98: How The Salvation Army is fighting pandemic poverty with Kristen Baluyot

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You’ve probably heard the term “pandemic poverty.”

Maybe you were lucky and were able to work from home when the pandemic took hold of our communities.

Or, you may know the reality of that poverty more intimately with the loss of a job, loss of income, loss of a way to make ends meet at all.

The Salvation Army has seen the reality firsthand as we’ve served more than 31 million Americans this past year. That’s a 34 percent increase from the previous year.

And the need for services continues today.

Kristen Baluyot is The Salvation Army’s social services director in Denver.

She’s worked throughout the pandemic to keep people in their homes, to stave off eviction and prevent homelessness.

Kristen holds a master’s in social work from the University of Denver. She’s served populations including differently-abled adults, those experiencing mental illnesses, international populations in Kenya and Ethiopia, refugees and individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

As she’ll tell you, she wants to enrich lives—especially over these past 20 months for those who’ve received the unexpected knock of poverty.

Listen in for more about the state of pandemic poverty today and how The Salvation Army is working to prevent homelessness in Denver.

Show highlights include:

  • Kristen Baluyot’s story.
  • A moment in her life that made an impact on who she is today.
  • What Kristen is most passionate about.
  • What she loves about The Salvation Army.
  • More about “pandemic poverty” and what the state of poverty is at present.
  • The social services offered by The Salvation Army in Denver.
  • Since the start of the pandemic, public and private entities have been concerned about a spike in homelessness. Kristen shares more about this and how it resulted in eviction moratoriums.
  • The Intermountain Division—spanning Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and eastern Montana—alone distributed over $3 million in rent and utility assistance to almost 10,000 people in the six months between November 2020 and May 2021, roughly $1 million of which was government funding specifically for COVID-19 relief. More on where things stand now.
  • How The Salvation Army’s call center in Denver has helped?
  • A story that stands out to Kristen from the last 18 months.
  • The focus now and the biggest need she is seeing.
  • How someone can best help in the effort.
  • What hope means to Kristen.
  • How she would encourage you to find hope today.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

* * *

Christin Thieme: Well, Kristen, welcome to the Do Gooders Podcast. Thanks for joining us today.

Kristen Baluyot: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Christin Thieme: Before we dive into what we really want to talk about today, can you give us just a little bit of a background of who you are and what your story is that led you to your current role with this Salvation Army?

Kristen Baluyot: Absolutely, so I have been a social worker for more than 20 years and I feel like my life’s calling is to enrich people’s lives and to do whatever I can to help people who are in need. And so, I’ve been an international social worker and worked overseas in Ethiopia and Kenya, and I’ve worked with a large number of populations, such as people who are developmentally disabled or differently-abled, refugees here in the Denver area, and for the last six years my focus has been on housing and homelessness and working to end homelessness in our community. And so, I would say my path, I didn’t know I was going to be working in homelessness, but again, that drive to be able to just help and support people in need is kind of what led me to this particular role that I’m in.

Christin Thieme: It’s a good fit, it sounds like. Can you pinpoint a moment in your life, in all that experience, international experience, experience here with different types of populations, is there a specific moment that really made an impact on you and where you would go with your, not only career, but really your passion area?

Kristen Baluyot: My cousin used to live in South Africa and he moved there when I was just going into college and he invited me to join him in the work that he was doing after I graduated. And so, I pretty much spent most of my college years working and dreaming about my international social work happening in South Africa alongside my cousin and his family. That trip, that experience, it never happened. Things just happened where I wasn’t able to go and he had to return to the United States and that’s how I ended up going to Kenya, and then Ethiopia is I just had this drive in me to still fulfill that desire to go serve somewhere internationally.

But my cousin, that invitation alone was kind of what started me on this path of really being open to kind of what God had for me as far as opportunities and being willing to change the direction at the… Kind of go with the wind in a way and realize that my plans aren’t exactly the best plans, but that everything kind of builds on each other to get me or everybody to where they are. And so, I see it as stepping stones, but that moment when my cousin invited me to go is what kind of led me here.

Christin Thieme: I love that. You don’t realize those little invitations you make here and there to people, how much it can change someone’s whole direction, so that’s really cool.

Kristen Baluyot: Exactly.

Christin Thieme: So Kenya, Ethiopia to Denver, can you tell us a little bit about what you do now in Denver with The Salvation Army?

