Danielle Garcia was in pretty good shape financially when 2020 started.
The single mother of five was working with medical coding and billing, something a friend taught her to do eight years ago.
But then COVID-19 hit, and like many Surprise residents, her life turned upside down.
At first, the doctor she worked for stayed open, and it looked like the business shutdown affecting bars, gyms and in-dining restaurants wasn't going to affect her.
"Then we started to lose accounts, and things started to get bad," said Garcia, 42. "We started losing accounts one after another."
As the accounts dwindled, she was moved to part-time.
Then, on May 1, the doctor called her to give her the bad news that he had lost his final account and he no longer had work for her.
"I had to borrow [money] from a lot of people," Mr. Garcia said.
With two of her five children still living at the home - and another popping in occasionally- Ms. Garcia still had mouths to feed and a growing electric bill with the family at home around the clock.
"I need them to go back to school so I can get a job," Ms. Garcia said. "I don't have anybody to really help me."
A chance meeting at her therapist's office this summer changed everything. A person who works in the office told her about rental assistance offered through the city of Surprise.
Launched in July, the Surprise Cares Housing Stability Program offers up to three months of fi-nancial assistance to eligible Surprise families impacted by the worldwide pandemic.
"I applied online and the CAP [Community Action Program] office contacted me," Ms. Garcia said. "They've been the most amazing people in that office."
At the end of July, Ms. Garcia was approved for $1,500 to go toward her rent for August. She has been approved again this month for next month, and she plans to apply a third and final time for October.
It covers almost all of her $1,616 payment on her rent for a four-bed-room home in the Countryside subdivision.
Ms. Garcia also receives a break on one month of her APS bill - which is saying a lot since her last one was close to $500.
"The person doesn't ever see the money," said Seth Dyson, director of the Surprise Human Service and Community Vitality Department, which is running the program. "We pay their bills."
Eligible families must be within 300% of the federal poverty level. For example, a family of four would be eligible if its gross monthly income is $6,550 or lower.
Mr. Dyson has been busy helping residents since the COVID-19 pandemic really began affecting Surprise in mid-March.
First, he was forced to close the Surprise Senior Center and move its meal service to takeout only.
"We've pivoted very quickly to do drive-thru meals here," Mr. Dyson said. "We've had well over 100 meals a day here to help our seniors maintain some connection and get delicious food."
Overall, Mr. Dyson said his department is taking more phone calls for aid than normal because of the pandemic.
As of last week, the department has seen a 57% overall increase in calls compared with this time last year. The Surprise Resource Center HOPE line has seen a 70% increase.
Inquiries also have risen for the Surprise Resource Center front desk (28% increase), senior services (55% increase) and neighborhood services (128% increase), which includes housing assistance and housing rehab.
Thankfully for those who need it, the Surprise City Council directed $195,000 of federal Community Development Block Grants funds for mortgage assistance.
During the first month and a half of this fiscal year, Surprise already had helped 111 households with more than $217,000 of financial assistance.
Evictions still growing
Mr. Dyson said he's starting to deal with more residents who are evicted from homes because of COVID-19 situations despite a state moratorium on evictions until the end of October.
"There are stipulations where people have to meet the requirements of the moratorium," Mr Dyson said. "Every situation is a little bit different. We are monitoring this closely. People in the human services world are worried about this. We ha-ven't seen a massive wave yet."
Mr. Dyson said his group is fortunate to have money to spend on those who need it right now, but a big eviction wave would make conditions uncertain, he said.
"Do we have enough funding to handle that wave?" Mr. Dyson said. "We're not sure. If thousands of people start calling, we're not going to be able to handle thousands of people."
HELP with home
Surprise has helped more than 40 people experiencing homelessness since opening the Interfaith Homeless Emergency Program (I-HELP) shelter in late October, 2019.
I-HELP is designed to provide temporary shelter to eligible individuals, while connecting people to housing, employment, health care and other services.
The shelter also offers resources for people to take steps to transition to a stable life.
Other services include aid for substance abuse, behavioral health counseling, primary care and health screenings, employment and job training resources and housing and benefits advocacy.
El Mirage, Youngtown, Peoria and Maricopa County are regional partners for the northwest location in Surprise. The other I-HELP communities in the Valley include Chandler/Gilbert, Tempe, Mesa and Avondale/Goodyear/Litchfield Park.
"We don't have a huge homeless population, but there is enough that a targeting programing like IHELP can really help," Mr. Dyson said. "It's been met with open arms by area churches."
Lutheran Social Services is running the program in Surprise. The shelter was holding up to a dozen people per night, but because of the pandemic, the city had to reduce capacity to about seven nightly.
"The wait list ebbs and flows for that program," Mr. Dyson said. "That tells you a little bit about the need out here."
Program in Action
The Surprise City Council voted to continue its agreement with Maricopa County to provide the Community Action Program.
Going into its fifth year, the city accepted a $183,800 grant on Aug. 18 to extend the agreement through June 30, 2021.
Funding is funneled to Surprise through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) for the provision of rental and utility assistance services.
Surprise also offers those in need with assistance in food and computer usage.
The local Salvation Army is providing a weekly meal service with more than 37,000 meals already served since the pandemic began.
Local food banks St. Mary's and Valley View have seen a large increase in demand and have put out a call for more volunteers.
As for computer access, the city has kept the computer lab open at the Surprise Resource Center for those who need to apply for unemployment insurance, food stamps and other benefits.
Mr. Dyson said safety precautions are in place there. But the city decided to keep it open because many public spaces are closed for people to gain computer access.
Maricopa County allocated $30 million for the program to be distributed by local CAP programs. Surprise was given just under $2.7 million of this CARES but it must be spent by the end of the calendar year.
"That's something we've been asking for for a long time," Mr. Dyson said.
To help get money out the door faster, Surprise recently hired eight workers to process the applications.
Ms. Garcia said she is lucky she found the help because there isn't much out there for people like her.
"I still get unemployment, and I do get child support," Ms. Garcia said. "I'll just maintain it that way and [continue] looking for a job. I don't want to work at night and leave my kids alone.
"There's no good option."