Orlando residents struggle to reach rent assistance line, county vows to make improvements

Orange County residents are reporting long waits and the inability to reach anyone on the county's rent assistance hotline, established to help those who have lost income due to COVID-19.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings announced the hotline on Sunday. It would help people obtain a one-time rent assistance,  for Orange County residents only. The payment is made directly to landlords.

Several FOX 35 News viewers shared their experiences since the hotline went live Monday. Erick Comellas, a graphic designer who owns t-shirt company Latin Sushi, was unable to reach anyone Monday. "I tried all day. After lunch, they had put out a new message saying all slots were filled for the day," he said.

He called a total of 130 times Tuesday with no luck. On Wednesday, he was on hold for three hours. "Right now, basically I think I have a better chance at winning the Florida lottery," Comellas joked.

Comellas' business has suffered a loss of income since the COVID-19 outbreak started. "Nobody is really purchasing t-shirts from Amazon. They're purchasing things that are their necessities," he said

At a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Demings said the hotline had received more than 100,000 calls since going live. That is a duplicated number when residents redialed multiple times.

When asked about how the county is addressing the call overload, Demings said the county is increasing staff for the program. "We're increasing the number of staff devoted to that effort. We're increasing the number of people answering the phone lines and we'll certainly be looking at the technology that can be deployed to assist us," he said.

Wednesday, county representatives gave Fox 35 News more precise numbers of how many individuals are seeking help, and how much staff will be allocated to work phone lines.

"Call takers will be increased from the current amount as of today, from 4 to a minimum of 10 by this Friday.

Referrals/Calls through three days? 11K Monday, 8900 Tuesday - We do not have Wednesday’s unique call numbers at this time."

The county does have targets it wants to reach when it comes to assisting callers.

"The goal is to schedule 44 appointments a day and to increase that number through the use of an online process.  We are pulling in additional staff to return calls from the online process," said a county representative.

Mayor Demings said the budget for the county's rent assistance is 1.8 million dollars. However, it appears that might not be enough for the roughly 20,000 people who have called so far. "We are willing to assist up to 1,500 people during this period of time," said the Mayor.

Demings said the hotline will continue taking calls for assistance for the next several months.