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Pokagon Band announces COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Program

DOWAGIAC — Citizens of The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians facing financial hardship due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can apply for relief funds.

The Band announced its COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Program in a news statement on Monday.  The relief program will provide up to $1,500 per month per household to those who qualify, for the period of Aug. 1 to Dec. 10.

“Once we voluntarily closed our casinos and furloughed many of our workers, a lot of people were impacted by the loss of jobs,” said Matthew Wesaw, Tribal Council Chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and CEO of Pokagon Gaming Authority. “We approved the program on Monday, so I’m sure there will be some speed bumps along the way. A large number of our folks are out of work. Because people are home more, utility costs go up. This program will help since costs are up and job opportunities are down.”

The Pokagon Gaming Authority closed its Four Winds Casinos on March 17 and re-opened them at reduced capacity on June 15. Unlike state and local governments, which predominately use tax dollars to operate, the Pokagon Band is a Sovereign Native American Government, which relies on revenue from its business ventures to fund services and programs for citizens. The closing of the casinos meant significant revenue loss for the Band.

“We have monthly distributions of casino revenue to citizens,” Wesaw said. “That revenue stream impacted native communities much harder than regular communities. They lost their jobs as well as traditional support.”

To be eligible for the program, an applicant must be a Band citizen or non-citizen parent, be at least 18 years of age and have increased need or job loss related need. According to Wesaw, the program has been in development for some time.

“It has taken a while,” Wesaw said. “We looked at examples from a number of different tribes around the country. The problem is that if we develop a program and start making distributions to citizens, and we get audited and it’s determined we are improperly paying contributions, the tribal government would have to pay them back. We’ve been very careful that we have all the “i’s” dotted and the “t’s” crossed. Some folks may think it took too long, but it’s a safety measure for the benefit of our citizens.”

According to Wesaw, federal funding is restricted and can only be used in the Band’s 10-county service area. The Band serves Berrien, Cass, Van Buren and Allegan counties in Michigan and LaPorte, St. Joseph, Elkhart, Starke, Marshall and Kosciusko counties in Indiana. Band leadership has been providing citizens with relief since the pandemic began.

“I don’t think anyone was fully prepared for the impact of this,” Wesaw said. “What we have been able to do is provide some disaster relief funding for citizens 18 years of age and over. We were able to deliver disaster relief funding for four months, before the announcement of this plan. Our food allocation has increased significantly, and our health clinic has remained open.”

According to the statement, funds will be distributed to citizens based on increased need or Job Loss Created Need. increased need refers to financial need arising from increased costs related to the emergency, including, without limitation: food, childcare, medical care, home office, cleaning supplies, personal protection equipment and education (such as having to purchase a laptop for remote learning) and funeral expenses.

job loss related need refers to financial need arising from employment interruption, job loss or reduced household income, including without limitation, difficulty in making mortgage or rent payments, utility payments, purchasing food, and paying for medical care, making car payments, paying for insurance and similar living expenses, all as a result of the pandemic.

An applicant may apply for assistance for both increased need and job loss related need in the same month, but assistance will not be awarded for both increased need and job loss related need in the same month. Instead, the department will award the higher amount for which the applicant is eligible.

The funding comes as a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which made limited funding available to the Band to use to help citizens. The Emergency Assistance Program is set to end on Dec. 10, but Wesaw would like to see that timeline extended.

“Whatever money we don’t use by the end of the year must be returned to the federal government,” Wesaw said. “We’re trying to get the treasury department to relax that timeline. We have a number of areas that could use the funding, so we’re trying to loosen that restriction.”

Applicants must have and retain a copy of all evidence submitted to the Band’s Department of Social Services in support of increased need or job loss related need and must provide the same to the Department upon request.

Applications can be found on the Pokagon website under the Department of Social Services or by calling the Band’s Department of Social Services at (269) 782-4300.

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