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City to disburse $2.5 million for emergency pandemic relief

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

With the COVID-19 pandemic now approaching the nine-month mark, Albuquerque is rolling out millions in emergency financial assistance to local families that other relief programs have left behind.

The city is putting about $2.5 million of its federal CARES Act money toward helping people who have lost their jobs – even temporarily – or endured a dramatic reduction in work hours or reduced income for other reasons due to COVID-19, but are ineligible for unemployment insurance or benefits.

The aid will also help those who did not qualify for the federal government’s COVID-19 stimulus checks, such as undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families.

Albuquerque households can get up to $2,000 through the program, which the city has dubbed the Community Impact Fund. The money is intended for “basic needs, food, housing costs, utilities, transportation, school supplies and other household expenses, such as child care, health care, or medical,” according to the city’s website, as well as paying down debt incurred during the pandemic.

Albuquerque follows in the footsteps of other government entities providing direct financial relief to those unable to access other resources. New Mexico is now offering up to $750 to low-income households that did not receive this year’s federal stimulus payments, and California earlier this year provided disaster relief to undocumented immigrants ineligible for other forms of assistance.

Damian Lara, who helped develop Albuquerque’s program as a contractor with the city’s legal office, said the goal is to reach the city’s most “vulnerable” residents, including those who lost pay because their workplace was shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions, and who lacked access to paid sick leave and unemployment.

“This is sort of a fund of last resort,” he said Tuesday during a media briefing with Mayor Tim Keller.

Keller said in a statement that many Albuquerque residents have been “left to fend for themselves” during the pandemic.

“Immigrants are a vital part of our economy and social fabric, and we are taking direct action to get them the assistance they need,” Keller said.

Lara estimates that about 5,000 residents would qualify for the assistance based on the city’s criteria. The city will distribute money on a household basis – each household must have at least one minor or two adults to qualify – and has funding to help about 1,200 households.

The city will issue the aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Applications open Monday and the city is working with a network of community organizations to spread the word.

One of those organizations is El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigrant rights and workers’ justice organization with about 5,500 members who work primarily in low-wage jobs.

Marian Méndez-Cera, a workers’ justice and policy coordinator with El Centro, said many low-wage workers are in essential jobs and have endured a great deal during the pandemic while, in some cases, missing out on federal assistance.

“Many of our families in Albuquerque are already living paycheck to paycheck and are not going to be able to feed their families or put a roof over their head during the pandemic, yet many essential workers at the forefront of this pandemic did not qualify for any federal relief,” she said during Tuesday’s briefing.

She said their hardships could have a ripple effect throughout the state.

“New Mexico’s economy cannot bounce back when so many of our families and communities are being left behind,” she said.

Amber Wallin, deputy director for New Mexico Voices for Children, said the aid should move swiftly through the economy as recipients quickly spend it on necessities.

She said she would have preferred an earlier rollout for such a program, as the pandemic has plunged more New Mexicans into food insecurity and created significant financial hardships, especially for families and people of color. About 34% of the state’s children now lack consistent access to enough food, up from 24% before the pandemic, she said.

But Wallin said state and local leaders were in the difficult position of watching budgets and waiting to see what, if any, additional federal assistance might come.

“We were wishing the money would’ve come down sooner, but there was a large degree of uncertainty our policymakers faced,” she said. “Now we’re just really happy the program has been implemented and the city is trying to get the money out to people in the community who need it.”

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