Author: Jessie Holmes
As COVID-19 cases mounted in the first winter of the pandemic, so too did utility bills and rent notices, threatening one of the few stable things in many people’s lives at that time – their home. Greg Jacobs saw the impact firsthand within the Coharie tribe, both as a member and as the Tribal Administrator for the Coharie Intra-Tribal Council headquartered in Clinton.
“Some of these families were living from check to check before the pandemic,” says Jacobs. “Then with the reduced hours, with having to take care of their children who were now at home, the additional food costs and prices rising all around them, it gave great need for some financial relief.”
Congress Provides ERA
For those facing eviction, relief finally came in December of 2020 in the form of Emergency Rental Assistance. Congress established ERA-1 under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, providing $25 billion directly to states, U.S. territories, local governments, and Native American tribes. In North Carolina, that included the Coharie, Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi, Eastern Band of Cherokee, and Waccamaw Siouan tribes. The American Rescue Plan Act would later provide an additional $25 billion for ERA-2.
Unique to ERA was the ability for tribes to control their portion of the funds and establish individually tailored programs for distributing the money in accordance with U.S. Treasury program guidance. That independence was key to the program’s success, according to Coharie Tribal Administrative Assistant Katherine Simmons. She spearheaded distribution of the Coharie tribe’s share of ERA funds which was just over $700,000 for rent, utilities, and in some cases internet service.
“We know our community and our community is going to depend on us more than they are the outside world,” says Simmons. “Our people sometimes are hesitant to go over to social services. We have an open-door policy.”
Coharie Tribe Uses Local Ties to Administer Aid
Simmons says they did everything they could to make ERA accessible to those who qualified, which included adding a drop-box outside the Coharie Tribal Center for those fearful of COVID-19 transmission. If someone needed personal assistance with the application, they could call Simmons directly and meet her outside her home.
The Coharie tribe also made alliances with utility companies and landlords, or strengthened existing relationships, so they could better work together and streamline the distribution process. In total, Simmons says they assisted 150 families, primarily in Sampson and Harnett counties.
“This is the first time our tribes have received this type of funding, so it opened up a wealth of opportunities for tribes to learn and become comfortable with administering these types of funds,” says Greg Richardson, Executive Director of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. “Going forward our hope is that all future funds would flow similarly.”
Richardson says the Commission’s role was to ensure tribes were at the table when the initial discussions were held on ERA rollout, but then it was up to each tribe to choose how to move forward with their own programs. He believes that experience, and the partnerships and processes they created, will set them up for success beyond the pandemic.
Building Stronger Bonds
For the Coharie tribe, Jacobs and Simmons agree that successfully creating and executing such a complex program at a time of crisis led to a renewed sense of confidence. It also strengthened their community’s already tight bond, making them more resilient than ever.
“We had people that actually came out and applied for rental assistance that had not been involved in the tribe for many maybe years,” says Simmons. “They see that we're here for them and now they're here for us.”