Tere Simancas and Luis Arreguín help people fill out housing assistance applications outside Our Lady of Refuge in Castroville | Photo by Adriana Molina
In Monterey County, rental assistance is also available to families living in rooms or garages.
By Luis Arreguín
Every Wednesday for the last month, members of COPA Castroville have been gathering outside Our Lady of Refuge Catholic church for a noble cause. They are helping community members apply for the rental assistance program authorized by the U.S. government that provides relief for the economic struggles families have experienced because of COVID-19.
But it takes more than just setting up tables and computers and getting together every Wednesday afternoon to help farmworkers in distress.
Once Congress approved legislation to provide economic stimulus for families, some organizations like COPA organized community members demanding an eviction moratorium and the allocation of federal funds to help families struggling to pay rent. The problem for Castroville, and other small rural communities in the area, is that rental assistance was approved only for tenants with formal leases. And when it comes to Castroville, the picture of rentals is completely different.
In this North Monterey County town, many tenants live in garages, studios or rooms rented from homeowners who share their houses to get some economic relief themselves. Those agreements between tenants and homeowners are largely verbal and many landlords did not have any intention of signing documents to prove they were renting their properties. In effect, small tenants in this — and other areas where farmworkers live — would not be able to apply for rental assistance.
COPA, which stands for Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action, held meetings with its different core teams at different locations throughout California and paid attention to the voices demanding help. As a result, rental assistance regulations were modified to include people living in rooms and garages whether or not they had a lease. Once we learned this great news, we immediately started to plan a way to get this assistance to the people in our town.
Mary Rojo, Ady Santana, Isabel Manzo, Tere Simancas, Lidia Serrato, Adriana Molina and I met with Father Pedro Espinoza of Our Lady of Refuge to discuss how the church could get involved in getting the message out for as many people as possible. Espinoza announced at every Mass that COPA would be helping families file the application for rental assistance outside the church each Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. Sometimes, the group would finish around 8 p.m.
We are still providing this support on a weekly basis. As of Sept. 1, about 140 applications have been submitted.
This process at the local level started with a Civic Academy on Zoom one day after a Sunday mass, with Lidia Serrato and Tere Simancas describing the rental assistance program. After sharing stories, regional leaders of COPA such as Arturo Aguila oriented potential applicants on the documents they needed to bring to the church. The Civic Academy on Zoom was a bilingual event at which people affected by COVID-19 narrated how they struggled to keep their jobs and to keep food on the table when they lost their jobs or were temporarily laid off.
After the Civic Academy, Mary Rojo and Lupita Zamudio prepared flyers to be distributed after Mass at Our Lady of Refuge, and every Wednesday Tere Simancas, Lidia Serrato and I fired up our laptops to input as many applications as possible through the United Way website. Isabel, Ady, Lupita and Mary supported their group by taking pictures of each document, using Adobe Scan to get PDF files which were then submitted to the team in charge of uploading those documents along with the application to the official website.
The work has been completed with an on-site review by an agency in charge of verifying documents and authorizing the disbursement of the funds. Lenin Ramos from Mujeres en Accion and Ana Ibarra from Hartnell College have attended some of these events in Castroville to conduct a thorough review of the applications and guarantee their approval. Some other visitors, such United Way representatives as well as a candidate running for Monterey County supervisor, have visited the booth.
We in COPA Castroville think that we have passed our first test as a new organization and that our journey to become community leaders has just started. The community will have the last word.
For more information about the rental assistance program in Monterey County, visit https://www.unitedwaymcca.org/county-rent-and-utility.
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