Published June 26, 2020, by Frank Gerjevic
Hard-working people in Anchorage took a blindside shot from the coronavirus shutdown, and it’s not over yet despite the reopening. Hard times still dog our neighbors; swift help still keeps them on their feet. That’s the staying power of AK Can Do.
Many of us can relate to Aurora’s adventures in Alaska. She came here from New York City six years ago looking for a fresh start after the deaths of her grandfather and her best friend. She found a new start and a promising life. By the time COVID-19 hit, she was about to turn 32, working on a four-year contract as a nanny and teaching music and dance, along with another gig work. She’d covered some ground in Alaska, working for a time in Dutch Harbor for Grant Aviation.
The pandemic shutdown has gutted her finances. She kept the job as nanny to twin toddlers but lost her income as a music and dance teacher. She said a friend who had been helping her out was hit even harder and couldn’t continue to assist her.
Like thousands of other Alaskans, Aurora scrambled to make ends meet. She got her car insurance payments deferred, but a mix-up on the date when the deferment started left her bank account overdrawn and her rent unpaid.
“I was in a house on fire and saying, ‘Everything is gonna be fine,’” she recounted. “But it’s not fine. I don’t have a bucket of water.”
Thanks to AK Can Do, Lutheran Social Services had that figurative bucket of water, a check of $975 that put out fire of the unpaid rent.
“I was very impressed and very grateful,” Aurora said, noting that she didn’t have to “jump through a bajillion hoops.”
Something that previous work as a property manager taught her to appreciate was that “people do want to pay their bills,” she said. “There’s a sense of pride and individual responsibility to be able to take care of the people you love.”
Anetone (Tony) Toiloto and Fiatamalii (Fia) Toiloto
During the first week of June, Tony and Fia Toiloto could see daylight. When the pandemic struck, Tony’s hours at Capitol Glass were cut and he struggled with trying to get unemployment assistance by phone.
“On the phone it’s not face-to-face like this,” Fia said.
Face-to-face at Lutheran Social Services was a swift check to help cover rent until Tony’s return to full time work produced a paycheck to keep pace with the family’s expenses. Lutheran Social Services director Alan Budahl urged them to keep filing for unemployment – “you really need to do that” – especially given that supplemental and retroactive payments are available.
With a boost from AK Can Do funding, the Toilotos now had some breathing room, and the feeling, as Fia said, that “our family is safe.” That feeling is a godsend for Tony and Fia, who beamed as they showed pictures of their 1-year old son. A preemie, he weighed only a pound at birth and Tony held out one hand in describing how he could hold him. They showed a photo of a swaddled infant tubed and wired, and then another of a bright-eyed one year old. “It’s a miracle,” Fia said. The rent check wasn’t a miracle, just some timely help to sustain the miracle.
Noella waited in the Lutheran Social Services office for her husband, who was in their truck looking after the kids. Her husband was laid off from his job with Bailey’s Furniture in Wasilla when COVID-19 shut down the economy. They have nine total – six boys and three girls. That means the federal stimulus checks helped but was down spent fast.
He was just getting back to work the first week in June. “He starts today at 10,” Noella said with a smile, noting he’d be late that day. Noella said the $1000 check for rental help was “just for this month,” to tide the family over until her husband’s paychecks started flowing again. Her gratitude was notable as she exclaimed “thank you so much,” while heading out the door.
That’s how Danielle, a 29-year-old mother of three, described getting laid off in March. She worked for Avis at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
“It’s my first time ever not having a job,” she said. “My house is a little more organized, but I’m bored.”
She’s also scrambling and borrowing money against an expected unemployment claim that just recently started paying but doesn’t yet include retroactive pay to cover the previous weeks of her pandemic layoff.
Danielle moved to Alaska in June 2019 in start-over mode. The pandemic and job loss have thrown her the same challenges thousands of Alaskans have faced.
Her family has stepped up. She says her oldest, a 12-year-old daughter, has risen to the occasion. “She is definitely second-in-command,” Danielle said, helping with her siblings, ages seven and four.
For Danielle, the $895 in rental assistance helps her “keep my faith.” “The last couple of months… It’s just not normal,” she said.
“I want to make more money so I can really support my kids and don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck.”
