CLEARWATER, Fla. — Residential evictions continue to increase in Tampa Bay, but some of these evictions are happening while residents are waiting for emergency rental assistance from programs like OUR Florida.
“I'm waiting day by day,” District of Clearwater resident Sarah Pasko told ABC Action News. Pasko is a dental hygienist who also takes care of her 74-year-old mother, Pamela Balcom.
“She's waiting for the door to knock, she thinks the doors knocking because there's a sheriff coming to kick us out,” Pasko said.
“The anxiety is killing me,” Balcom added. She showed us the box of medicine she now keeps next to her bed, “Just in case we have to go,” she said.
When the COVID-19 delta variant surged this summer, Pasko said patients stopped coming into the office and her hours were cut. She started making and selling jewelry, but it wasn’t enough.
Looking at the bills, she knew the September rent was going to be hard, so she applied for emergency rental assistance with both Pinellas County and the state's Department Of Children and Families OUR Florida. She didn’t realize you could only apply to one.
“At the time that Pinellas County was going to send me a check, they saw that OUR Florida was sending me a check out, so Pinellas County canceled it,” Pasko explained. She tried reaching out to OUR Florida for a timeline but said she couldn’t get ahold of anyone.
Even though the online portal said her application had been approved, she had to ask family to help pay September’s rent.
On October 3, she got her first eviction notice.
“I kept telling them, ‘The money's coming. It's going to be here soon, it's going to be here soon,’” Pasko said.
That’s when she turned to the Community Law Program, a nonprofit working with tenants and landlords in Pinellas County. Attorney Mercy Roberg was able to stop Pasko’s eviction in court.
“We were able to actually get a screenshot that the check had been paid. And this came through a contact that I actually had in Pinellas County who was able to sort of elevate it,” Roberg said.
Roberg said the date on the screenshot showed a check sent on October 11, but by the end of November, the check had still not arrived.
“It’s been over a month and a half and every time I reach out to OUR Florida and the client reaches out to find out, you know, can we get a check number? Can we find out if it was cashed? Can it be re-issued? These are all questions we've asked, we get the runaround,” Roberg explained.
The day before Thanksgiving, Pasko reached someone at DCF on the phone who told her the check was now voided and another check would be sent.
When she looks at her portal now, it says, “The assistance will be provided directly to your landlord. Please allow up to two weeks for this payment to be processed." She read that to ABC Action News on November 23.
“I'm back to work, but I can’t get ahead of it,” Pasko stressed. “It's already so past due that there's no way that I can get ahead of it.”
Roberg says 90% of her clients are back to work, but just can’t catch up with the rising cost of living in Pinellas County.
She currently has 15 clients waiting on thousands of dollars from OUR Florida.
“My team tries to reach out to representatives at OUR Florida, we do not get any email responses,” Roberg exclaimed, “We have sent clients to the in-person offices that are allegedly available for in-person assistance, and our clients tell us that they get sent from the Largo office to the Tampa office or the Tampa office, they're told to call to you know, the online help number. So it's sort of just a circle that our clients keep going in.”
ABC Action News has been emailing the DCF communications office since asking for updated numbers on OUR Florida funding since November 1.
On the 1, 2, and 11, the deputy communications director responded that they were working on it.
On the 29, we asked again, specifically asking about Pasko's situation and Roberg's concerns. The deputy director responded, “Working on this, and will get back to you when I have answers.”
Unfortunately for Pasko, the funds may be too late. She received her second eviction notice the week of Thanksgiving.
“I have everything packed. If we have to go, we have to go,” she said. “Where I'm going to go, I don't know.... I'm depending on them for my life right now.”
The ABC Action News I-Team did a story on OUR Florida back in August, finding only 3% of their rental assistance funds had gone out to residents.
The agency told us in an email: "DCF received $871 million as part of the ERA program to administer statewide. OUR Florida has paid out $23.2 million to 5,403 households.”
The Community Law Program is asking for better communication, at the least.
“If OUR Florida could connect with us with legal aid, with the communities to say here's the person to call, here are the five people that will answer your questions. Here's the person that will send you a screenshot with the check number and the date it was dispersed… that would be my ask,” Roberg said.
If you live in Pinellas County and need help with a possible eviction, click here to connect with the Community Law Program.
If you live in other parts of Tampa Bay, click here to connect with Bay Area Legal Services.
If you'd like to support Pasko's jewelry business, click here.