Hardship Reality Check-It's BAD! Interview with Danielle Chynoweth, Cunningham Township Supervisor

Updated: Feb 21

By Zulema, Intern from University of Illinois

Publisher Miss Parker's thoughts: "This interview brings you face to face with the harsh realities that families are currently facing during COVID. It is worse than you can imagine."

Listen to the interview here:

(Photo by adamssmith.org)

Danielle Chynoweth: “So my name is Danielle Chynoweth, I prefer ‘she’ and ‘her' or ‘they’ is fine. I wear a couple of different hats in my community. So my primary position is as Cunningham Township Supervisor and we run a public aid office for the lowest-income residents of Urbana.

I have been in that position for three in a half years. I also serve on the Housing Authority Board, Chair of the C-U Public Health Board which during this pandemic has been a lot more responsibility, and Field Instructor for the School of Social Work, so I basically oversee social work interns who are about to graduate and get their degrees.”

Zulema: “Yeah, how you are able to assist people in your particular role”

Danielle: “So before COVID, we had a really record high housing insecurity rate in Urbana, so 66 basically 2 out of every 3 renters were rent burdened in Urbana and this is all pre-COVID. We saw a lot of people facing eviction and we were serving about a dozen families each month, so we would pay off a portion of their rent or we would see someone who was homeless and we would pay towards their deposit in the first month's rent to get them into housing.

“So we also saw an increase in homeless families in our community, and again as pre-COVID, no same day emergency shelter for families. So if a family found them homeless for any reason other than domestic violence there was no place they could go and stay together. So you could drop your kids off at Crisis Nursery if they were under 6 but then you and your older kids had to sleep in the car, or if you had the money you could scrap together for a day or two in the hotel or you end up sleeping in a basement, an attic, a storage unit, an abandoned building with friends who are not necessarily safe for you or your kids.

So people in our community were already experiencing a lot of hardship and those were you know, poverty, and especially housing insecurity was really a major issue. When COVID hit our unemployment rate went through the roof and people were not able to, in fact even to this day, you can’t really get unemployment on the phone, it takes a very long time. So even if you have a job and you were laid off, it could be weeks if not months before you receive payment and that payment might be a very small amount, typically you get paid half what you were getting paid. The federal dollars that supplemented that ran out at the end of August, actually I think it was the end of July.

So people really have been getting behind on rent and bills. There is a (eviction) moratorium through the end of December (now extended to Jan. 31, 2021), and after that we are all terrified to see what will happen, we already know from speaking with the judge of courts that they have not even filed evictions yet. We are anticipating a real problem with evictions.

That is a real hardship for people. So water assistance is only $200 in town, we see people with $600 water bills. Power assistance goes up to $1600 and if you already got it earlier in the year you are not eligible, so if you got it in the Spring you are not going to get it again. So, we have seen people, get food stamps and you are a single person, you basically have to live off of 6 dollars and 40 cents a day; now if you eat a dried beans and rice, stick to being cheap by getting cans at the Aldi's and soup and whatnot, you can live off of that if you have good transportation. But if you don't have good transportation and you’re not getting a lot of vegetables so if you have any kind of specialty diet, if you have diabetes, if you have any kind of needs at all, you’re going to run out of food stamps.

Pre-covid we saw people run out of food stamps at the end of each month and now we are seeing a lot more food insecurity surrounding more calls from people who are struggling to just figure out how to get their kids fed. The C-U school foundation recently reached out to us because they have more requests for clothing for homeless families than ever before, it's like triple the request. Then we have the fact that people are schooling from home and folks who are schooling from home their parents can’t work, they have to have internet at home, the school districts are only checking out one laptop per family. So you have a situation where some kids are really disconnected from school, some kids it doesn't work for them to have remote access.

(Photo from contactout.org)

There is a whole group of invisible homeless families in our community that move from house to house and so they don’t have a fixed address.

It’s very difficult for them to have stability during school, being at school used to be their stability because they knew where they were going everyday but now they are moving hard and it's very hard for them to have predictable internet access.

What I would say, just like so many things in our society, some people really experience it and it’s really devastating to them and some people are really far away from it. Middle-class families and upper middle-class families, they may definitely experience depression from being at home, stress. I’m not saying it’s not hard for middle class families, some of them have lost their jobs, they definitely have friends or family with covid. But then imagine that experience which is already really difficult for people, being experienced by someone who doesn't have a home.

