Organizations Partner to Support Spanish Speakers Accessing Statewide Rental Assistance Program

An immigrant advocacy group is helping Spanish-speakers navigate the application process for the new Arkansas Fresh Start program.

The state’s Community Action Agencies are offering rental assistance to Arkansans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic through a new program. The Arkansas COVID-19 Fresh Start Housing Stabilization Program, which is administered by the Arkansas Community Action Agencies Association, is funded by $10 million in combined grants received through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee.

Officials began accepting applications Nov. 9. Applications are only available in English, so immigrant advocacy group Arkansas United is offering additional assistance to Spanish speakers. Arkansas United executive director Mireya Reith says ACAAA originally planned to hire bilingual staff, but that fell through.

“I do want to acknowledge and celebrate that the executive director of the Arkansas Community Action Agencies [Association] is a Mexican-American woman herself and so she definitely was attuned to the need for language access,” Reith says. “And because we had collaborated on previous aid programs tied to COVID and tied to the CARES Act, we acknowledge that this was very likely going to be an issue once again of language barriers.”

Terry Bearden, executive director of ACAAA, says while she does not speak Spanish herself, she has “long felt that there’s not enough outreach to the Spanish-speaking population in Arkansas.”

As “the leading advocates for Spanish-speaking Arkansans,” Bearden reached out to Arkansas United for support in the implementation of the new initiative. The Arkansas Fresh Start website has a link in Spanish that leads to Arkansas United’s webpage, which lists information about the program in Spanish as well as a phone number to call for help.

Arkansas United began taking calls this week and although they had been preparing to provide support, it’s going to be more involved than anticipated. The program requires applicants to have an email address as well as create an account on the Arkansas Fresh Start website, which may present an issue for some applicants.

“There still is a huge digital literacy gap with our immigrant community and Spanish-speaking community, especially families that we know are in most urgent need of this aid,” Arkansas United executive director Mireya Reith says. “And then there is the additional process that once the email and the account is created, there is a specialist who is actually assigned to each and every case and we have to wait until that email’s received, and it’s then going to be necessary for immigrant families to call us back to walk them through the rest of that process.”

Arkansas United is incorporating this new work into its existing Promotores Comunitarios or Community Navigators program.

“Many of us nonprofits that work with the Latinx and immigrant communities launched these programs with support both of private and public funds in July in response to the surge of COVID cases in our communities,” Reith says. “And as far as we know, all of us who have repurposed either resources or launched these programs currently still have funding for these programs.”

However, Reith says supplemental assistance will likely be needed so they’re working with the Department of Human Services and the Arkansas Minority Health Commission to learn about some of those opportunities.

Reith and her team are trying to work out the kinks of the program this week, but the delay in reaching out to Spanish speakers could put them at a disadvantage as the Arkansas Fresh Start program is administered on a first come, first served basis.

Delivering information to Arkansans in a language other than English has been an issue throughout the pandemic, Reith says.

“We have found every step of the way with COVID that we’re behind,” she says. “And I just want to remind that Arkansas led the nation in the most negative way with a surge of COVID cases in the Latinx and Marshallese communities back in June and that was a direct result of our state being behind.”

So far, there has not been a deeper promotion of the Arkansas Fresh Start program in Spanish media or through the Spanish-speaking community, but Reith says they intend to do so after they finish developing the process for assistance during this trial week.

The Arkansas Fresh Start program can provide up to two and a half months rent to eligible Arkansans with a household income at or below 80 percent of their area’s median income. As many as 139,000 Arkansas households are facing the possibility of not being able to meet rent payment obligations due to the economic and public health impacts of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Pulse Survey.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a moratorium on evictions until the end of the year in hopes of minimizing further spread of the coronavirus as a result of increased homelessness. However, Terry Bearden, executive director of the Arkansas Community Action Agencies Association, says the moratorium was not accompanied by any sort of financial assistance to address the problem of accumulating back rent.

“We recognize that while that was a positive step in terms of trying to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, there was no funding behind that to prevent renters from just accruing month after month after month of rent, as well as we recognize a second impact, which was that landlords who rely on rent were suffering a severe loss of revenue,” Bearden says.

The Arkansas Fresh Start program is designed to address these issues and during the first two days of accepting applications, Bearden says they had about 38,000 hits to the program. Some of those are likely duplicate or triplicate submissions from people who didn’t understand the initial process, she says.

“But if nothing else we know that just having that volume of hits, even if you took a third of those away for duplication, that’s still a tremendous amount of interest in this program,” Bearden says.

To be eligible for the Arkansas Fresh Start program, an applicant must meet certain criteria such as being a full-time Arkansas resident, not being able to make their rental payment due to an issue related to COVID-19, and having a landlord’s stated willingness to accept the payment.

The program will last as long as funds are available in each county. Arkansans can apply through their local Community Action Agency. Eligibility requirements and more information are available at ARFreshStart.Com. Para ayuda en español, llame 479-347-2824.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.