“Good afternoon. I am now here sitting without power, with my kids. What am I to do?? I can’t even mix a bottle for the baby to drink. I been messaging, calling and no answer, no reply?? I need help please….”
So begins a fairly typical email to the Needs Assessment Unit, one of more than 100 complaints processed by government’s social assistance agency during 2020.
Seething with anger, frustration and, in some cases, pure desperation, the emails – released to the Cayman Compass following an open records request – paint a picture of struggle and stress amid the pandemic.
The messages include stories of people facing eviction, sleeping in cars or storage rooms, having their power or water disconnected, and struggling to afford medication and to feed and clothe their children.
Some appear to be suffering the long-term impacts of age, poverty, ill health and unemployment. Others are more obviously victims of the pandemic, citing the loss of jobs, rental income and business in their pleas for help.
In some cases, the NAU was able to assist. The unit did provide some form of assistance to 2,500 families in 2020, according to official statistics, a significant increase on the previous year.
The complaints log released to the Compass inevitably skews towards the stories of those who did not receive support in what they believe was a timely manner or sufficient quantities.
Of the 142 complaints received by the unit last year, more than 100 relate to a lack of response, delayed response or general communication issues with case workers. The total volume of complaints actually represents a reduction on the 200 filed in 2019.
Charity workers believe those numbers represent the tip of the iceberg. Tara Nielsen, of non-profit ARK, said there were many more people who were simply demoralised by the process after months of inaction, who did not have the energy left to file a complaint or the faith to believe that it would be handled.
She said many of the people ARK assists with food and utilities support had been trying in vain to get help from the NAU.
Waiting for months
In many cases, those that did complain said they had filled out the same paperwork multiple times and waited several months without a reply.
In some instances, they say, this has drastically impacted their lives. A common complaint comes from tenants facing eviction because of the NAU failing to follow through in a timely manner on commitments to pay landlords.
“I am being told the NAU can’t do anything about my sleeping in my car, but I have been calling and sending emails that my landlord is threatening to evict me,” wrote one correspondent.
“It took way more than 21 days to process… so she has kicked me out. What am I to do now? Everywhere I go all the landlords are afraid of NAU’s promises. I am at my wit’s end.”
Complaints that the NAU struggles to pay landlords on time have been raised in the past and pre-date the pandemic.
Other emails cite concern at a lack of response from the unit to requests for support. One client said they were made to feel like they were begging after sending multiple messages without response.
“It has been almost 3 weeks since my email was sent to you and to date there has been no response. Do you realize I am now homeless?” wrote another.
Some of the emails are polite and deferential, others fume with anger.
“We are now in July and I still have not got a response from you, that’s a disgrace,” wrote one correspondent, who had apparently been emailing the department since March.
‘Left in darkness’
Multiple complaints relate to non-payment of utilities. In many cases, it appears, clients had believed the NAU had committed to paying the bills, only to find themselves threatened with disconnection for non-payment.
“I am working hard to get a new job and cannot afford to spend so much time following up on unpaid utility bills which I thought had been settled,” wrote one individual facing power disconnection.
“I don’t want to be left in darkness tomorrow.”
One complaint, sent on behalf of an elderly man, stated that he had been living without running water for over a year and was relying on his church for support.
Many of those seeking help from the NAU in 2020 indicated that they were doing so for the first time and only because of the impact of COVID-19 on their work.
One client asked for help while he rebuilds his stricken business to the point where “I will never have to depend on government again”.
He added, “Out of patriotism, I have always held that I never want to be a burden to the state.”
Another email insisted, “I have never relied on the government or anyone else for that matter for assistance.”
The complaints log included some, but not all, of the responses from the NAU officers. In some cases, the unit was able to assist; in others, resources and lack of eligibility were cited as reasons for not providing support.
NAU resource issues
The NAU has set eligibility criteria which its case officers must work within. For example, families with household income of more than $3,000 don’t typically qualify for any support. There is a maximum threshold for rental support of $1,200 per month and that must be renewed every three months. Proof of Caymanian status, income, savings, pension allocation and expenses are also typically required before any grant of services.
NAU Director Tamara Hurlston acknowledged concerns in the community but said the unit was struggling with a lack of resources. In 2020 the NAU was eight full-time staff members short of the recommended full complement, despite the surge in demand for services.
Significant resources were diverted to support the unit in the early months of the pandemic but most had returned to their normal roles by May of last year.
“The Needs Assessment Unit continues to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible with the limited resources available,” Hurlston wrote in an emailed response to the Compass.
She also highlighted issues with clients failing to provide paperwork, including utilities bills and rental agreements, as a contributory factor in delays.
In other cases, she said people didn’t present to the NAU until they were months behind on their rental payments. Tenants seeking renewal of services also often did not “present for reassessment” until after the expiration of the previously approved support package – meaning delays and gaps in provision of rental support, for example.
“Government support is not unlimited and persons would qualify for services for a specific period of time and it is their responsibility to update the department if they continue to need support or if their financial circumstances change for the better,” she wrote.
She did acknowledge delays on the part of the NAU in providing responses and support.
“The NAU is short staffed and therefore unable to meet the high demand from the public as timely as would be ideal.”
She added that her staff were doing excellent work to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable at “this critical time”.
“The challenges of social welfare is not unique to the Cayman Islands and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.
Government budget documents indicate nearly $5 million in additional funding was allocated to the Ministry of Community Affairs in 2020 for programmes administered by the NAU. The supplementary appropriations include $2.1 million for temporary financial assistance for Caymanians, $2 million in temporary aid for non-Caymanians impacted by the pandemic, $436,000 for permanent financial assistance for Caymanians and nearly $400,000 in additional funding for ex-gratia payments to seamen and veterans.
The documents do not include details over how that money was spent, though a $150-a-month food voucher was initially made available to expat workers who lost jobs and could not get home when COVID-19 struck.