To just put this in perspective, we have had four disabled homeless participants, that’s what we call our clients because they participate in our programs, die in the last 6 months. I don't remember a time, I have been in office for almost 4 years, and I think we maybe had before that 2 participants died in the four years. They’re all homeless, they're all awaiting disability payment, as soon as they get their disability payments that makes housing them a lot easier. It’s really a human rights violation that we allow people to be unhoused and then we particularly allow them to be unhoused during a pandemic and then we allow water and power to be shut off. It is really a deep human rights violation, it should make us question our humanity and it should make us really question why we have privately owned power and water when we can't seem to get any public control over them, we can't make them do anything. As a result we are stuck, the public sector, taxpayers end up having to pay the back due bills which I am happy to do. Water and power just made record profits, more people washing people washing their hands means more profits. I looked up their profit margins and it did go up during COVID and power went up during COVID their profit margins increased. So they could have paid off past due bills just with the profits that they made off with the pandemic and they’re choosing not to do that.

Zulema: “...The utilities being paid for, can you talk about the way that, I think Champaign Township was one of them, that was able to assist in some way, can you elaborate?”

Danielle: “There is a lot of money for COVID support and there is more money that’s needed. So we got $1200 stimulus checks for people who had submitted their taxes, those who hadn't needed to really fight for it but we helped them do that but that money is gone. We had additional funds for unemployment, that money is now gone and they have not renewed it. There is a multi-trillion dollar package for rental assistance sitting in Congress that’s held up by the Republicans in the senate so we have not seen movement on that.

Our communities are using what funds we do have and frankly we have a number of funds, there is money for water power and rental assistance and I can tell you the information because it’s convoluted so I can send you information on how people can access these rental assistance programs in an email. Essentially, the issue is that there is money, people need to know there's money, the money that's there has to be enough to cover what they need and think about all the people who can't access that money and those are the folks we primarily work with. Someone who has only 250 minutes on their phone, through a lifeline phone and all the libraries are closed so they don't have internet access so they have to make an appointment a half and hour in advance to access the library.

Now we do help people make those appointments and the library is doing the best it can. They have to submit all kinds of documentation to apply for these programs and if they don’t have the documentation readily at hand it’s really laborious. Ultimately it's like a full time job to apply for assistance, I encourage people to do it. I think it’s the right thing to do. I can send you information about how people can apply because there’s money on the table that needs to be used and it’s good for people to reach out and use it. But it's also important to be honest on who can't really access that information.”

Zulema: “For the undocumented too I can only imagine, seeking that sort of assistance do you have any insight about that as well?”

Danielle: “Undocumented residents have a couple of significant barriers and there is also certain resources available to them. Cunningham Township offers assistance regardless of documented status, there is rental assistance available regardless of documented status. LIHEAP, is the primary power assistance in town, it's not related to COVID it's always there, there’s just more money now. LIHEAP, you have to have physical social security cards and you have to have an immigration number so you don’t have to have a social security number but you do need an ITIN number. They are working on changing that which I really appreciate so that people can access LIHEAP assistance without a social security number. We do have funds through the YMCA and through C-U Fair those are two immigrant rights groups that have funds for rent and utilities where other programs don't work for them.

What we are trying to do is make sure that there is funds, I would say our community has been pretty good about communicating around the needs of undocumented families and I feel like the school system has just been a real leader in that conversation. I do feel like there is an intention and awareness to it and we've been working to fill those gaps. So we did a COVID rental assistance program early on so you had to not qualify for unemployment to get it and it really ended up supporting a lot of immigrants. If there is somebody who is undocumented I always send them to La Linea because they have multilingual support though that line. They have legal support too so they can let folks know what the legality is in terms of them accessing public aid and then they have their own funds available.”

Zulema: “So you said for housing in particular that there isn't much for whole families, or is it really separated? Because I know there is the housing crisis where people are moving home to home, so I just want to clarify how housing assistance works?

Danielle: “So pre-COVID there were no same day emergency shelters for families you had to wait between 5 and 150 days to get in, on average 30 days to get in the so called emergency shelters. So both the county and Cunningham Township, and we serve the city of Urbana only, we have hotel rooms for families that have no other options so they don't have friends or family they can stay with if they’re literally going to be sleeping in their cars or have been sleeping in their cars.

We have hotel rooms at Cunningham Township and Regional Planning Commission at the county, if someone has assessed that they are literally homeless there is support for them as well. So during COVID we actually had more support for homeless families than before, really helping keep folks from being in these dire situations than having to wait.

