Housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass, last October urging an end to evictions. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire Saturday.

EAU CLAIRE — Housing advocates fear the expiration this weekend of a federal moratorium on most evictions could result in a surge in homelessness in the Chippewa Valley even though significant aid is available to help folks who have fallen behind on their rent.

The eviction moratorium, put in place last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and extended multiple times, is scheduled to expire Saturday. It is credited with keeping millions of tenants in their homes as they struggled with lost jobs, lower wages and health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re expecting to see more families living in their cars or in other less desirable options after the eviction moratorium ends,” said Michelle Pride, a volunteer with the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, which provides food, clothing and companionship to homeless individuals in the area. “We also think we’ll see more families or people affected who’ve never faced homelessness before.”

A lifeline is available, however, for many people who could face eviction. Gov. Tony Evers announced $322 million in funding in February through the Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help people stay in their homes as part of federal coronavirus relief. So far, community action agencies have distributed nearly $46 million of that money to 12,482 Wisconsin households.

With the vast majority of that money still available, those agencies are ramping up efforts to get the word out to people who might be eligible for the assistance. Renters who earn up to 80% of their county’s median income can apply for aid through local social organizations. The money can be used to cover up to 15 months of rent for individuals who certify they have been financially affected by the pandemic.

Officials at Western Dairyland Economic Opportunity Council said they have been providing rental assistance from the emergency program since February but believe a need still exists for the aid. They have been using direct mail, social media and word of mouth to get the word out but still are receiving inquiries every day from people seeking help who are worried about being evicted.

“It’s concerning with the moratorium coming to an end that there will still be folks out there that either haven’t gotten word about the emergency rental assistance or don’t qualify and could end up in a homeless situation,” said Kristin Walukas, WERA program manager for Whitehall-based Western Dairyland.

As of Thursday, Western Dairyland had provided 643 households with $2.4 million in rental assistance across its service area of Eau Claire, Buffalo, Clark, Jackson and Trempealeau counties.

“We are expecting kind of an uptick in requests for assistance because of the end of the eviction moratorium,” Walukas said. “So far, we’ve been able to help the majority of those who apply, so I’m optimistic we’ll be able to work with folks.”

West CAP, which serves nine counties in northwestern Wisconsin including Dunn, Chippewa and Barron, has provided 783 households with about $3.1 million in rental assistance through the program, according to Jill Woodington, the Glenwood City-based agency’s administrative manager and energy assistance coordinator.

Many of those people have lost jobs, struggled to keep up with rising expenses, lost access to day care or been unable to return to work because a compromised immune system puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, Woodington said.

Both Walukas and Woodington said their agencies have been working with landlords to make sure they’re aware the aid has the ability to help them avoid evictions.

“That’s our goal — to not have them on the street,” Woodington said.

Walukas said most landlords are familiar with the emergency aid program, and many of them have referred tenants to Western Dairyland.

“For the most part, landlords in this area are fantastic and have been patient and working with tenants,” she said, noting that most landlords treat evictions as a last resort. “Nobody wants to throw a family out on the street.”

Still, Walukas acknowledged, many landlords have had their income negatively affected by the pandemic as well.

Recent estimates by Surgo Ventures, reported by The New York Times, indicate that 8.6% of renting households in Eau Claire County, 8% in Dunn County and 8.8% in Chippewa County owe back rent. The average amount owed by those households is $2,514 in Eau Claire County, $2,487 in Chippewa County and $3,107 in Dunn County.

A potential short-term increase in evictions could have lasting effects on tenants by harming their rental history, said Pride, the street ministry volunteer.

That could make it more difficult for those individuals to rent apartments in the future, possibly exacerbating a homelessness problem that has alarmed many Eau Claire residents with its increased visibility this summer.

The increase in homeless people spotted in parks and other public spaces downtown is mostly about the loss of day services at the former Positive Avenues drop-in center and the unavailability of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, which is undergoing renovation and temporarily moved to a site out of downtown, said Kevin Burch, director of housing services for Catholic Charities, which operates the Sojourner House homeless shelter on South Barstow Street.

The absence of those two common daytime hangouts leaves many homeless people with few choices about where to spend their days other than public spaces.

“There is a huge need for a facility with 24-7 wraparound services,” Pride said. “Until that happens, we’re going to continue to have a problem with people having nowhere to go.”

While some homeless advocates suggested there also has been a major increase in homelessness, Burch said that’s not necessarily the case, as the 53-bed Sojourner House has been operating at only about 60% capacity recently. Some clients would rather be outside in the summer than in the close quarters of the shelter, he added.

The city’s largest homeless shelter is seeking approval for an expansion that would add more space to allow for social distancing but not add sleeping capacity. Catholic Charities officials hope to break ground this fall and open the expansion next year.

Regarding a potential spike in homelessness after the eviction moratorium ends, Burch said it’s difficult to predict.

“We will know when we get there,” he said. “We’re hoping we have advertised the rental funds that are out there enough that it won’t be this big influx, but we just don’t know. We’ve never experienced anything like this before.”