“I try to communicate to people who are growing disillusioned with the American dream that we're all in this together.” —Bo Chilton, CEO, Impact Community Action

Over the summer, as a patchwork of protections expired, space inside the Greater Columbus Convention Center was converted into an eviction court to accommodate a surge of hearings amid a pandemic. With the economy roiled because of Covid-19, research showed that thousands of renters across Ohio were at an unprecedented level of risk of losing their homes.

Count Spring Lawson among them.

Employed by a local health system’s call center at the time, her overtime had been eliminated and she had fallen behind on her $1,100 monthly rent. Late fees piled up and her landlord wouldn’t accept a partial payment. An eviction notice arrived in April to inform her of a June 10 court date.

That gave Lawson plenty of time to sit with the anxiousness of losing her home and the impact that would have on her credit score. She worked with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus to understand her options and arrived at her hearing with $2,000, even though she owed more than $3,000.

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Waiting for her was Impact Community Action. A caseworker explained she was eligible to receive money from the recently established Hope Fund designed to stabilize families during Covid-19 so area shelters wouldn’t become overwhelmed.

The $12 million fund was made up from a federal CARES Act pass-along from the city of Columbus, federal funding for match donations, money from Franklin County and private donations from the Columbus Foundation, Nationwide Foundation, United Way, Fifth Third Bank, PNC Bank, the Crane Group and others.

Lawson’s money combined with $1,800 from the fund allowed her to work out a deal so she could stay in her Reynoldsburg apartment.

“This helped with the late fees that had piled up,” Lawson says. “I was able to make a fresh start. I’m grateful for that, and now I stay ahead of the game.”

Lawson took a job at the nonprofit in July as a self-sufficiency coordinator. While the funding and job opening weren’t related, she says she’s able to use her experience to connect with the people she helps at the agency. “I know what it’s like to be on the other side,” she says. “Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate. It’s affecting everybody.”

Thousands need help

In September, the Centers for Disease Control issued a temporary halt in evictions through Dec. 31. But evictions are still happening because there’s action needed by tenants to take advantage of those protections, says Bo Chilton, CEO of Impact Community Action. That includes “best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing” and “best efforts to make timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit.”

“If the tenant doesn’t take that proactive step, the landlord can file for eviction,” Chilton says. “There are a number of landlords rushing to evict people they want out before they are clear about the protections that are out there.”

Impact Community Action can provide tenants with documentation that shows they are seeking assistance. The nonprofit has been working with several other agencies to prevent widespread evictions, which Chilton says will make the pandemic worse by crowding shelters and increasing the number of multigenerational households.

The funding Impact received this year from the government has to be spent by the end of the year, so the beginning of 2021 could present challenges anew to keep people from losing their homes, he says. As of early October, Impact had distributed more than $3.5 million to 1,600 residents. It also had 3,000 applications that still needed to be processed.

A big new home

Impact Community Action traces its roots to 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson’s Vision for A Great Society ushered in civil rights reform, demanded economic opportunities for all citizens and began the war on poverty. It is one of 48 such agencies in Ohio and more than 1,100 nationally. The goal is to move people from crisis to stability, from stability to empowerment and from empowerment to self-sufficiency.

In June, the nonprofit moved from Olde Towne East to the old Techneglas plant at 711 Southwood Ave. It has 40,000 square feet of office space and 10,000 square feet of warehouse space, which has allowed it to continue educational training and implement social distancing.

Chilton, who serves on the city of Columbus’ Civilian Review Work Board Group engaged in community-police relations work, also has seen the impact of this year’s civil unrest, which he says has created more angst in the community.

“I try to communicate to people who are growing disillusioned with the American dream that we’re all in this together,” he says.

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.