“We believe based on some early metrics we’ve conducted that there will be enough funding to meet the need in the county,” he said. “Our hope is that we’ll have enough resources that we won’t have to say no based on priority.”

Union Mission has already begun receiving applications for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), Carney said.

Renters and landlords can apply online for assistance through the program by visiting unionmission.org/erap.

For those without internet access, Union Mission will be setting up sites throughout the county to assist with applying as well as having staff available to travel to those in need. Those seeking assistance can also call Union Mission at 724-539-3550 for a mailed copy of the application.

“It will be totally digital, but we will have staff available in a couple of formats. Our intention is to have some sites set up throughout the county for folks who need access to technology but want to do the application themselves. We’re going to have some partner sites identified for that,” Carney said. “We’ll have some sites set out in the community... where we’ll have a person stationed physically there so we can schedule folks to walk in or have appointments with that person for hand-over-hand assistance if they need it. And we’ll have a crew of mobile folks who will be able to go and people can set up an appointment to have someone come to their house or meet them in their local community to do the application and provide hand-over-hand assistance.

“The goal is to make sure that since we’re going with a digital platform that if folks don’t have access to technology, we make that easily available to them in their local neighborhood, and where they don’t have access and/or aren’t sure how to do the application online, we’ll have the hand-over-hand assistance for them to get through that application process.”

Applicants for the program will need to have a number of documents available in order to apply for assistance, including a rental agreement, proof of income or financial hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic, and an eviction notice, if applicable.

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