Marilyn Reilly (forward) and Carmen Groom (background) review rental assistance ledgers

Marilyn Reilly worked at SNAP on the energy assistance team for over 20 years, from 1995 until she retired in 2017. That changed in November 2020, when she was asked to return to assist SNAP with its new rental assistance program. 

“It worked for me,” says Reilly. “And I really enjoyed the teamwork we’ve had in this group. Being able to take on the almost daily changes and keep going and putting it out there.”

During the majority of Reilly’s time working on rental assistance, she served under the leadership of her then-manager, Carmen Groom. Like Reilly, Groom came from energy assistance and was ready to tackle the immense need for rental relief in Spokane County. Forged in the fire, Groom, Reilly, and team have navigated three different rental assistance grants along with the unique challenges each grant provided.

“I felt really grateful for the opportunity to manage the program,” says Groom. “And thankful for the trust of our Core Director [Carol Weltz] as I dug in to build these programs up.”

The multiple rental assistance grants really tested the mettle of Groom and team, but they rose to the challenge. To date, SNAP has provided rental assistance to nearly 5,000 households, and spent over $20 million, providing over 25,000 months of rental assistance.

“Holy smokes,” says Groom. “When we were first awarded this grant, I wondered how I would ever spend $1.5 million, but then the grants kept growing.”

Groom expresses that she was grateful for the assistance of several affinity organizations SNAP contracted with to support their efforts. This would mark the first (but not the last) time that SNAP subcontracted with outside agencies to spend rental assistance dollars. Thanks to the dedication of these subcontractors, SNAP was able to provide rental assistance to marginalized communities that otherwise may never have been aware or trusting of this opportunity. As a result, rental assistance was able to meet SNAP’s targets of reaching communities of colors in percentages proportional to their populations in Spokane County. This was also SNAP’s first time using a temp agency to provide necessary human capacity to the team now tasked with administering $1,5 million in rental assistance in just a couple of months. 

At the start, Groom says. “It was a holiday month with fewer work days, but if you’re going to do rental assistance, you work: Friday, Saturday, at 4am, because you have to get the work done.”

The team spent the grant by December 15th, all the while creating an infrastructure, processes, systems, procuring new technology, a new application, an entirely new online portal, and training new staff. Groom insists that this incredible feat was only possible thanks to teamwork from multiple pockets within SNAP.

“We had dozens of checks going out in a single day,” says Groom. “This was an accounting nightmare! But they worked with us. And our IT department worked with us for the rapid procurement of new phones and laptops for our staff. Communications worked to support our website. All of this in a pandemic where everybody is working in different locations.”

Fortunately, while faced with layoffs and lack of funding to get to clients, SNAP received another round of funding, now with $2.47 million to spend.

The last grant completed on December 30th, but there would be a large gap before this next round began on March 24th.  The delay was challenging.  “But we were able to utilize the same things as before, like partnerships and subcontracts to enhance BIPOC support,” says Groom. “This was a really unique opportunity. We have to continue!”

Groom and her team continued to navigate the hurdles along the way, and soon after, earned two additional grants for rental assistance. “We’re out there doing applications as quickly as we can,” says Reilly. “But it does take time, because the applications don’t always come in really complete.”

Although SNAP adapted its technology to open a self-service portal that would drastically increase a client’s ability to apply without waiting to get through to a worker on the phone, they were still challenged by a vast majority of applicants who did not submit complete applications. In fact, most applications required rental assistance staff to reach out to tenants and landlords to chase up the necessary materials. But again – the team rose to this challenge.

Where other regions have struggled to administer rental assistance faced barriers in accurately reaching the target audience, Spokane County has thrived. SNAP is sending out $130-150,000 in rental assistance dollars each day with no signs of slowing down. Recently, the rental assistance team earned well-deserved accolades from the Spokane Community, Housing, and Human Services Advisory Committee. This committee, which consists of mayors, mayoral appointments, and elected officials from cities and towns across Spokane County lauded SNAP for “the incredible work (emphases added) and accomplishment in providing renters, landlords and our community in providing critical rent and utility assistance throughout Spokane County.”

“Clients are very thankful to get the help to try to get back on their feet and going again,” says Reilly. “A lot of times they’ll cry and tell us ‘thank you’ and that they really appreciate the assistance. But they’re also scared.”

Especially in a post-Covid world, housing insecurity became even more of a worry for neighbors in Spokane County. Many people who have never reached out before are now finding their way to social services like SNAP to help them retain their housing. It’s an issue SNAP doesn’t see as ending any time soon, nor does it foresee an immediate end to rental assistance funding to help.

In part inspired by the tenacity of the rental assistance team and the ongoing need in the community, SNAP created a fifth agency core, “Essential Connections,” which houses the new rental assistance programs. With this new core, Groom was able to return as an energy manager and welcome a manager dedicated specifically to rental assistance: Chelsey Dunham.

Dunham recalls how sometimes the phone calls she made to clients would be their lifeline to the outside world.

“Because of Covid, they were isolated in their homes,” says Dunham. “Sometimes you would have a 20-minute conversation with a client because they were lonely and seeking human connection.” 

Looking ahead, Dunham knows the community needs SNAP rental assistance.

“We’re continuing to do what we’ve been doing,” says Dunham. “Which is assist the community with keeping their housing stability. Helping people stay in their homes is our main goal.”

 “I’m proud to have been a part of this incredible team,” says Reilly. “It was worth coming out of retirement for.”

Those interested in applying for rental assistance can do so HERE.