Over the past 40 years the Community Action Human Resources Agency has become widely known for the utility assistance it offers struggling households in Pinal County.

Whereas once the nonprofit was relatively restricted to utility and housing repair assistance, with time, its offerings expanded to give low-income households greater support.

Pinal Ways spoke with Community Services Manager Suzanne Payan and Housing and Food Programs Manager Lucy Rangel to get an in-depth look at some of CAHRA’s key programs and how they help struggling community members get back on their feet.

Utility assistance

Utility assistance has been a part of CAHRA since the agency opened its doors in 1981. The program helps low-income persons cover the cost of past-due utility bills to prevent service interruptions.

“Our mission is to ensure that our applicants throughout the communities are getting their needs met,” Payan said.

The assistance primarily covers electricity and gas, though Payan noted that there is funding available for water as well. Additional funding for utility expenses also comes from Wildfire AZ, formerly known as Arizona Community Association.

Wildfire’s funds are derived from utility companies like Arizona Public Service Co., Salt River Project and Southwest Gas Corp. and provide a cushion for customers that may be behind on their bills.

The utility program also assists with service connection, covering costs associated with fees like deposits.

Assistance is determined based on income, household size and energy use.

Beyond payment assistance, CAHRA works with households to help them lower their energy bills. Often, Payan noted, staff members will review energy efficiency checklists with families or enroll households into the discount programs offered through many utility companies.

The nonprofit also routinely connects households with financial education resources to help families streamline their budget. In some instances, case managers will even work with applicants one-on-one to determine areas where they can scale back on spending.

The idea is not only to help low-income households afford their energy bills, Payan said, but also set them up for greater financial success in the future.

Weatherization and home repair

In addition to assistance with utility bills and energy costs, CAHRA strives to help homeowners make their homes more energy efficient.

The program is supported through funding from Arizona Department of Housing. Eligible homes are assessed through an energy audit, which examines areas like air conditioning, insulation and ducting to identify issues that reduce efficiency, Rangel said.

Comprehensive audits encompass tests such as pressurizing the house to determine where air-conditioned air may be escaping as well as rigorous examination of windows, doors, air flow and appliances. Audits also look for potential health or safety hazards, gauging things like carbon monoxide levels if there are gas appliances.

Home weatherization is part of CAHRA’s strategy to help families cut down on their energy bills and, ultimately, save money.

“Every measure that we complete has a 1-1 savings to investment ratio, so we know we are saving money,” Rangel said.

Partnering with municipal agencies like the city of Casa Grande, CAHRA also provides assistance on housing rehabilitation projects. Working in conjunction with cities on housing rehabs allows local families to get the benefits of both programs, Rangel noted, and enables cities to save some funding they receive from federal Community Development Block Grants to repair other homes.

To qualify, applicants must be homeowners and must meet the income eligibility requirements. In addition, the home must be in relatively good condition.

“It does not have to be a new build, but if the house needs a new roof or if the foundation has a leak or something like that, we wouldn’t be able to use our monies for that,” Rangel said. In cases where homes are in need of significant repairs, she said homeowners will be connected with a rehab program first.

Once the issue of rehabbing a home has been addressed, CAHRA can then use its funding to make the home energy efficient.

Community Action also assists with minor home repairs to utility systems and appliances. The minor home repair program enables the agency to replace appliances like water heaters or address leaking gas or water lines.

Aid for the homeless

Along with its other programs, CAHRA receives funding from the Arizona Department of Economic Security to give emergency shelter to residents who find themselves without a home.

“Since we don’t have homeless shelters, we get an allocation for the year to help those that are homeless to get into shelter and work on looking for (a) rental while they are maybe looking for a job or getting behavioral health (assistance),” Payan said.

Another funding source, derived from the Arizona Department of Housing, enables CAHRA to cover some move-in costs, depending on the case.

As part of that assistance, CAHRA is equipped with funding to ease the burden of costs often associated with moving into a new rental, such as security deposits or payment of the first and second months rent upfront.

In some cases, different areas of assistance overlap, and the nonprofit can use some funding it gets for utility assistance to help formerly homeless individuals with utility service connection fees in their new rental.

However, as Payan points out, no two cases are alike. Each person or family that comes to CAHRA has different needs and qualifies for different programs.

With an overall mission of helping anyone in need of assistance to establish habits to become self-sufficient, Community Action also provides long-term case management for homeless persons.