Kristen Baluyot: Absolutely, so I’m the Denver Metro social services director in Denver. And so as my name says, I’m responsible for the social services in the Denver Metro area, and here that really means shelters, housing focus programs, and more lately it’s been a lot about COVID response as well. So, we have two existing shelters, one’s for families, one is for men, and since COVID started, we have significantly expanded our sheltering services in partnership with the city of Denver and other community partners. So, we at one time operated seven hotels for people experiencing homelessness who needed somewhere safe to be. So, that was about 900 people a night that we were housing and supporting in the hotel setting. We also operate the Denver Coliseum as a temporary shelter as well. So, that one is 300 people a night. So, we have grown in leaps and bounds, and a huge part of it is we were able to be very responsive to COVID through our Housing Now program, which is a rapid rehousing and rental assistance program.

And, because we were already active in providing eviction prevention assistance and housing assistance, we were able to take on significant funding from the state and federal levels, as well as local governments to be able to provide eviction prevention assistance for people who are affected by COVID. And, one thing that’s super cool is we presented a proposal to our leadership here in Denver saying… And, I pretty much asked for millions of dollars and I said, “If we want to get ahead of this, I need $3 million to get started on keeping people housed and providing that eviction prevention.”

And, this was before anybody in our community was doing it, before any federal dollars were allowed or available, and our leadership thought I was a little crazy, but they gave me $500,000 to get started on. And so, we have a call center where people can call in to get access to different services in our community that either we provide or we connect them to services. So, we converted our call center into a call center literally just to take on all this eviction prevention, and we had that money spent very quickly, but by the time we had that money done, we were already on our path to getting other funding sources because of the work we’d already done.

Christin Thieme: So, a lot going on. So, I want to drill into this idea of the eviction prevention with you, but first let’s zoom out a little bit. What is the state of poverty would you say? We hear a lot about “pandemic poverty.” Can you give us a little bit of a picture for somebody not as familiar? What are we talking about here?

Kristen Baluyot: So, it’s very interesting because I am someone who has been employed this whole entire time through this pandemic, and people are either employed and very impacted in very little ways financially, or there are people who are frontline workers, say restaurant industry, or other lines of work where their livelihoods were demolished almost overnight, or it was progressive that it happened with hours being cut or impacts from kids not being able to be in school. And so, we’re talking about people who are already living on the edge. We have households that we had literally just gotten housed. We’d ended their homelessness, we’d gotten them housed, and then the pandemic hit and they had to quit their jobs because the bus system stopped running and they couldn’t get to work anymore, and these are people where we were already paying their rent on a short term subsidy basis till they could get their feet on the ground.

And, it just knocked them flat on their back. And so to me, pandemic poverty has now…The pandemic has created a whole level of people who have taken not just one step back, but maybe 10 or 20 steps back financially and regarding their stability. And generally, if we’re talking about housing stability, if people lose their housing stability, it’s really, really hard for them to keep their jobs or to keep their kids together or take care of their health. If you think in terms of sheltering, and you’ve got congregate sheltering where people are sleeping next to each other, it’s really hard to stay healthy when there’s an airborne pandemic in the community.

So, that’s a little bit of a side trail. It’s just something that I think about quite a bit. You’ve got people who are lucky and have done okay and largely been unaffected by the pandemic other than just basic inconveniences in life, versus people who it’s like life and death and has turned everything upside down for them, and they’ve utilized all of their savings to stay afloat, and now there’s nothing left. And so, it’s going to take a long time for many people to dig their way out of this.

Christin Thieme: So, I know right at the start when the pandemic hit, we heard a lot about the concern around a spike in homelessness as a result of a lot of what you’re talking about, people losing their jobs, losing any stability that they did have and ending up without a home. And that in large part, then we started to hear about these eviction moratoriums. So, can you tell us just a little bit about, what is the situation around that? What is the impact of eviction moratoriums? I know a lot of those have been lifted, so now what are you seeing in terms of what are the needs surrounding homelessness?

Kristen Baluyot: So, the eviction moratorium was a godsend in that it prohibited landlords from evicting people if they could not pay their rent and they couldn’t provide them with a notice for them to leave their apartments, as well as the judicial system pretty much shut down as well. So, people couldn’t go to court over an eviction. So this moratorium, not only did it save people from getting kicked out of their homes, it also prevented them from racking up evictions on their record, which would then make it even more difficult for them to get housing down the road because keeping people housed is far cheaper than getting people into housing once they’ve lost their housing or their homes. So, the eviction moratorium enabled us as an agency and the agencies all over the United States to be able to act, to buy us time essentially, to meet the needs of so many people who are facing evictions, provided we had funding available, which in the Salvation Army, many of our locations had funding available.

