Somerset offers help to those 'hurting' from pandemic

David Hurst, The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.
·3 min read

Mar. 10—Cambria and Somerset counties both are rolling out a multi-million dollar safety net for many of those who've fallen behind on rent and utility payments since the pandemic's onset in March 2020.

Through stimulus funds allocated through the state Department of Health and Humans Services, Cambria County is in line to receive approximately $8.5 million for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Somerset County received $4.8 million toward an effort Somerset's commissioners outlined Tuesday during their regular meeting.

According to Tableland Services Inc. Director David Mrozowski, Somerset County residents whose incomes are within 80% of the area's median income — $36,350 for a single resident or $51,900 for a family of four — can qualify for support with rent, rental arrears, utility bill support and other costs directly or indirectly caused by COVID-19.

Within those households, at least one person must have qualified for unemployment benefits at some point since March 12, 2020, experienced a reduction in household income or can show how other financial problems arose during the past year to lead to those hardships, he said.

Tableland, which has a background handling housing support initiatives, is overseeing Somerset County's rental assistance program.

Mrozowski predicted more than 500 families will be served by the program — and perhaps many more.

Given that there are likely families who are probably many months behind on their obligations, that crucial support will keep a roof over families' heads, fend off evictions and prevent homelessness, Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.

"Right now, it's important that we get the word out ... about this program," she said. "So that we can help as many people as we can."

For anyone in Somerset County who might think they fit those parameters, "call us and we'll help you figure it out," Mrozowski said.

Cambria County officials are expected to discuss their program at their upcoming March 18 meeting, Cambria Commissioner Scott Hunt said. Eligibility will be based on Cambria County's median income guidelines.

Somerset County Commissioner Colleen Dawson praised the fact that the program was designed to get families back on good financial footing, noting that it can provide rental and utility and energy bill support not just for prior months, but also the months ahead once a struggling family qualifies.

Future rent can be paid to landlords through the program for up to 12 months, she added.

And utility support programs, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — better known as LIHEAP — can work hand in hand for those still behind on bills, Mrozowski said.

He said there's no question that there's a serious need for the program — in Somerset County and beyond.

"We just started yesterday and we already had 10 applicants," Mrozowski added.

Tableland added program details to its website and added promotional videos through YouTube and other sources to notify the community about the program and how to enroll online.

But he said county residents can call Tableland at 814-445-9628 to speak with staff who can help them through the process.

"We have the funding," he said. "We want to help as many people as we can."

The counties have until Dec. 31 to use the funds.

County officials mourned the passing of former county Sheriff Ron Delano Sr. on Tuesday, pausing their meeting for a moment of silence.

Delano, 90, of Friedens, died Sunday at home, according to his obituary.

Delano was a longtime Pennsylvania state trooper who served as the elected sheriff during the 1980s.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Virginia, and their family," Tokar-Ickes said.

His funeral arrangements are being handled by Miller Funeral Home in Somerset.