After making their way through the usual questions on demographics, dependents and other data points, people who had turned to Black Lives Matter 5280 for help paying the rent were offered a chance to vent.
The application for the community organization’s COVID-19 Displacement Defense Fund grants includes this text in one of the last boxes: “We see you, we support you, and we want to hear your story! Please use this space to share any other information about how you personally have been affected by the ongoing crisis created by COVID-19.”
Ariel Lipscomb, who organized BLM 5280‘s rent relief effort, said people responded with stories about suddenly finding themselves the sole breadwinners for their own families as well as older parents, of nursing children through COVID while suffering from the disease themselves, of food running low as they weighed the risks of going to the supermarket. In some cases, Lipscomb was able to put people in touch with other support, such as child care.
“People are watching people die. People are dying. People are losing their homes” because of the pandemic, said Lipscomb, who trained as a counselor and worked as a behavioral health technician before her years volunteering for BLM 5280 led to a job with the organization this year.
“People are having a really hard time. And we’re here to listen,” Lipscomb said. “I’m really glad that we can just be here for people in their time of need.”
BLM 5280 was, thanks to a $30,000 Colorado Trust donation, able to provide rent relief for 13 households in September. Lipscomb said the average payment was about $1,500, though some families needed the full $2,500, the limit set for each grant.
“I know for a fact that there are people in their homes because of us,” Lipscomb said.
Colorado Trust spokesman Julian Kesner said the donation to BLM 5280 was among more than 100 COVID-19 grants that the trust has made statewide over the past six months to community groups addressing “health-related disparities, inequities and injustices.”
“We wanted to make sure our COVID-19 response grants assisted populations that are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including communities of color in Colorado,” Kesner said in an email. “The vast majority of our COVID-19 response grants have gone towards helping to cover rent, food, utility and hygiene item expenses for marginalized populations.”
Lipscomb said she and a colleague, Keezy Allen, considered applications from anyone, but created the grant program in part in response to the racial and ethnic disparities the pandemic has highlighted in Denver and across the country. Minorities have been disproportionately hurt by both the pandemic and the recession the disease has sparked. BLM 5280 has helped arrange COVID-19 testing in Denver.
Lipscomb and Apryl Alexander, a clinical and forensic psychologist and a member and leader of BLM 5280, announced the launch of the grant project in a mid-September Instagram Live session. Soon Lipscomb and Allen had 171 applications to consider and quickly exhausted the Colorado Trust’s $30,000.
“We gave priority to what felt the most dire,” Lipscomb said, adding she has since been trying to determine what other funding sources she can use to help others in her pool of applicants.
Among BLM 5280’s priorities are people who applied for rent relief elsewhere and were found to be ineligible, Lipscomb said. She said she has heard, for example, of families in need who have been told they make too much to receive aid.
COVID relief programs typically set an income limit of 80 percent of the area median income, currently $78,500 for a family of four, according to Patrick Noonan, who manages a statewide housing hotline run by the nonprofit Brothers Redevelopment. Noonan said that others who might be denied include people who rely on disability benefits who cannot document that their income has dropped, but who may nonetheless have been affected by the pandemic.
Brothers, which also manages part of the city of Denver’s rent relief fund, was not involved in the BLM 5280 rent relief project. Noonan said groups such as BLM 5280 can help ensure rent relief reaches all who need it. Brothers, he said, has partnered with organizations such as the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea Coalition to “try to help people understand that there is eviction and foreclosure help out there.” Noonan said being able to work with a trusted partner while navigating the application process is important in these stressful times.
Lipscomb’s work with BLM 5280 includes supporting its Community Wellness Squad. The squad has responded to emergencies such as evictions and has helped buy diapers and formula. The squad also arranges for therapists to offer counseling at events such as protests and forums.
“We do a lot of just checking on the community, seeing the need and filling the gaps,” Lipscomb said. “I’m pretty close with my community. I listen to their needs.”