Janet Morgan McKnight
Janet, 63, had her steady work at Dena’ina Center banquets ended abruptly in March. She needs the work to supplement the $900 a month she receives in Social Security benefits of her late husband.
When the shutdown shuttered Dena’ina’s stream of events and conventions, “I called 2-1-1,” Janet said. United Way’s Alaska’s 2-1-1 helpline connected her with Lutheran Social Services’ rent and utility assistance, funded by AK Can Do.
An $855 check covered a month of rent and Janet was also trying to plan for how to eventually cover deferred utility payments. “I can help you with $145,” Alan Budahl told her.
After running her own cleaning business for 12 years, Janet was back looking for work.
“We don’t have tourists; that’s a problem too,” she said. “I applied at a local hotel yesterday and they said they’re not hiring until October.”
In the meantime, Janet was grateful for the help that keeps her rent paid. “Oh, thank you so much,” she said. “I appreciate that.”
Rani ran a one-chair hair salon in Muldoon, The Doll House, when the curtain fell on appointments back in March. She had a temporary job at Target that ended in May. She’s filed for unemployment but hasn’t received a payment yet.
A call to 2-1-1 led Rani to Lutheran Social Services, where Alan Budahl cut a check to her landlord and assured her “they’re not taking you to eviction.” He also urged her to keep filing for unemployment.
Rani described working on several fronts to improve her finances. She applied for a Cook Inlet housing apartment in Eagle River that could reduce her rent from $1400 to $1050 per month. And she planned to combine work and school as she trained to become a certified medical assistant through the Alaska Career Center.
Steven Austin Welch
The Covid-19 shutdowns cut Steven’s gig as a dishwasher at Applebee’s to minimum hours. A June 2 eviction notice – even in the eviction moratorium – sent him to Lutheran Social Services for help. At 21, he and his girlfriend are trying to stay afloat in the sea of doubt that is Alaska’s economy in 2020.
It wasn’t clear at first that he’d get the rental assistance, and what happened next was a study in Lutheran Social Services’ vetting and flexibility.
Ordinarily, Steven would have needed a pay stub to qualify. All he had at the time was a work schedule including his name and cell phone.
“It has the store number too – it says Tudor and everything,” Steven said. “Just need your email so I can send it.”
As Budahl waited for the emailed photo to appear, he asked if Steven had applied for public assistance. He hadn’t. “You need to do that,” Alan said.
After a few keystrokes, the copier soon presented a check.. Alan said to go home and find his pay stub and bring it in for confirmation. This was a judgment call; the benefit of the doubt has won over the letter of the rules.
Steven now has several job applications out with local businesses like Roadrunner Amusement Park and Luigi’s Pizza. And he had a month’s grace on his rent.
Cathy went from a busy work schedule to almost nothing in the blink of an eye. Between a full-time job at Olive Garden and part-time at Round Table Pizza, she was logging 60-plus hours a week as a restaurant busser and dishwasher – “I was the best busser they had,” she said.
The pandemic shutdown ended that without a notice. The best she’s been able to get as businesses reopen is four hours a day, four days a week. But even that is clouded by her own leeriness during the pandemic in handling dishes around some people not wearing masks.
“Things are just not the same,” she said. “It was the hustle and bustle of it all, that was excitement.”
“This downtime is making me kind of slow,” she added. “I feel so distant and cut off from feeling like I’m part of society.”She was charging hard in March, “then the world turned off.”
The mother of a 15-year-old boy, Cathy has applied for unemployment and was still waiting on that as of early June. In the meantime, a rent check thanks to the AK Can Do helped keep her world turning. “It’s given me hope,” she said.
Like many other, Nicole Mann is a restaurant worker who has seen her work hours slashed, her rent stay the same, and bills continue to stack up.
“Hopefully I’ll be working more by July,” she said. In the meantime, she qualified for a second month of rental assistance. The mother of three children, Nicole pointed out that the $1,000 in assistance covered more than rent and could help with other needs
She said her kids don’t realize the seriousness of the pandemic or its economic fallout on their household, and that’s been a blessing. “My daughter will ask me, ‘Is corona still outside?’”
“Because you guys have helped me, I’ve been able to focus on them and not worry about paying the bills,” said Nicole.