Richard and Anne Jorgensen have been receiving rental assistance through the Emergency Rental Assistance program but were recently told that will only last through November. The Portland couple is living on a fixed social security income that’s been strained as Anne’s uterine cancer returned. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For Richard and Anne Jorgensen, the cost of food, heat, housing and medical bills has piled up the last few years.

When they applied to the Emergency Rental Assistance program this summer, they were happy to be approved for three $1,400 per month payments to cover the rent at their apartment in Portland’s East Deering neighborhood.

The federal program, which has served more than 34,000 households in Maine, was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to help struggling Americans meet rent and utility costs.

For the Jorgensens, it helped them stay in their apartment while also navigating a resurgence of Anne’s uterine cancer, which was originally diagnosed in 2012 and came back last year.

Their home isn’t perfect – the paint is peeling on the dining room ceiling and scratch marks, likely from a former tenant’s dog, scar the front door – but it’s cozy and filled with photos of family and friends.

Plus it’s what they can afford. “In this area, at our age, where are you going to move?” said Anne Jorgensen, 76, adding that their current apartment is also close to important medical providers.


In September they reapplied for another three months of rent payments. Richard Jorgensen said the Opportunity Alliance, which is running the program in Cumberland County, told him they were approved through January.

Then he received an email on Nov. 1 saying his application had been denied.

“I went ballistic,” said Richard Jorgensen, 79. “I felt like I was gut-punched.”

He said the couple had budgeted on the belief they would have the rent payments through January. “To have a promise and then have somebody take it back, that’s not the way America should operate,” he said.

Officials charged with operating the Emergency Rental Assistance program in Maine said it was always intended to be temporary and that as money has run out they’ve had to readjust. In some cases, like for the Jorgensens, that has meant having to tell families that they can’t pay as much or for as long as they thought they could.

The Opportunity Alliance thought funding would last through December at least, but then MaineHousing announced on Sept. 29 that it was pausing the program because the money was running out, said Mary Cook, ERA program director for the alliance. Community action agencies stopped taking applications and began laying off staff.


“We had to reassess and pull back on some people,” Cook said. “We didn’t anticipate this as an agency. If we didn’t stop processing applications and lay off staff, we couldn’t have continued serving people.”

She said the Jorgensens are among about 800 renter households who are expected to get payments through November, in addition to 168 households staying in area hotels for whom payments will extend through December. Cook couldn’t confirm specific details of the Jorgensens’ case without their permission, but she said their story fits with many of those 800 households.

Richard Jorgensen holds up their last check from The Opportunity Alliance for assistance with their November rent. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The general situation is what has been occurring, which is that people have been receiving approvals that we then had to retract or reevaluate and then make a new commitment for what we could pay, which was typically up through November,” she said.

Scott Thistle, a spokesperson for MaineHousing, said the agency did its best to communicate the information they were receiving from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to the agencies, but the temporary nature was a challenge.

“I think everybody was surprised it ran out as quickly as it did,” Thistle said. “The intent was always to stretch it longer but … at the front end of the program we knew this is a one-time program and we probably won’t see anything like it again in our lifetime.”

Thistle said he didn’t know the specifics of the Jorgensens’ case and said he hasn’t heard of similar problems on a broader scale. “Each community action agency distributed the funding as it was available to them, and as the funding ran out, there probably were people who got caught in these in-between stages,” he said. “But the program was always caveated with ‘while funding is available.'”


Last week the Jorgensens got word the Opportunity Alliance would still be able to cover their November rent, but that would be the end of it. Richard Jorgensen said he’s grateful, but he said it still feels like they’re being forced off the edge of a cliff.


“It’s federal money and they should have had some oversight as to where this money is going and how much is left, rather than a promise that you’re going to get money and then it’s taken back,” he said.

As a retired dentist, Jorgensen said people probably expect he has a lot of money. But he and his wife, a retired teacher’s assistant, went through a lot of expenses around the time she was first diagnosed with cancer.

They also had debt from credit cards and ended up filing for bankruptcy, he said. Today, Jorgensen said they have about $30,000 in savings and mostly live off of social security and his wife’s retirement benefit. Their future is clouded with worry about medical bills and the rising cost of food, heat (which isn’t included in their rent) and gasoline. They’ll probably cut back on Christmas presents for their family, or food, in the coming months.

“It was a feeling of relief,” Jorgensen said, reflecting on what it was like to get the assistance for three months. “When someone says, ‘You’re approved,’ you think ‘Oh boy, I don’t have to worry so much,’ especially since the prices were going up and up.”

But then that changed.

“They overshot the moon,” he said. “The people probably affected most are those on fixed incomes, social security, Medicare, etcetera. Guess who that group is? Seniors for the most part.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report. 

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