Hundreds of businesses are shuttered in state-mandated closures to try to curb the current wave of COVID-19, and many tenants in Santa Fe are stretched too thin to make their December rent check.
A frantic push by local governments to spend millions in CARES Act dollars before the Dec. 30 deadline means there are ample sources of aid for those who are able to quickly and accurately fill out applications.
Yet, cumbersome eligibility requirements and language barriers make these funds difficult to access for many people in need, says Bianca Sopoci-Belknap, a co-director of Earthcare and one of the founders of a grassroots relief effort called the Mutual Aid Network. She says organizations like hers have had to step in to fill gaps left by local and federal programs in the effort to correct an imbalance in who gets help and who doesn't.
The Santa Fe Mutual Aid Network began in March with a simple concept to connect people in need with people who have something to give.
At first, the core team of organizers behind the network focused on making connections between members to accomplish tasks such as making 282 grocery runs to date for people who were homebound or couldn't afford food and setting up childcare for essential workers. They also re-distributed $214,000 directly to those in need with initiatives such as a "Share My Check" campaign, which encouraged people with means to donate their federal pandemic stimulus checks to undocumented families who didn't qualify for federal aid or unemployment benefits.
The network currently has 944 members who can ask for or give help as needed. It is working with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness to distribute CARES Act funds: $50,000 in utilities assistance and $25,000 for food and supplies.
But as local governments roll out more programs funded by CARES Act dollars, the Mutual Aid Network has been inundated with requests for help with applications to such programs as the county's Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program. The volume and urgency of those requests have led the core team to put almost everything else on the back burner, says Sopoci-Belknap.
"The bureaucratic process can feel pretty alienating," says Sopoci-Belknap. "For many people, getting to talk to real fellow community members can make a big difference in helping them feel like they can successfully navigate the process."
For Vanessa Zambrano, the possibility of aid has only made the struggle to pay rent this month more agonizing than ever.
The 23-year-old mom stays home to care for her 2-year-old daughter Luna, and her husband lost his restaurant job in March. Since early summer, she says, they've scraped by on odd jobs her husband got in yard work or construction. But when he fell from a ladder on a recent gig and broke his leg, the family was left without any source of income.
The couple has fallen behind on bills and is relying heavily on family and borrowing money to pay the rent.
Zambrano recently joined the Mutual Aid Network and received help from another member to apply for aid from local organizations to pay back nearly $800 she owed in overdue bills. She's also considered applying for rental assistance from Santa Fe County's CARES Act funded Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program.
But because that program is designed to help people pay back late rental and mortgage payments to landlords and does not offer cash to individuals to cover personal debt, Zambrano would have to forgo her December rental payment to be eligible for the aid.
Even then, she might not meet requirements because the lease is in her mother-in-law's name. If she applies and is not accepted, she could simply be saddled with additional late fees from her landlord.
"I'm worried that we could fall further behind," Zambrano tells SFR in Spanish. "But the hardest part of this time has been psychological, and I feel stronger because of the community support through the Mutual Aid Network and my family."
Lucia Duncan, who's also a stay at home mom with an infant, helped Zambrano sift through the requirements of various programs. Duncan is a volunteer with the Mutual Aid Network and has dedicated many hours in recent weeks to helping people fill out emergency rental and mortgage assistance applications.
She tells SFR that Zambrano's experience of struggling to access aid is not uncommon—any number of small details can limit access, and from the beginning, the process has put Spanish speakers at a disadvantage.
"Barriers can be as simple as needing a letter from a landlord or a boss who doesn't speak Spanish," she says.
Duncan tells SFR she's created templates for timesheets, letters to landlords, and other necessary documents in Spanish and English, but at first the county didn't provide equitable access.
Joseph J. Barela, the deputy director of the Santa Fe County Housing Authority, confirms that it took a week after the program was up and running to provide the application and other resources in Spanish. However, he says the county worked to staff up as quickly as possible.
Miguel Acosta, a co-director of Earthcare and the Mutual Aid Network, says the problem of accessibility is pervasive. Spanish information about COVID-19 and various aid programs was not immediately available on the state website either, and when federal small business loans were first made available in the spring, the city also delayed in offering information in Spanish.
"[The city] did a workshop to help small business owners access those funds and they did one in Spanish too… but they did it the day after the money ran out," Acosta tells SFR.
For people struggling to pay rent this month, the various programs offering aid include an emergency assistance fund distributed through the city's CONNECT program, and a new fund allocated toward rental assistance by the Legislature in an emergency session last week.
As for the county's rental assistance program, Barela says more than half of the $2 million in funds are still available and the county is working to bring even more staff on board to process applications and work with applicants to make sure they have the correct documents.
"Whether or not you feel as though you qualify, my suggestion is just turn in an application," he says. "We want to spend this money and we will do everything we can to help people sort out their unique circumstances to get the aid they need."
- Contact Santa Fe Mutual Aid to ask for or offer help at www.mutualista.org. Bilingual Spanish and English speakers are in high demand.
- Apply for the Santa Fe County Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program at www.santafecountynm.gov/housing_services or pick up an application in person from the the Santa Fe County Housing Authority at 52 Camino de Jacobo.
- Apply for the CONNECT program at www.santafenm.gov/connect.