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Biden administration goes to church to spread the word about housing relief

Bishop J. Drew Sheard delivers his remarks directly to the camera. 

"As the country yet navigates the downturn of the coronavirus pandemic, the Church of God in Christ wants you to know that we are concerned with all that you may be going through," says Sheard, sitting at a desk.  "Millions of Americans are still dealing with the economic impact of the pandemic, including back rent and the threat of eviction."

Sheard then shares information about the federal rental assistance program, a public service announcement sent out to the entire database for the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.

As COVID-19 devastated millions of households across the country, billions in assistance have been made available. But making sure it reaches those most in need remains a challenge. The Biden administration turned to faith leaders and organizations. 

"We knew by working with churches or synagogues or temples, we'd be able to reach the target population for a lot of these programs," said Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo. Where some communities have been starved of government resources, he said, religious institutions often attempt to fill in.

Working with groups like the Jewish Federation of North America, which represents 146 local federations, the Conference of National Black Churches, which represents 30,000 congregations, and Catholic Charities USA, which serves over 15 million people of all faiths a year, has helped the administration reach more people.

"In our community there is an information gap or chasm, so some people are not even aware of the benefits of [the Child Tax Credit], or they don't know what full refundability means for people who are below the poverty line," said Pastor Gabriel Salguero of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, which includes several thousand Hispanic Evangelical congregations. "So one of the things that we have to do as a coalition is make it translatable."

Other hurdles with providing assistance include a lack of trust in the federal government. The African American community questions federal government claims of no-strings attached assistance, said Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson of the Conference of National Black Churches.

"I think trust in the source of information is critical for the success of the programs, so if you can get people in the communities who are trusted on a granular level, they can be helpful in getting people to take the assistance," said Richardson. "We try to assure them to the best of our ability that there won't be any consequences to it."

In this case, it's the pastors who are there blessing babies, preaching every Sunday and the most trusted voices in times of pain and heartache. 

For Richardson and Sheard, partnering with the Biden administration during the pandemic has been a change from their past relationships with the federal government. Sheard called the administration's eagerness to work with the community "refreshing."

But the relationship has not just been one about disseminating information.

"We do two things: I think we inform the community of what the programs are and how to access them, but we also inform the government, 'hey, when you execute certain policies or practices, this is how it affects our communities,'" said Salguero.

For multiple faith-based groups, there have been concerns with making sure that the Child Tax Credit payments reach the poorest Americans, those who are not required to pay taxes and therefore not in the system. Many have advocated for making the Child Tax Credit payments permanent, an effort the Biden administration supports.

Faith groups have also expressed frustration with the distribution of rental assistance — which is being administered at a state and local level. While some are successful, others have moved little money so far. Sister Donna Markham, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, called it a "bulky process," held up by red tape.

"It's been difficult for our agencies to access the eviction prevention money," she said. The organization has been holding workshops to help their directors and for landlords across the country. 

As of last month, 83% of the $46 billion in rental assistance available has not been spent. But with 1.4 million households served, the Treasury Department has called the program a success while acknowledging more still needs to be done to prevent potentially thousands of unnecessary evictions. The Treasury Department is trying to make guidance more flexible and planning to reallocate money to where it can be used more quickly. 

But where the government is building new bridges— the goal is for the relationships to last.

"We want to make sure that during the pandemic we reach as many Americans as possible, but a big piece of this is not just the pandemic but also building the infrastructure for the future," said Adeyemo. 

Religious groups do not always march in lock-step with the government, but that's a sentiment many agree on. 

"I think in some ways the pandemic has stimulated some further connection and partnership,"  said Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals. 

Sheard, who lost his mother to COVID, is also on board. Amid advocating for vaccinations in his Detroit community and sharing information on financial help, he sees a glimmer of hope with the building of a future new relationship between the government and his city. 

"Absolutely," Sheard said without pause. "Absolutely."

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