When Jacqueline Vega wrote to City Limits looking for emergency rental assistance, she was in a panic.
It had been months since she had been employed and after a series of unfortunate events and confusion, she was again unable to pay her rent.
Her story of loss and perseverance is like that of many Hoosiers facing struggles right now.
Vega lives on the north side of Indianapolis and had been hired as a personal shopper at Walmart in July after being unemployed for over a month. Personal shoppers were in demand because of COVID-19 concerns. At work one day, a crate of goods fell on her, hurting her back.
She wound up in the emergency room. The doctor told her she couldn’t work until it healed, which took longer than she expected. Walmart cited another reason in letting her go, but Vega believes it was an excuse to cover firing her for not being able to work.
When she applied for unemployment benefits, her application was turned down. She said Walmart said she voluntarily quit. While Vega believes she can convince the unemployment office this is false, she isn’t sure how long it will take.
“When I read what they had written, that I had voluntarily quit, I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Vega said.
In September, still unable to work because of her injury, she applied for disability benefits, hoping her injury would qualify her for help. She also applied for rental assistance from IndyRent Assistance, a program started by the city to help tenants struggling to pay rent because of pandemic-related losses. The program has since closed but covered her rent from August through October. She was able to get food from food pantries.
Vega had always provided for herself, often working two jobs to cover her expenses. When she had to seek help, she was embarrassed, and she became anxious and depressed.
“When you are my age, and you’ve never had to deal with anything like this, for one thing, it really puts an impact on your pride," Vega said. "I had the hardest time asking anyone for help because I didn’t want anybody to know I was having so many problems.”
Through her township trustee, Vega got emergency rental assistance that she will be able to renew if Social Security money still hasn’t come through by the end of February. Township trustees are elected officials in Indiana who are in the rare position of being able to repeatedly give temporary emergency assistance to constituents in need.
Kim Alexander is Bloomington Township’s trustee. She says trustees must decide whether to give aid within 72 hours of a request.
“A lot of times it might be a death in the family or you get sick or your heater blows up and puts you behind," Alexander said. "But a lot of times we get people who, they just don’t have enough income so we kind of consider that an emergency.”
Vega’s trustee also connected her with the Indiana Energy Assistance Program, which provides utility assistance in the winter months for people who qualify as low-income.
The South Central Community Action Program in Bloomington serves low-income people and offers energy assistance. Director of communication and development Jessica Yeary says the window to apply for EAP help is open until May 14 for this winter. Yeary says on average people get over $600 of assistance and over 3,000 households are assisted in a typical year. This year, the program received more applications than usual.
"If you get a little bit of help on your winter heating bill and you don’t have to worry about your heat being shut off in the winter, and you don’t worry about your family being cold throughout the winter then maybe you can invest that money somewhere else, whether that be transportation to work, or groceries or getting something for your kids,” Yeary said.
Vega is taking online classes as she waits for her body to heal. She hopes to work with formerly incarcerated people when she graduates, doing work that gives her purpose.
“If I was able to go back out into the workforce, I definitely would want to help people in some way,” she said.
Although she is receiving assistance from her township trustee, it isn’t enough to fully cover her rent costs and she hopes unemployment or disability checks will soon kick in.
Those in need of emergency rent or utility assistance can contact their township trustee or go to Indiana’s Energy Assistance program’s website to find a local community action agency or apply directly for aid.
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