And here in Denver, we’ve received a significant amount of funding to be able to help keep people housed. So, the eviction moratorium helped keep the… It essentially helped slow any tidal wave that would’ve happened if the moratoriums hadn’t happened and hadn’t been extended multiple times. In the end, it didn’t stop all evictions, but it definitely helped agencies and the government to be able to respond in a way to be able to keep people housed, and because of the eviction moratorium, we found ourselves paying… We paid six months rent, seven months rent for people. We have cut checks for $30,000 because of all of the rent that was due, all of the back pay, and then even being able to pay a little bit into the future, so people didn’t have to worry and men could focus on getting themselves employment once again.

Christin Thieme: And, I know I read in a report that just in the six months between November 2020 to May 2021, the Intermountain division alone, which you’re part of, it spans Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, Eastern Montana, that division itself distributed over $3 million in rent and utility assistance. That’s amazing, going to almost 10,000 people. It’s a lot of help going out. I know you mentioned that part of that money early on went to establishing a call center. Can you share more about that?

Kristen Baluyot: Yeah, so the call center had already existed, but it was quite small. It’s a blessing, honestly, that we already had it because we already had some systems in place. We already knew how to kind of create scripts for people when they were answering their phones, and we knew how to get people connected to the right thing. Now when the pandemic hit, our main offices shut down, we weren’t having people in the office anymore. So, then we were able to transition many of our staff. So, we had finance people, we had assistants, we had our youth workers, they were all transitioned to our call center and answering phones remotely. And so, we were able to screen people for what their needs were and do some basic triage as far as who would qualify for which type of program that we had funding for and be able to start that paperwork process and get people then connected.

We would do direct referrals internally to our Housing Now program, which then implemented and provided all of the actual rental assistance. So, we were able to very quickly and nimbly create some systems to answer the need super quick. The number of calls that we received to our connection center grew exponentially. It used to be like 1,000 calls that we’d get, and then I think during the first few months of COVID, it was like 5,000 calls a month that we were getting of people in need. We were able to respond.

Christin Thieme: Yeah, absolutely. Thank goodness. Is there a particular story that stands out to you of somebody, maybe you could give us an example of somebody who called in the call center and what that kind of progression through being able to assist them would look like?

Kristen Baluyot: Yeah, so if somebody called the call center, they would then be asked some information like if they had lost their job due to COVID or what their rent was, what they needed because some people literally just lost their job, depending on the timeline, some had been out of work for quite some time. And, everybody has their story to share. Like I mentioned, there was someone who had literally just gotten a job and then he had to quit his job because the buses stopped working, or we have other households where the parent, it’s a single parent, and they had been working regularly and then they had to stop working because they lost school for their kids, and then weren’t able to find any childcare.

So, those are just some reasons as to why somebody might have called. We had lots of musicians who had worked at restaurants playing their guitar and providing evening entertainment for people, and they then weren’t able to do that because of all the restaurants being closed down. So, then what we would require is… If we determined that their need for assistance was due to some effect of COVID, whether they had to stop working or they were laid off, they would then need to provide some sort of proof of what their previous income had been, and even for people who worked more like gig jobs, they could just show their, not pay stubs, but their bank statements to show what money was coming in, or if they were Uber drivers, they could show how much they had made before versus how much they had made that current month based on just what was in their app.

So, we tried to be really very, very flexible and require really limited information, so we weren’t going to burden people with that. We require a copy of the lease from the landlord and verification of how much rent is due, how much current monthly rent, if utilities are included and then if any fees have been included as well, so late fees and things like that. So, that verification from the landlord is really important just to help reduce elements of fraud. And so, there’s just really basic demographic information that we would collect, but we could get checks turned around within 24 to 48 hours if we got all the paperwork in really quickly. So, we also moved to starting to using an online data signature platform, kind of like DocuSign. So, we were able to then expedite getting… It’s an online platform that people could sign within that platform digitally. They could take pictures of their documents and upload them with the push of a button, so to help streamline things and just speed it up, so we could get them help.

Christin Thieme: All to keep people in their homes, like you said.

Kristen Baluyot: Exactly, because that was the goal, keep people in their homes because we knew immediately, if you have a lot of people losing their jobs, the next thing that’s going to go are their homes.

Christin Thieme: So, now we’re some 19, 20 months into this, still not totally out of it. So, what’s the focus now? What’s the biggest need that you’re seeing at this point?

