Previously, applicants needed to provide extensive documentation proving their loss of income, which program leaders said hindered their ability to help tenants in need. Now, applicants can self-certify that they’re unable to pay rent. 

“Given the restrictions early on, so many people were not qualifying for the assistance,” explained Karen Santilli, President and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island, which runs the Housing Help RI program. “And so, folks responsible for these funds at the state went back to the drawing board to figure out, what are the barriers, what are the main reasons why people haven’t been able to qualify.”

Since May, Housing Help RI has received 6,260 applications. Of these, 2,897 were ineligible. 

Crossroads is now following up with these previously ineligible households to ask if they still need assistance. The organization is also sending staff to the Garrahy and Kent County Courthouses to process applications in person from tenants and landlords showing up to court. 

The state has also lifted a $5,000 cap on the amount of aid per household, and increased the number of months of rent the programs can cover from five to ten. And the patchwork of organizations that had been operating several distinct programs is taking a more coordinated approach to contacting tenants, streamlining eligibility requirements, and increasing capacity to process applications. The federal CARES Act funding for rent assistance expires at the end of the year.

Kyle Bennet, who manages United Way of Rhode Island’s Safe Harbor Housing Program, said the changes went into effect earlier this month, and follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the public health risks of eviction. 

“If we have more folks who are living on the streets or in congregate settings like shelters, we know that the likelihood of contracting the COVID virus is significantly higher,” Bennett said. “So we believe that the best course of action is to continue to keep folks housed.”

Program leaders said the need for assistance remains high. Nationally, unemployment applications rose for the second week in a row. In Rhode Island, 2,705 unemployment insurance claims were filed during the week ending November 14, an increase of 358 from the previous week. 

“We are seeing a higher number of people contacting us and coming into homelessness,” Santilli said. 

In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, homeless shelters have reduced the number of beds available. And Santilli said the number of people living outside has risen during the pandemic. 

“People are frightened to go into a congregate shelter setting, because how can you be socially distanced and safe?” Santilli said, “We’re doing as much as we can. Knock-on-wood we’ve been ok so far. We’ve had small numbers of cases here and there, but we haven’t had clusters of cases.” 

With the weather getting colder, Crossroads is preparing for more people to seek out shelters, and earlier this week opened a new 30-bed emergency shelter in Providence.

Applications for rent assistance can by filed through the Safe Harbor Housing Program.