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The United Way of Imperial County will finally move forward with a homelessness prevention program after waiting on the county for funding promised nearly two years ago.

The county Board of Supervisors approved the agreement last week, allowing the United Way to help residents pay rent and other bills under a $75,000 grant.

Why this matters

More than 1,500 of Imperial County’s roughly 181,000 residents are homeless, a population that has sharply risen in recent years and is particularly vulnerable during COVID-19. State funds meant to help these residents have sat unspent by county officials.

The nonprofit has expected the funding since October of 2018 when the county selected it, along with seven other organizations, to provide homeless services under a nearly $1.7 million state grant.

Though officials planned to roll out contracts in the months following, an inewsource investigation in June found the county had finalized just $325,000 in projects and spent none of the grant money. The delay stalled programs meant to help some of the county’s most vulnerable residents find housing, pay bills and access other essential services.

Peter Sanchez, a Navy veteran from Calexico, cleans his hands with wipes handed out by the Brown Bag Coalition at Calexico’s Border Friendship Park, April 21, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The grant, awarded under the California Emergency Solutions and Housing Program, was part of an influx of one-time funding to address housing issues across the state. It came after Imperial County saw a sharp rise in its homeless population, which continues to grow.

Early data provided by the county shows that 1,527 of its roughly 181,000 residents were counted as homeless this year, an 8% increase from 2019.

That crisis has been amplified by COVID-19, which has hit Imperial County particularly hard. Until recently, the county was reporting the highest hospitalization rate in the state and was regularly transferring patients elsewhere because local facilities were overwhelmed.

Nonprofit leaders have told inewsource they’re concerned about the virus spreading among homeless residents, a group that already had fewer shelter options and is particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.

More than 1,000 calls have been made to a homeless hotline the county created in response to COVID-19, and at least 24 homeless residents who tested positive have been placed in temporary isolation housing. County government contracted with area motels to house others who are considered high risk due to age or underlying health conditions. Last year, all but about 200 of the homeless residents were unsheltered, meaning they weren’t in temporary or emergency housing.

The dining area at the emergency homeless shelter in Calexico is shown on April 21, 2020. Catholic Charities operates the shelter. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Ken Wuytens, United Way of Imperial County’s executive director, told inewsource after the supervisors’ vote on Tuesday the nonprofit used other grant funding to help residents pay bills as they waited on county officials. He said his two-person office continues to receive calls daily from people seeking help.

“With everything going on, it’s turned into a perfect storm,” Wuytens said. “We’re doing what we can.”

Imperial County officials previously told inewsource they have been focused on distributing other homeless funding and cited additional delays first caused by the state and then COVID-19. Board of Supervisors Chairman Luis Plancarte said in June the supervisors were trying to finalize contracts “as quick as we possibly can.”

Under its contract, United Way will receive 40% of its grant up front to provide financial assistance to residents at risk of homelessness. The funding will be used to pay their utility bills and rent or mortgage.

County officials plan to follow up on the program after six months “to assess housing stability and program goals and objectives.”

Other Imperial County organizations are still waiting on their share of the state grant. Susan Chasang, head of the Sister Evelyn Mourey Center, said the charity’s funding is moving forward but attributed some of the delay to her own office’s late revisions in the wake of COVID-19.

Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering mostly education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times, Jennifer’s award-winning coverage of yearslong corruption helped...