Inspiring Innovation

By Taelor Smith

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected families across the world in many ways. In Harris County, community groups and organizations have modified programs and developed new ways to serve residents who are struggling financially or emotionally. Residents now have access to quality programs and safe recreational activities to help them cope with the pandemic.

CARES Act and the County

When the state and county implemented stay-at-home orders, it affected jobs, schools, families and social lives. As a result, Congress passed the CARES Act to provide economic relief for those in need.

With the loss of jobs, some families found it challenging to pay bills and feared losing their homes. The CARES Act helped ensure some security for families through such organizations as the Coalition for the Homeless.

“The Coalition for the Homeless was proud to work with Harris County and the City of Houston to develop the plan for the Community COVID Housing Program,” says the coalition’s communications director, Catherine Villarreal. Villarreal said the assistance would help approximately 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in the next two years.

Harris County has allocated $18 million from its federal CARES Act funding for the housing program. Service agencies will use this money, to provide permanent housing, diversion from temporary shelters, and mental health case management programs.

For instance, short-term rental assistance and services are available through the Rapid Re-Housing program to approximately 1,700 people who may become homeless due to the pandemic.

Another program provides temporary shelter for approximately 1,000 chronically homeless people who will diverted into permanent housing. Additionally, a new diversion program will help approximately 2,000 people maintain or regain housing to avoid entering emergency shelters.

Partnerships with groups like the Coalition for the Homeless have ensured a more stable environment that helps in many other areas.

“Up until this point, the anti-poverty systems have largely been responding to the immediate needs of people impacted by COVID,” says Villarreal. “We’ve had eviction moratoriums, financial assistance funds set up, etc. When people have access to safe, affordable housing, their mental and physical health improves for a number of reasons. They are no longer exposed to the outdoor elements, their levels of stress are drastically reduced, (and) they are better able to receive regular, preventive health care and access to medication.”

The pandemic also exposed a gaping hole in the region’s educational system. While many students have easy access to home computers, laptops and Wi-Fi, many of their schoolmates do not. CARES Act funding helped area school districts provide resources for thousands of students to continue learning at home through the Digital Access Program. Four school districts within Precinct 4 received personal computer devices and hotspots for students who needed them.

School districts that benefited from the program’s Project 10 Million and Operation Connectivity include Aldine, which received 52,100 devices, 20,083 hotspots, and 10,083 laptops; Spring ISD received 9,700 devices, 5,297 laptops, and 5,297 hotspots, while Humble got 4,350 devices.; Spring Branch was provided 16,800 laptops and 5,000 hotspots. Tomball ISD received 4,379 devices.

Area charter schools, such as KIPP and YES Prep, received devices through the programs as well.

The technology was distributed throughout the fall semester and in January, when students returned from their holiday break.  Operation Connectivity devices were distributed with 75% supported funding from the state. Project 10 Million is an effort led by T-Mobile that is supported by donations from HEB and Unilever to provide hotspots for students. By partnering with T-Mobile, funding from Harris County ensures unlimited monthly data coverage for the hotspot devices under this program.

New Way to Play

Harris County Precinct 4 has always encouraged community involvement through its monthly programs and events. To continue providing programs through the pandemic, staff members found creative ways to incorporate social-distancing guidelines. Thinking outside the box and shifting perspectives allowed employees to create safer ways for residents to gather and learn.

Known for its uniquely themed luncheons and senior bus trips, Precinct 4 Encore restructured many programs and events to include social-distancing guidelines. The monthly luncheons to which community friends came to eat, dance, and experience fellowship became drive-thru events, allowing participants to pick up a meal, take photos, and have a good time – all while staying in their cars. Encore also created virtual experiences for residents to enjoy from home, including online trivia and concerts to virtual trips around the area.

“Participation has been great for both virtual and drive-thru events,” says Kathy Perez, of Precinct 4 Encore. “The community centers are seeing the largest turnout for their drive-thru events, averaging around 60-80 participants per event. Our special events that we’ve held virtually had higher viewership. The most successful event was our Here Comes the Sun Summer Concert, with 8,200 views.”

Encore programs have become a welcome outlet for seniors craving social connection and recreation.

“With this new style of programs, we’ve noticed that friends will watch our virtual programs together and share with others who may not even live in Precinct 4,” says Perez. “For many participants, our programs are still the only means of being entertained and staying engaged with the community. We have reached a larger audience by hosting many programs virtually, and we hope to make this an ongoing part of our programming.”

For a more in-depth look at how CARES Act funding is allocated across Harris County, visit https://budget.harriscountytx.gov/doc/CARES/CaresFundSummary_PieChart.pdf.