Kristen Baluyot: So, just because the eviction moratoriums have ended does not mean that the need has gone away. So, we are still very actively providing eviction prevention assistance. Our main focus right now is we’re not getting funding from the state anymore. We’ve received a total of about like $5 million from the state, and then we also have a couple million dollars from the city of Denver, also from some surrounding counties as well. So, I would say in total we will have managed at least $10 million in eviction prevention assistance, and if that continues to go, I just worked on a contract with one of the counties just this last week because there’s new funding coming around. The American Rescue Act is wonderful in that it’s… Just because the pandemic maybe officially ended according to some, it really hasn’t ended for many.

And so, we’re able to continue to provide that rent assistance for folks. I’m trying to think of how many we have served. We’re still serving hundreds of people. I think we’ve slowed down a little bit, maybe like 50 households a month right now would be my estimate, but we still keep going, but we also are then dealing with… We have homeless prevention dollars as well, which those are a little bit different. They’re also federal dollars, but they’re different from eviction prevention in that if we get ahold of someone, like they now have an eviction notice and they’re going to be evicted the next day, if they’ve been referred to us and they qualify for that program, even if they get evicted, we’re going to be able to get them rehoused with those dollars.

And it’s not just, “Oh, sorry. Now you don’t have a home, so we can’t help you.” We’re able to then step in and provide them case management and financial support to get them stable once again. So, those dollars are starting to kick in. We weren’t able to use homeless prevention dollars originally because those eviction notices were required, and since landlords were not actually able to provide eviction notices, we weren’t able to process anything or any assistance using homeless prevention dollars. So, that door has now opened and we also have the eviction prevention dollars.

Christin Thieme: Lots going on.

Kristen Baluyot: Yeah, it is, it’s a lot going on, but it’s really great to have some different pots to kind of leverage, to be able to support different people where they’re at.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely, so we’re talking a lot in the Salvation Army at this time of year about hope and this year especially, this idea that hope marches on and it’s pretty cool that you’re really in the direct business of delivering hope to people. So, I’m wondering from your vantage point, what does hope mean to you?

Kristen Baluyot: Well, hope means that you have health and family and a roof over your head. It’s the basics because those basic things, if you have them, you can have hope, and we work with people who don’t have very much hope. And in fact, for many of our longterm case management programs, we utilize the pathway of hope case management tools, and one of those is the Herth Hope Index, which essentially is someone can do their own self-assessment of how hopeful they’re feeling and what’s great is we do that at the beginning and at the middle and at the end of that case management time, and you just see hope go from zero…The scale is zero to five, so it’ll go from zero or one all the way to five by the time they’re done with our program. And so, hope means that you think that you’re going to be able to pay your rent. Hope means that you’re going to be able to have a house or a roof over your head or that maybe you don’t have it right now and you’re in shelter, but you’re working on getting stable and taking care of that addiction or whatever the issue is. So, hope is that light at the end of the tunnel.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. How would you encourage somebody listening who maybe is a little bit lacking in hope right now, what would you say to them to help them find hope today?

Kristen Baluyot: I think what’s really important is to remember that people care, even if it might not feel like it and you might feel alone, there’s always somebody who cares. Even if it’s someone who’s calling on the other end of a crisis line and you’re like, “This is a stranger and I can’t even see there’s face. I Don’t know who they are.” They care for you very deeply and richly in that moment, and just because you hang up a phone doesn’t mean that caring goes away. And so, I think people forget about that connection and that at all of us are humans and we all have the need to be wanted and loved and cared for, and sometimes it’s harder to find for some people than others, but I can tell you, I see it every single day when I’m walking through our shelter. We had a gentleman, he’s been a longterm stayer at Crossroads, which is our men’s shelter, and no movement, no hope, literally just go to sleep on his cot.

It used to be a mat and then it was upgraded to a cot and then a bed, but just not going anywhere, just eating, drinking, sleeping, and through just very basic conversations with our case managers and our director over at Crossroads, slowly he started to just kind of be like, “Okay, what can I do? Oh, okay. I guess I’m willing to meet with a case manager. Oh, okay, I guess I do need an ID or I need this, or it is possible for this stuff.” And, these little baby steps of people caring about him and willing to have conversations, let him to getting housed a year later. And, that’s someone where literally if anybody had looked at this guy a year ago would have said, yeah, there’s no hope for him. He’s just a homeless bum.

And, that’s not true. Yes, he was someone who was experiencing homelessness, but he’s just as much of a person who is worthy of housing and dignity as anybody else. And, if you can find people who believe that in you, that’s what’s going to help draw the hope out even if you feel like you don’t have it.

Christin Thieme: I love it. Well, Kristen, thank you so much for sharing today. Thank you for the work that you’re doing.

Kristen Baluyot: You’re very welcome. My pleasure.

Additional resources:

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