Ed. note: On June 21, 2020, Accelerator for America announced that it will help 10 additional U.S. communities establish programs similar to the one in Los Angeles. The Open Society Foundations is supporting the infrastructure-building work with a $750,000 grant, and Mastercard will provide resources and expertise. The ten communities include: Atlanta, GA; the State of Connecticut; the State of Rhode Island; Chattanooga, TN; Dayton, OH; Birmingham, AL; Oklahoma City, OK; Salt Lake City, UT; Louisville, KY; and Austin, TX.
On March 12, Elena Popp was heading to her eviction counseling clinic, which, as the founder and executive director of Los Angeles’s Eviction Defense Network, Popp holds regularly. That evening, 40 people were waiting for EDN’s legal support so they could stay in their homes as the COVID-19 virus began to upend life in the United States. One of Popp’s staffers, she says, was trying to persuade her not to go because she is over 60 and has a compromised respiratory system. “He texted me in all caps: IF YOU GET THIS YOU WILL DIE,” Popp says. She went anyway.
Paying the rent and mortgage has become a central concern for people across the U.S. as industries from restaurants to retail and schools shut down to try to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 1, the Mayor’s Fund for the City of Los Angeles launched an initiative, the Angeleno Campaign, to put cash into the hands of the city’s most needy in the hopes that it will help them stay afloat — and at home — during the crisis. At a time when federal help is slow to arrive, especially for low-income Americans, and state-administered unemployment websites are failing to keep up with the new laws — or crashing under heavy traffic — the Angeleno Campaign is meant to make distributing money to those who need it as frictionless as possible.
That’s meant issuing prepaid debit cards instead of paper checks, which makes accessing the cash simpler for people without bank accounts. It means making those debit cards fee-free. And it means making the process to apply for aid as simple as possible.
“It is harder than one might think to give money to people at scale,” says Rick Jacobs. Jacobs founded the Mayor’s Fund for the City of Los Angeles in 2014 while he was working in the Mayor’s office. Three years later, he and Mayor Eric Garcetti created Accelerator for America (AFA), which develops policy solutions to help low-income people increase their economic security. AFA designed the campaign with the Mayor’s fund.
Evictions, high rents, and a lack of tenant protections have contributed to a population of nearly 60,000 unhoused people in LA County.
Popp says requests for eviction-prevention help skyrocketed during the last few days of March as people realized they wouldn’t be able to pay their rent.
Jacobs says that when he realized the scale of the impending COVID19 crisis, he and Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti saw putting money into people’s hands as an important buffer. However, Jacobs acknowledges that there are hurdles between the vision and reality. One challenge has been the fast-moving nature of the economic collapse associated with the crisis, and, consequently, the need to invent a program on the fly — and raise money for it. As of April 8, fund staff said it had raised “well over $10 million.”
Raising money, though, is just the first challenge.
“The second thing you have to do is figuring out who is eligible and how you are going to make those determinations in an expeditious way so that people can get money,” Jacobs says.
The third challenge is actually getting the money to people. Mastercard, Jacobs says, has been instrumental here, setting up the technology for people to donate to the fund at no cost, and supplying the debit cards. “Mastercard and affiliates have charged zero,” Jacobs says.
“If somebody gives us $1500, then that comes into the Mayor’s Fund. The Mayor’s Fund takes no overhead on that. The $1500 goes back out again to put the $1500 on a card. The card gets given to the person, and the person gets $1500,” Jacobs says.
Likewise, Mastercard set up a website for the program along with a text messaging system that allows people to donate by texting “LALOVE” to 21000.
Residents can apply by calling the city’s 311 number, which will direct people to one of 16 community centers handling card distribution. Recipients will need to verify that they have lost their jobs. This can be done by providing an employer contact, for example, freeing people up from having to produce pay stubs or other documents.
The Angeleno Campaign will provide a cash gift of $750 to extremely low-income families with two or fewer members. Families with fewer than five members will be eligible for $1,000, and $1,500 will go to families of five or more.
Another support the Campaign has managed to organize are supermarket gift cards. A donor gave $1 million for food cards, and supermarket chains like Ralphs, Food 4 Less and the Kroger Foundation also made in-store gift cards available for a total of $1.2 million in food assistance. Those cards were exhausted within four days.
“The Angeleno Fund is one of the more forward-thinking and positive policies that the Mayor has created,” says Popp. She acknowledges that putting money into people’s hands during this crisis can help them avoid compounding problems by losing their housing, for example.
Still, she worries that a surge in evictions is lurking down the road. “When the sense of urgency is gone and people who are lower income haven’t been able to put together enough money through either the more formal relief that is coming from the federal government or the Angeleno Fund,” she says.
In the meantime, she says the campaign is addressing the city’s most needy population. “Undocumented immigrants are keeping the city going right now,” Popp says. “They are the people who are keeping the stores open. They are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and we have to take care of them.”
Cash benefits like the Angeleno Campaign can help families stay safe and healthy. “If people are concerned about how they’re going to pay their rent and put food on the table, they’re not going to follow the safer-at-home policies and the spread [of the virus] won’t be able to be contained,” Popp told Next City.
In the meantime, the Angeleno Campaign is targeting people who “one day were making it and the next day they weren’t,” says Jacobs. “The key demographic we search for here is a group that has been impacted by the end of the economy, which just happened for a lot of people. It just ended one day,” Jacobs says.
To apply for assistance from the Angeleno Campaign, call 311, visit this website or call 213-252-3040. To donate to the campaign, text 21000.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve corrected the number that potential Angeleno Campaign donors should text to contribute. We’ve also corrected the name of the campaign.
Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.