Narika delivers Rental Relief information during food drives

When Alameda Housing Secure (AHS) rolled out its rental assistance program earlier this year, it was a challenge to get information and help out to those who needed it the most. So the county turned to its network of CBOs (Community Based Organizations) to bolster efforts, and ensure that ERAP aid reached the most vulnerable of its residents.

Narika – a Bay Area-based nonprofit which supports mainly South Asian survivors of domestic violence, became a key Outreach Coordinator in Alameda’s rent relief campaign.

Narika is one of Alameda County’s trusted community partners, selected to assist people experiencing housing insecurity after the pandemic hit. The initiative has broadened access to applications and information and provides equitable access to landlords and to income-eligible California renters who are unable to pay rent or utilities.

Sonya Mital, Community Engagement Lead, NARIKA

“Narika is what’s called an outreach ambassador,” said Sonya Mital, Narika’s Community Engagement Lead, who coordinates their ERAP program.

Narika serves a South Asian population in the Bay Area, mainly supporting domestic violence (DV) survivors, but also other immigrants and families in need. Studies show that rent burdens and housing inequity fall disproportionately on low-income, minority households.

Narika already connects with these minority communities in a way that mainstream initiatives cannot, so, as a CBO delivering ERAP services, said Mital, “Narika checks all the boxes.”

Narika serves a culturally specific, linguistically diverse population. Its client base fits the profile of residents that AHS describes as experiencing housing insecurity during the pandemic. “We have a lot of clients who are low income and as a consequence, do experience housing instability.”

“Our clients are mostly low-income, immigrant, South Asian survivors of domestic violence. Our caseworkers share these backgrounds and are thus more able to understand our clients’ situations regarding social stigma, isolation, immigration and legal struggles, and extended family abuse.”

Mital drives the ERAP campaign “to raise awareness about rent assistance available to tenants and landlords who face difficulty paying rent or utilities as a result of COVID-19.” Mital said that marketing efforts will be embedded in Narika community initiatives that are already in place such as zoom meetings, eblasts, food drives, and counseling sessions.

“It’s really important to focus on getting the message out there, whether its social media, online or in physical spaces.”

She regularly updates Narika’s ERAP webpage on the application process, eligibility requirements, and upcoming information sessions.  Applicants who are behind on rent and utilities can register for assistance in Alameda, Oakland, Fremont, and other parts of California.

Narika is reaching people who have little or no access to computers or the Internet by distributing translated flyers in public spaces and through their food drives. “We are asking volunteers to place them in public libraries and other institutions like religious, cultural, and community centers,” added Mital. Narika is also using its food justice program to share information with the community through its weekly food distribution and bi-monthly food drives which take place in the Narika parking lot. The food drives are popular for both its service and its friendly staff, who said one recipient “made me feel human during the drive up. It gives us the confidence to speak even if we cannot speak English properly.”

Mital also trains counselors to understand the ERAP program and its eligibility requirements, so they can urge South Asian survivor clients to apply for rental assistance during in-language counseling sessions.

“A lot of our outreach is conducted within our client counseling sessions, wherein if a client expresses that they are experiencing  an inability to pay rents or that they have a lot of debt, or rent that they haven’t paid, then the advocate will tell them about ERAP and then get them signed up in one of our info sessions.”

This kind of outreach has been successful, said Mittal, because “our clients know us, they know our counselors, they know it’s genuine and safe. Clients trust them – with government oftentimes, they don’t.”

Narika also is hosting zoom sessions to broadcast the message to as many people as possible. Mital coordinates with Centro Legal – another AHS community partner – to help lead sessions and provide translators and interpreters when needed, set up the registration system, and provide timely reminders to attendees. Narika has hosted three information sessions so far and anticipates adding more sessions for October and November. “Everything funnels into our info sessions which we try to have in multiple languages. Our goal is to hold five info sessions reaching at least 100 attendees,” said Mital, confirming that Narika has already exceeded that number via their zoom registration portal.

While many clients are of South Asian and Arabic origin, attendees also come from Spanish-speaking communities. Currently, information sessions are offered in English and Spanish, but Hindi, Tamil, and other language interpreters will be recruited for any South Asian-focused zoom session if needed, added Mital.

Narika already hosts DV advocate programs that train community and religious leaders on how to handle community members who ask for help if they are experiencing DV. Many of Narika’s advocates speak South Asian languages, which is important,” said Mital,  “as a lot of our clients don’t speak English.”

“We provide a lot of basic information on what DV is, recognizing the signs, common red flags, how to help, and language to use when someone is disclosing abuse, and how to make sure they are trusting you, and are open to getting help.”

Narika is enabling these community advocates to also provide comprehensive information on ERAP eligibility requirements, to ensure that only people who qualify are referred into the ERAP program. “Narika is a good fit for that.”

“A lot of our clients are not on social media,” explained Mital. “They don’t have a phone. They may not trust organizations the way they trust their religious leader or a respected member of the community. They are going to those people first – so that’s why we are reaching out to these trusted messengers and presenting info on our services  to them so they can refer clients or those who need help back to us if we are unable to reach them directly.”

Narika has forged partnerships with over 200 CBOs including the North Islamic Shelter for the Abused (NISA), Asian Women’s Shelter (AWS), API Legal Outreach, Bay Area Tamil Manram, Khalsa Aid Bay Area, School, and HERFight.  “We also do outreach with a lot of cultural and religious organizations like the India Cultural Association, SEWA, and local temples.”

Attendees at information sessions, said Mital, include DV survivors, low-income residents, and undocumented immigrants. They lost jobs in the pandemic and are struggling to cover rent and pay medical bills. Several have newly left relationships after an escalation of violence, leaving many unhoused. The transitory nature of relationships and housing creates challenges said Mital. For example, one survivor worried about being unable to provide proof of rental payment owed, because she pays rent in cash and electronic records of transactions for rent paid or owed do not exist. For other applicants, moving from location to location makes it hard for them to understand how they might be eligible. Some attendees received scam calls asking for their personal information to qualify for the EARP program. Many are unaware that Alameda County will never call to ask for social security information to access an emergency rental assistance application.

“There’s a lot of discomfort about going through the process. It can be very isolating. There is a lot of stress around it,” said Mital.

Before ERAP, Narika’s housing initiative only involved referrals to shelters. “We are a smaller organization. We don’t have a shelter. But we help people with local resources and find funding and financial assistance, getting into local shelters. That’s pretty much the bulk of our housing initiative.”

Their DV programs have positioned Narika to plan a successful ERAP outreach effort, said Mital

“The truth is that immigrants, even those who are undocumented, have access as well. Anyone can use it. So it’s very important that we’re reaching people. It’s not just being preserved for those who have advantage or access.”

“There’s just a lot of negotiation involved and just us being a smaller CBO organization, I think it makes people feel a little bit safer through the process.”

Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents.

This article was  written with a media fellowship from GlobalMediaX.

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...