Gwen Stewart's unemployment money ran out at the end of February and Congress delayed extending the benefits, leaving her with no income and only part of her March rent.
Stewart, 52, thought her history of on-time payment and record of referring new tenants to her Maryland Parkway complex would buy some time to cover the remainder of her $760 obligation.
She learned that partial rent doesn't stop the wheels of justice; it doesn't even slow them down. Stewart's landlord sent her a five-day written notice: Pay up or get out.
It was devastating, she says. The last time she felt such despair is when her father died nearly 40 years ago.
"I've been a lot of things but I've never been homeless before," she says.
Stewart, a grandmother of four, tells this story from the comfort of her two-bedroom apartment she shares with her son, 18. They weren't evicted then and they're safe, for now. But they probably would have ended up on the street had it not been for a grant from HopeLink.
The Henderson-based nonprofit gave her $585 toward the $760 monthly rent, a one-time grant meant to keep Stewart from becoming homeless.
HopeLink, which was created in 1991 to help poor and low-income Henderson residents avoid homelessness, has helped thousands of locals who struggled with paying rent, utilities or other basic necessities, says Daniele Dreitzer, HopeLink's executive director. In the years since its inception, that mission has extended to all valley residents.
Now, with so many locals fighting to stay afloat during the country's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the organization is being tested as never before, she says. The agency receives at least 600 calls a week from people looking for help.
"The desperation level is extraordinary. It's extraordinary," Dreitzer says. "People just don't know where to turn. For many, this may be the first time in their lives they are turning to the social services for help. People are just in incredibly difficult situations."
Since HopeLink's beginning, financial aid was capped; recipients could receive only a one-time grant. That limitation has been lifted thanks to federal stimulus money through the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing program, Dreitzer says.
HopeLink has been allocated $163,000 of the federal funds, through June 2011.
HopeLink grant recipients have always been chosen based on their ability to recover on their own, Dreitzer says. For instance, if a person needs cash only because he or she has been hit with an unexpected medical need or car repair, that person is more likely to receive a grant. But if a grant would just delay a person's inevitable homelessness, he or she wouldn't qualify. Stewart received aid because she was able to show that her unemployment benefits would be reinstated and that she is looking for work.
The thinking is that it's better to keep people in their home if they have a job or other resources to help stabilize their situation, Dreitzer says. People who would eventually become homeless aren't served by delaying it; they can receive more help when they're actually homeless.
A large percentage of their clients are people who have always struggled and lived on the edge, but HopeLink is seeing an increase in the number of people who were once stable, Dreitzer says.
"The safety net is very shallow; it does not take much for a family to get completely thrown off," Dreitzer says. "Unfortunately, I don't think people are in that planning mindset. All it takes is a minor bump in the road -- a $300 car repair bill, a trip to the emergency room -- and they can't pay their rent."
Incomes are slashed because people lose hours or their spouse loses a job.
"People are just really struggling with how to cut down on expenses," Dreitzer says.
Stewart, who also is receiving food stamps, says she has cut her expenses drastically. After getting laid off from her customer service manager job in October, she has shared a bus pass with a friend. And, in an effort to reduce her monthly rent, she works for her landlord on occasion. She or her son stands on the sidewalk with a sign advertising vacancies. Stewart gets $10 an hour credit toward her rent. Since she moved in three years ago, she has referred five people and received a $250 rent discount for each.
She searches several hours each day for job listings and is looking into a way to go back to school and receive a dental assistant certification.
She even applied to be a census worker and recently heard that she will be trained as an enumerator.
Still, Stewart does not feel safe. She has about four weeks left on her unemployment and the census job is only temporary.
"I'm just very, very hopeful," Stewart says. "But I'm very concerned. Every day is a challenge for me. My goal is to try and do whatever I can whether it's baby-sitting, running errands for people, I'm willing to do anything to make an earnest living and an honest dollar."
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@review journal.com or 702-380-4564.