Zulema: “How has healthcare access changed pre and post COVID?”

Danielle: “I think a lot of people have put off things because they were afraid of exposure. The free clinics have done a pretty good job of going to telehealth. Honestly, we knew a pandemic was coming for decades and we didn’t really build an internet infrastructure that connects everybody. If everyone was connected with guaranteed internet then we really wouldn't have these have and have nots when it comes to things like telemedicine and education and all of that.

That's where the barriers have really been is some people put things off and there are consequences, everyone needs to get their mammograms, everyone needs to get pap smears, folks are still vulnerable. Telehealth is accessible to some and actually is a great option for some folks but it's not accessible to all. The last thing from the healthcare perspective is there's a spike in opioid overdoses and there is a spike in depression and mental health issues so I think it's really important, we’re going to need more services and support just to address some of those issues.

“I will say though, because I feel like this story could be 100 percent about all the terrible things and how everything's gotten worse. I will say that there are a couple of things that have gotten a lot better, that are models for us going forward. So the first thing is we have seen amazing collaboration, this university and this community have not been good collaborators for a long time and all the different government agencies, how they help with the university are collaborating real well together, their collaborating with Carle hospital and OSF.

I know it's kind of invisible to the community members, but that kind of collaboration for example, housing authority created vouchers for chronically homeless individuals and we signed up 50 people that we know are the most chronically homeless people individuals that we are aware of and we've collaborating with 6 different agencies to slowly but steadily move homeless individuals into permanent housing.

That doesn't go away when COVID is over, we’ll have a whole bunch of people, dozens of people who have been on the streets literally for years that through collaboration we’ve been able to move them into permanent housing. Our office has helped furnish those houses, people who don't have any income they only need 75 dollars a month for rent so it's very sustainable for them. We have also collaborated really well together to notice when there are gaps like the utility issue that was a pretty big gap recently, before it was immigrant access.

I just feel like we get on the phone as a community, the different agencies and we collaborate and we fix the problems. I have lived here since 1995, I served at city counselor in Urbana, I have been a community organizer for 30 years and I have never seen the level of collaboration I have seen right now. We work really closely with the school of social work, we have done all this outreach in the community, it has a real significant impact on the community when we're collaborating.

Another piece I think is really helpful during this time is that as many of us are aware, not to state the obvious, the soul of our country is woven from racism and slavery and Jim Crow and mass incarceration. We have been knocking away at this and we’ve made progress and then we didn’t push back for decades. I feel like this year has been, we've had years like this before, but this year has been a really important year to another meaningful awakening around the racial justice implications of our work.

I have definitely seen for the first time, institutions make pretty substantive commitments to racial justice. I also see some groups being really defensive and shut down and shutting down all the comments, refusing to make changes to their policing like the city of Urbana. But I think that I am also seeing the school districts and seeing public health creating racial justice task forces and those task forces being made by folks of color in their staff in the case of public health are paying people for their time to advise public health on racial justice work. So I feel like that’s an exciting piece of the equation, we've dodged a bullet in terms of having all out facism in this country. Not that I am like dancing on the street about the new administration, but at least we have hope to do some rebuilding.

Zulema: “How has these communities of color been affected by these food insecurities or COVID?”

Danielle: “As you likely know, black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by COVID both in terms of infection rate and death and that's also the case in our county. Latinos particularly have been overrepresented in COVID cases and it’s really a lot of working class people who tend to black and brown are really expected to continue as essential workers and they have a much greater exposure to COVID-19 because of their essential worker status.

There are a lot of other folks of privilege, taking advantage of their privilege and putting other people at risk. They are not following protocol and the law which is to wear a mask and not gather with others above a certain number of people. Then they go shopping and they cough on people transmitting the infection.

Statistics show that the highest transmission is at bars, restaurants, so far the restaurants are statically where we see the highest transmission rates, then schools that are in-session are very high as well. Some working class people really need to have school in-session; they need child care relief, but they are putting themselves at risk by having their kids in school.

I feel like it disproportionately affects black and brown communities because of chronic health conditions that stem form the discrimination of poverty and frankly because black and brown communities are on the frontlines of exposure because they are essential workers. The folks in my office are primarily people of color, we are essential workers. I am a white gay women so I don’t pretend to experience the experience of folks of color but my staff are primarily people of color. Nobody has gotten COVID in our office we’re being super careful but we had to close the office from clients coming in so as a result we have been able to stay safe and everybody has their own spaces.

