Undocumented Workers In D.C. Received Cash Aid, But It Barely Covered The Essentials Workers who received the funds say they spent them almost immediately and could now use more help.
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Undocumented Workers In D.C. Received Cash Aid, But It Barely Covered The Essentials

The city dedicated $5 million for undocumented workers harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The money benefited thousands of people. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

In June, Silvia Cordon heard about a new city program from her youngest son's teacher. The program, called DC Cares, would provide undocumented workers left unemployed by the pandemic $1,000 in direct cash assistance.

Cordon, a 42-year-old single mother who emigrated from Guatemala in 2017, was intrigued: She'd been laid off as a hotel housekeeper after COVID-19 hit and was struggling to pay her bills, including her $600 monthly rent for a room she shares with her 14-year-old son. So, with the teacher's help, she applied for the program online.

She later got a call from Mary's Center, a nonprofit community health center and partner in the program, informing her she'd been approved. Cordon kneeled on the floor and prayed in thanks. On June 26, she went to Mary's Center to pick up a debit card loaded with the money.

That same day, she paid $400 on rent, bought food and other provisions with her son, and sent $300 to her four children who still live in Guatemala and range in age from 15 to 22. "I knew my children didn't have money, they didn't have anything," Cordon recalls, her voice quavering. "That was my main concern because I couldn't send money [as usual]."

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She's one of the thousands of undocumented people who've benefited from the DC Cares program, which was established in April by Events DC, the city's semi-public conventions, entertainment and sports authority, and greenlit in June by the D.C. Council. Events DC allocated $5 million from its reserves to aid undocumented workers, many of whom lost hospitality jobs as the city shut down, while the council approved the contract allowing this money to reach them. The Greater Washington Community Foundation administered the funds, issuing 5,000 debit cards to five local nonprofits.

Over the summer, the council set aside an additional $9 million for DC Cares and declared that all workers excluded from traditional unemployment insurance and other public aid — not just undocumented hospitality workers, but street vendors, day laborers, and those paid off the books — could get the assistance. (Returning citizens were also added to the program.) But this funding hasn't yet been disbursed by Events DC, which didn't provide comment by press time.

The program puts the District among several U.S. jurisdictions, including California, New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland, to offer cash assistance to undocumented people during the pandemic. It's a significant initiative for D.C., given that undocumented workers were excluded from the city's coronavirus relief package over cost concerns. Yet, the program proved challenging to implement, involving multiple public and private organizations that coordinated community outreach, eligibility screening and fund distribution.

And because the assistance was relatively modest compared with the area's cost of living, many recipients spent it right away on food, rent and utilities. Other cash-transfer programs established during the pandemic saw families using aid on necessities as well. (For context, $1,000 is less than the general $1,200 per person that qualified Americans received in federal coronavirus stimulus checks last spring.)

Five DC Cares recipients interviewed by DCist said they appreciated the help but remain worried about their families' wellbeing due to the recession and COVID-19, which continues to circulate in the city and could cause another shutdown if the infection rate worsens. All said they've received additional aid from nonprofits, churches, or friends this year, like food, cash and diapers for children.

The interviewees represent just a small fraction of the District's undocumented population, which the Pew Research Center estimated at 25,000 people as of 2016. (Undocumented workers comprised 4.7% of D.C.'s labor force at the time, about the same share as the national average.) With only 5,000 debit cards given out on a first-come, first-served basis through the DC Cares program so far, most of the city's undocumented workers didn't receive that assistance.

Oscar Miranda Sanchez, a single father and restaurant worker who was laid off in March, was one of the lucky ones. Sanchez, 40, heard about the program from a friend at the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, where he was studying culinary arts. He applied for the program through the Central American Resource Center, one of the partner organizations, which approved his application within a couple of weeks.

Sanchez visited the organization's office to pick up the debit card. "When I got the $1,000, I right away went to the grocery store," says Sanchez, who was born in Mexico and has lived in D.C. since 2004. He bought staples for his young daughter and son, including eggs, milk, cereal, chicken, vegetables, rice and beans. "Nothing like soda [or] candy," he says.

Sanchez made the money stretch for six weeks by budgeting for food. He also had savings that helped him cover his $1,350 monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in an affordable building. "Sometimes you have great moments, but sometimes you have struggle moments," he says.

That's how Herlinda Maldonado, a 34-year-old single mother and restaurant worker who became unemployed because of the pandemic, feels too. She was able to pay two months' rent for the room she shares with her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter — a total of $800 — thanks to the debit card she obtained in July from CentroNía, an education-focused nonprofit that takes care of her children.

"I was starting to feel desperate when the money came," says Maldonado, a Honduran immigrant and four-year resident of D.C. "It was like help from the sky."

While she, Sanchez and Cordon have all returned to work at least part-time since the city entered its phase-two reopening in June, this isn't the case for everyone who received the cash assistance.

Maritza Martinez, a 37-year-old restaurant and domestic worker who lives in a studio apartment with her three children, hasn't been rehired at her old restaurant and is cleaning only one home a week, down from a few before March. Her partner died unexpectedly in June, leaving her family without a steady source of income to pay the $996 monthly rent and $400 monthly car payment.

But community members quickly set up a GoFundMe campaign for the family and raised $10,000. About $7,000 went toward sending Martinez's late partner's body to El Salvador, from which she also hails. Relatives and CentroNía staff provided Martinez extra cash aid; she used it along with the leftover GoFundMe proceeds to pay her rent for July and August as well as expenses for her car and children. (CentroNía held a virtual ceremony to celebrate her partner's life.)

Martinez couldn't pay rent in September, though, and sought rental assistance from the city. That assistance hadn't come through as of Sept. 21, and, while she's grateful to receive food stamps, she's hoping for her circumstances to improve.

"The money runs out, and it's running out quicker and quicker," says Martinez, who moved to the District 13 years ago and whose son has special needs. She says she inquired whether she could receive funds from the DC Cares program again, but was told that people who missed the first round of assistance would be prioritized in the future.

Other undocumented workers also said they need more help from the city. It's largely because their wages haven't fully recovered and their living costs have stayed the same even as D.C.'s economy has started to rebound.

"For me and for many people I know who are in really dire need, it would be very helpful if there's more of that type of assistance," notes Doris Medina, a 38-year-old domestic worker who originally immigrated to D.C. from El Salvador in 2004, and whose clients hadn't asked her back to work as of early September.

Her husband, a musician, has begun playing some events again, which, in addition to the DC Cares funds, has helped the family pay their $850 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment and other bills. Medina adds that she, her husband, and two of their children likely contracted COVID-19 in the spring, forcing them to self-quarantine and request food-donation deliveries at the time. (Latinx residents have gotten sick with COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.)

"It's very concerning because everyone needs to pay rent and buy food and pay bills," she says. "If they don't get a job or more assistance, then they won't be able to pay."

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