“Long term” could mean anywhere from six months to a year depending on the case, Payan noted, with applicants being asked to adhere to a comprehensive case plan.

Case managing encompasses a broad scope of areas to build financial and social independence. Case managers will often work with clients to connect them with employment support services, secure clothing, complete a GED test if necessary or even obtain a food handler’s card.

“We want to make sure they are going to be able to become self-sufficient and maintain that stability,” Payan said.

For homeless individuals moving into rentals with little to no furniture or other essentials, the agency can help furnish those necessities through a warehouse it maintains of slightly used furniture and other household items.

“I’ve always thought that Community Action is a great place to be because you can do so much,” Payan said. “You can financially provide assistance, you can assure (applicants) that their electric is going to get paid and not be turned off in the summer or their gas will be taken care of during the winter when it’s cold, or help them get a place to live when they’re out on the street.”

Santa Cruz Valley Food Pantry

In addition to the variety of services CAHRA offers to assist struggling households with utilities or tackle community-wide issues like homelessness, the organization operates a food pantry intended to address food insecurity in households around Eloy, Arizona City and Picacho.

CAHRA oversees the Santa Cruz Valley Food Pantry, 109 N. Sunshine Blvd., which provides emergency food boxes to struggling residents and families in the area.

The program is where CAHRA gets the most volunteers, Rangel said. Some volunteers, she noted, come to the pantry because they see and recognize the need within their own communities. Others initially volunteer under a community service order as a result of a citation or other court action but come to stay when they witness the impact the pantry can have.

The pantry assists low-income persons and households of varying ages, even offering a food box distribution designed specifically for senior citizens.

Dependance on the food pantry has grown since the start of the pandemic, Payan noted, and volunteers and staff have witnessed longer lines on distribution days.

Growing needs

Apart from its more widely recognized and foundational programs, CAHRA supports low-income families with other essential services as well. Assistance from the agency can extend to helping supply families with diapers, baby food and water.

“There’s just a whole host of things that we assist with that’s not so much of a program, (but) if there is a need our agency becomes involved with it,” Rangel said.

The assistance CAHRA provides can even be, at times, specific to the challenges that individuals who turn to the agency are facing. That was the case for one man who needed help obtaining documents like a Social Security card and driver’s license before he could even apply for assistance.

Though the agency doesn’t have a specific program designed for that process, CAHRA staff members worked with the man and to get him the documents he needed.

“They got him a Social Security card, his picture ID, helped him apply for Social Security because he was eligible, then with his money from Social Security they helped him get into an apartment,” Rangel said. “So now this person who was once homeless was self-sufficient. It’s just little things that nobody would think about, but our agency does.”

The pandemic has also resulted in some tremendous economic effects for industries like restaurant and hospitality, tourism and entertainment, which have resulted in significant layoffs or rollbacks for some working within those sectors.

Even locally, CAHRA has witnessed first hand the economic toll the pandemic has taken on some families as the number of assistance applications has increased sharply since the start of the pandemic.

“Every Monday our phones are ringing off the hook and our case managers have a full schedule, Monday to Thursday, of interviews,” Payan said.

Though the pandemic has resulted in a growing need among lower income brackets within the county, she noted that the corollary loss of wages and employment have also caused many who would have never needed assistance to turn to CAHRA for help.

“Reviewing the files and looking at the income that was before the pandemic, (some of) these people would have never picked up the phone for help if it wasn’t for the pandemic,” she said.

The pandemic may have prompted more people to actively seek assistance, but even before COVID, CAHRA has always focused on helping whomever it can. It’s part of the reason why CAHRA seeks other organizations to team up with as part of a comprehensive outreach effort.

CAHRA team members regularly hold interviews and assist applicants at office spaces lent to them by other nonprofits around Pinal to ensure the agency’s services are readily accessible to communities far beyond Eloy. Their partnerships include working with organizations in areas like San Tan Valley, Oracle, Superior and San Manuel.

At the same time, Payan noted, the agency shares information with those other organizations and the individuals they help.

The same is also true for CAHRA applicants who need assistance beyond what Community Action can provide. In those instances, CAHRA can connect them with partnering organizations that specialize in their area of need.

Ensuring that members of the community get help they need, at its core, is what CAHRA is all about, Payan said.

“I have this sign in my office that says ‘It’s not your job to judge, it’s not your job to figure out if someone deserves something. It’s (your) job to lift the fallen, restore the broken and to heal the hurting,” she said. “I truly believe that community actions do that with what they are able to do.” PW