A new fund recently created by San Mateo County is being promoted as a key way to support people, nonprofits and small businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts.
Over the last weeks, the county Board of Supervisors has developed clearer plans for how this fund, called SMC Strong, will be used, but some questions remain as to who will be eligible and what benefits the may receive.
San Mateo County has dedicated $3 million to San Mateo Strong from its Measure K funds, which comes from a voter-approved half-cent sales tax, and it has received contributions from an additional 565 donors.
Of that fund, $1 million has been set aside for each category of need – individuals and families, nonprofits and small businesses.
The fund is being administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, for a 1% fee. The foundation's usual rate is 5%, according to the program website.
Individuals and families
To support individuals and families, the SMC Strong fund will expand on an existing program run by Samaritan House to provide emergency financial assistance to high-need households.
The need is growing fast, said Samaritan House CEO Bart Charlow in an interview.
"Demand is up 50% every week. It's increasing extraordinarily and we're just at the beginning," he said. "It's astonishing how fast the need is escalating."
Samaritan House's emergency financial assistance program is already established in the county's eight core service agencies. Last year it distributed $1.7 million to 684 households to pay for rent and deposits, utilities, transportation-related costs and medical expenses, according to San Mateo County staff. The fund provides direct payments on behalf of the applicants; it is not cash assistance.
Supporting households this way requires a fair amount of "person power," and is fairly complex because it is done in consultation with a case manager and evaluation of a household's specific needs, Charlow said.
Some cities that have contributed to the program have set a maximum amount of $5,000 per household, he said.
There are two core service agencies serving Almanac readers – the Fair Oaks Community Center at 2600 Middlefield Road in Redwood City serves the communities of Redwood City, North Fair Oaks, Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton, and the Samaritan House South location at 1852 Bay Road in East Palo Alto serves East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Households must demonstrate through paystubs, bank accounts or other documents that their income is under 60% of the area's median income, or $67,740 for an individual or $96,720 for a family of four.
To be eligible, people also have to demonstrate financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic and financial need, such as with a letter or bill for past-due rent, utility, or medical costs, or an emergency car repair or vehicle registration.
Anyone who meets the eligibility requirements, regardless of documentation status, can apply for the emergency financial assistance.
Nonprofits across San Mateo County have been hard-hit by a decline in their volunteer workforces, the need for the technology to enable remote work and for sanitation supplies, the program website reports. Priority will go to support nonprofits that work with the community's most vulnerable residents, including very low-income residents, seniors, people with disabilities and those who are experiencing homelessness.
Of the county's $1 million it plans to distribute, $150,000 will go to Samaritan House to support operating costs and oversight for the program; $425,000 to the core service agencies to expand their current contracts by an equal percentage; and $425,000 to seven agencies that support homeless households: Samaritan House, LifeMoves, WeHOPE, Mental Health Association, StarVista, CORA, and Home and Hope.
The community needs that Samaritan House is working to address extend beyond the emergency financial assistance program. Samaritan House also runs a food distribution program and free health clinics, both of which have been impacted by the coronavirus, Charlow said.
The nonprofit relies on about 3,700 volunteers a year, and many have had to step back from volunteering because they are considered to be at high risk of developing complications from COVID-19 because of their age, he said. Many new volunteers have stepped up, but training them with so much need and a volunteer department of two staff members, he said, has been a challenge, and they are urging patience. They could use some additional volunteer help with food delivery, he added.
At Samaritan House's free clinics, staff and volunteers are focused primarily on diverting people with medical needs from having to visit the hospital or emergency room, in order to leave more capacity at those places for patients with COVID-19. For many patients with chronic medical conditions, staff are increasing telehealth programs to minimize physical contact.
"What I'm concerned about is the massive economic dislocation that's already begun," Charlow said. "We know that this is going to be a serious problem for many people and businesses well into the future."
He said he's been heartened to see the community step up and show it cares, and that the nonprofit – for now – seems to be getting the resources it needs to serve the community.
But if that support doesn't continue, or the growing need outpaces what the nonprofit can offer? "This isn't sustainable long-term," he said.
The county is still ironing out eligibility requirements for small businesses, but in an update April 7 to the county Board of Supervisors, confirmed that the program will be administered through the San Mateo Credit Union.
From that date, it was expected to take about two more weeks before applications will start to be accepted, said Deputy County Manager Peggy Jensen, in a virtual update to the supervisors.
They are still in the process of ironing out how a small business should be defined and what amount of funding each should be eligible to receive.
Local companies have also been committing pledges, said Don Cecil, consultant from MC2 Bay Area Government & Public Affairs, including $1 million from Foster City-based Gilead Sciences, Inc., $50,000 from Google, $20,000 each from Comcast and AT&T, and $15,000 from PG&E.
But even with $1 million ready to go to support small businesses, that might only support 100 businesses countywide with a $10,000 grant.
"That is a small drop in the bucket for the number in the county that need those grants," he said.
"What we know is as fast as those funds open, applications pour in and they close fairly quickly," he said.
But the fund seeks to target larger potential donors, such as those who can donate $25,000 or more, he said. It's likely that individual supervisors wil be asked to participate in fundraising calls, he added.
If elected officials are asked to do fundraising, they may have to file disclosure paperwork. Donations to nonprofits may not trigger conflicts of interest, but County Counsel John Beiers said he would create a memo for supervisors laying out the ethical guidelines.
Cities may to be asked also contribute to fundraising efforts to support local small businesses, added Rosanne Foust, president and CEO of SAMCEDA, the San Mateo County Economic Development Association.
"We are going to be making asks of everyone," she said.