Mesa Convention Center

Lines were long at the onset of the pandemic when United Food Bank began handing out boxes of food at Mesa Convention Center.

Mesa’s pandemic relief efforts combined  millions in federal dollars, a redeployed army of city employees and a strong network of non-profit organizations to aid thousands of people in different ways.

But the once powerful outreach from Mesa CARES has run out of gas, leaving behind a patchwork of programs to help the needy while a second wave of COVID-19 rages through Arizona.

“It’s kind of a work in progress,’’ Deputy City Manager Natalie Lewis. “We spent all the dollars. They are no longer available.’’

She said the funding expired at the end of December and Mesa will not need to return any money to federal officials because “the entire amount was invested in eligible programs and services.’’ 

In all, the city received $132 million in federal funds to combat the economic fallout from the pandemic. It included $90 million in direct funding from the federal government as well as money from the county and interest earned on the funds.

The Mesa CARES program provided millions of meals, thousands of food boxes, millions in grants to struggling small businesses and hundreds of thousands in utility assistance to help the needy limp through the pandemic.

Elementary school students got laptops and WI-FI service to cope with distance learning. 

Even hundreds of homeless found shelter in hotels courtesy of federal aid, addressing not only a potential COVID-19 hotspot but also complying with a federal court order that allows police to enforce urban camping laws.

“This is one of my proudest moments,’’ City Manager Chris Brady said. “What we’ve done with Mesa CARES has had more of an impact on families than anything we have done here.’’

He said residents were “flabbergasted’’ when the city was able to use the federal aid to pay off large balances on their utility bills that had built up, with many customers having lost their jobs.

“It was a very important moment, where what we can do can have a dramatic impact on people’s lives,’’ Brady said.

While money the federal government allotted Mesa through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is gone, the pandemic’s deadly spread lingers.

Mesa City Council plans to meet tomorrow, Jan. 11, to hear a report from Lewis and discuss what can be done to continue helping the needy. 

While there is some cause for hope from the COVID relief package approved by Congress last month, local governments are in a “holding pattern,’’ awaiting word on details about additional funding, Lewis said.

“We don’t know how much, or when it’s coming, or what we can use it for,’’ she said.

Overall, programs not contingent on CARES Act funding are continuing. Food boxes are still being distributed at the Mesa Convention Center on Fridays, and at House of Refuge in East Mesa on Thursdays and Fridays.

But the catered meals cooked at the Convention Center by Personal Touch Catering and distributed to social service agencies such as Paz de Cristo and St. Vincent DePaul have been halted because of a lack of funding.

“It was a major benefit. It was helpful while it lasted,’’ said Joe Tansill, executive director of Paz de Cristo, “but we expected it was going to dry up.’’

“Everyone is hoping 2021 will be better. It’s going to take a while to dig out from this pandemic,’’ Tansill said. “The need continues and it is likely to expand with the drying up of federal funds.’’

In the meantime, Paz de Cristo is more dependent than ever before on volunteers and donations as resources are stretched to meet demand, he said.

Other parts of Mesa CARES also have been suspended because of a lack of funding. 

The city stopped accepting applications for mortgage and rent assistance, not knowing if there will be money available to grant requests. It has been replaced by a digital preference form on the city’s web site, mesaaz.gov.

Utility assistance and the Small Business Re-emergence Program, remain in limbo.

“There will be a direct and catastrophic impact if there is no funding,’’ Mayor John Giles said in December before Congress approved a new relief package.

“A lot of federal programs are feeding people but it also was keeping restaurants from going under,’’ he said.

Gov. Doug Ducey last week provided an additional $2 million to help restaurants expand outdoor dining.

Giles said Mesa was fortunate to receive funding directly from federal officials.

“People were scared to death,’’ Giles said. “The good news is that we didn’t have to start from scratch. We were already in the human services business.’’

Giles was “horrified’’ when he saw seniors waiting in food lines that stretched around the Convention Center and launched the Adopt-A-Grandparent program to deliver food to needy seniors and check on their well-being.

Lewis said city officials learned a great deal from implementing the CARES Act funds that should make the rollout of any new funding more efficient and smoother.

“It felt like all of my experience from the last 20 years led me to this moment. I feel proud that I was in a place to help,’’ Lewis said.

She said Brady laid out the plan and that she and former Deputy City Manager Kari Kent put it in motion, creating layers of programs after the Mesa CARES survey documented the need.

In the meantime, some city workers were redeployed. Librarians conducted the needs survey and helped business owners apply for grants, while a team of parks employees distributed food boxes.

Dave Richins, executive director and president of the United Food Bank, said the number of food boxes distributed each week soared to a high of 2,800 to a low of about 1,500, still triple the 400-500 boxes distributed weekly before the pandemic.

CARES money paid for $800,000 in food and nine refrigerated trailers to store and distribute food, Richins said.

“We were ready to roll. We have not wanted for a supply of resources during the pandemic,’’ Richins said. “We were able to take that CARES Act money and go into overdrive. We had food resources up and running. We were able to take this to a much larger scale.’’

The impact of Mesa CARES spilled over onto other communities, with about 75 percent of food box recipients from Mesa. Giles reported meeting people from Glendale at the food box distribution events, but he was happy to help anyone who is hungry.

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