But in a grocery setting or healthcare, emergency room setting, all the technicians and nurses, it's not just the doctors who are exposed and the administrators are not exposed, it's the stuff from the frontlines; they are taking people's blood pressure and temperature and what not. Including social workers, working in the homeless shelters. Things are happening to lower wage workers and its really important that we really value that work and that it has to happen, folks are exposed. We live in a culture, we struggle as a culture to recognize and honor the impact that we have on other people, and to really be humble in the face of that. When it's racialized, viewing other people as less than human than it makes it easier to justify those unethical behaviors”

Zulema: “Where do you stand, education-wise, on how things can go forward during COVID.”

Danielle: “I think the school districts are really grappling with the question of how they provide support for students who are not doing well at home while staying safe for others. Frankly, the safest thing is for people to stay home and right now with the transmission rates as they are it is advised that all schooling be remote. I think there’s a lot of things that the schools have done and can do to stay connected, they know who their youth are who are not connected. There’s a lot of additional work that’s needed and frankly there's a lot of people not cleaning, there’s a lot of work that’s not happening with the school that needs to be diverted to reach out to those kids.

We are going to have to look at, are there kids who are behind as a result of the COVID and how do we make sure that they get what they need to catch up. Especially around the issues of literacy, there’s going to have to be really careful screenings and really honest conversation because a lot of times the path of least resistance is to advance a child who’s not ready to advance. Because it's a lot harder to hold them back and it's emotionally harder for their family it's harder on the school.

I have one son and then I had a family live with me for a while and we’re very close with that family. The little girl who is incredibly intelligent is not doing well with remote education and she is really struggling and she frankly should be reading at a second grade reading level and she's probably reading at about kindergarten. I adore her and I am watching, I just bought her a book yesterday of Trolls, I keep buying her books because if she loves the book she’ll read it and she'll struggle through it. Basically, some community members pulled to get her a tutor, so like people are trying to pay for her to have a reading tutor but you know it’s a lot.”

Zulema: “Can you describe the ways to connect and how to find the resources you have mentioned? Or donate?”

Danielle: “So in theory, if you have a need call 2-1-1, they should be able to direct you anytime of day to the resource that you need. If I just have one second to tell people, I say to call 2-1-1. Now some of the information is out of date and a lot of the COVID information is not available so, I would encourage people in Urbana to call Cunningham Township with needs and in Champaign call City Champaign Township and in the County call Regional planning commission. If 2-1-1 doesn't get you what you need, those are the best routes to find what you need whether in the county or in one of the cities.

We provide assistance, general assistance, which is a check, a monthly check for people who are out of work without other resources, like they're broke and they're out of work or they’re disabled and they're trying to apply for disability. We provide rental assistance for people who are behind on rent in Urbana and to homeless residents trying to move into a place in Urbana, Champaign does the same and County does the same. So there's countywide rental assistance, you can talk to any of the three agencies and they will refer if you're not talking to the right agency so that's great. There’s COVID programs, so both city of Champaign Township operate a COVID program, Cunningham Township has one as well, we’ll refer people to the city so we can help refer them if needed.

If somebody’s power or water is turned off, they should call us, if it's behind they really need to apply for LIHEAP which you can walk in and apply any weekday. If they are behind on water they can apply to the Salvation Army but the first call that they should make if they're behind is to the power company and water company and they need to say ‘I am COVID impacted, I am low-income, put a lock on my account.’ To try to keep them from being shut off until March, so they need to be like let them now that they're COVID impacted let them know that they're low income and set up whatever payment plan is need, be realistic about what you can pay and then call LIHEAP and call Salvation Army.”


Zulema: “How can we provide a solution to the hardships people are facing?”

Danielle: “What else can people do, because if they are people that want to help, I would suggest, Cunningham Township has an Angel donor fund and 100 percent of the funds go to aiding people and families. There's no administration fees or anything, if you give money it pays for somebody’s bill, it pays for emergency shelter, it pays for power and water, it pays for shoes. Whatever the need is, it's basically for Urbana residents who are participants so it's usually for the lowest income folks in Urbana but it's one of the ways that people can help. The other way is to connect with your church or your community organizations and seek to volunteer or contribute. I know YMCA has an immigrant report fund and C-U fair have immigrant support funds so people can give directly to those agencies as well to support them.”

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