COVID-19 has changed the world we once knew. Not only has it significantly affected public health and safety, but it has changed the way we live, work and play. We have learned to love a Zoom birthday party, manage work meetings from our kitchen table and know to always carry an extra mask. We also know this pandemic has not affected all of us the same.
While it has reminded us that crisis can knock on anyone’s door at any time, it has also shed light on the divide in this country and our own communities. Those hit the hardest by the effects of the pandemic are families who were already struggling to make ends meet; here in Howard County, that has been no different.
In only one year, everything has changed. Writing as president of Community Action Council of Howard County, it is our human services organization’s duty to provide timely assistance and offer a hand up in times of crisis, and we have worked tirelessly to meet the extra burden that the pandemic has caused. We have done great work, but there is much more to do.
Families have faced increasing job loss, hunger, eviction notices, hopelessness and fear. In only one year, the Howard County unemployment rate has increased by 81%, our Howard County Food Bank has experienced a 96% increase in individuals served, and the Community Action Council of Howard County has seen a 336% increase in dollars distributed to help maintain a roof over our neighbors’ heads.
Before the pandemic, in February 2020, Howard County recorded an unemployment rate of 2.7%, one of the lowest in Maryland. In April 2020, Howard County reached a peak unemployment rate of 8.1%. In January 2021, Howard County’s unemployment rate is at 4.9%.
More than 36% of residents in Howard County are struggling to make ends meet; they struggle to pay rent, buy food and pay their utility bills. Although it might be comforting to believe that this does not happen in your hometown, here at the Community Action Council of Howard County, we see firsthand that this isn’t true. These long lines of cars are here Howard County Food Bank, and people need help.
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In addition to food insecurity, the Community Action Council of Howard County continues to see the need for housing assistance rise. We receive on average 20 calls each day for housing assistance — approximately 400 calls a month. To date, we have received 376 applications (1,030 individuals) and have helped 253 households. There are still many families on the wait list. The total cost of housing assistance has been $1.026 million with an average of $4,000 for up to three months of assistance per household.
The Howard County Food Bank has implemented new distribution methods to ensure Howard County families avoid hunger. We have established numerous pop-up pantries, which reduce travel and ensure ease of access to food. We have begun delivering food to our high-risk populations such as the elderly, families with young children at home, and those without transportation, and we have increased the allotted frequency of shopping to twice a month.
The Community Action Council of Howard County’s Early Childhood Education centers have installed technology rigs to seamlessly and synchronously provide online, in-person and hybrid learning, ensuring our students continue their education and growth. We also distributed tablets and learning kits to all prekindergarten families to guarantee students would not be prohibited from attending school based on a lack of access to needed technology or learning supplies. And, of course, we have revised and increased our cleaning protocols.
At the main Community Action Council of Howard County office we have drastically shifted to eliminate obstacles that would prevent our community members from accessing help, from streamlining our program application process to conducting our programs and services virtually.
It’s been one year of desolation and darkness, one year of uncertainty and persisting worry, one year of heartache and bereavement. Howard County families and community members are desperate for a sliver of hope. We are here to help change lives, embody the spirit of hope and improve our community.
We call on citizens to support the Community Action Council of Howard County and other community organizations to allow us to continue to assist your neighbors at increased capacity. Together, we can make a difference.
The writer is the president of the Community Action Council of Howard County.