Getty Images / Malte Mueller
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the city was accepting applications for its latest round of financial assistance — 1,400 debit cards valued at $500 for low-income Portlanders financially impacted by COVID-19.
The application portal was only open for 5 minutes: By 9:06 a.m., the city had already collected more than 1,400 applications and had to close the submission.
Nicole Levine said she got up early to apply for the funds and started updating the application webpage at 8:58 am.
“Once the application was online, I filled it out very quickly and hit ‘send,'” Levine said mercury. “It told me the form was disabled, applications were closed. That was at 9:02. I don’t know how you could fill that out in a minute.”
To be eligible for these funds, which will be distributed through the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB), Portland residents who have experienced a loss of income or increased health risks because of the coronavirus must be over the age of 18 — and have a household income of 80 or less have percent of the area median income. For a two-person household, that amount is $58,960. For a one-person household, it’s $51,600.
The funds are to be spent on rent, groceries, health needs, utilities, transportation costs, child care and other household expenses. Renters are already skimping on these basic services to stay put. In September, a study by Portland State University found that 53 percent of Portland renters have cut back on groceries and medicines to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Levine has lupus, a disease that makes her immune-compromised and particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and has a part-time job working from home as a technical writer. She has been unable to find another job during the pandemic that doesn’t require her to leave her home, which would endanger her health. The extra $500 could have given her a little more time to look for remote work.
“The whole thing was discouraging,” Levine said.
PHB director Shannon Callahan said there was no evidence of technical issues or bots disrupting the application process, or any alternative explanations for why submissions were filled out so quickly.
“I really think the need is so great, and 1,400 people got on at 9 a.m.,” she said. “There were another 1,400 in the system trying to build apps when the program shut down.”
PHB will review applications over the next two days, Callahan added.
Tuesday’s application window was the first of two opportunities to apply for the $500 card this week. on Friday at 1 p.m., Portlanders can apply for another installment of 1,400 cards.
Levine said she was not encouraged to try again. Neither did Emma Karchner, another Portlander who attempted to apply Tuesday morning. Kärchner was fired at the beginning of the pandemic, but has landed another job in recent months. Last week, Karchner learned that the risk content of her new job would be phased out, a cut that would critically impact her finances.
Karchner said she wasn’t exactly surprised when, after completing the online application, she received an error message at 9:03 a.m. that the form was closed.
“When I was laid off, I couldn’t even reach the unemployment website — and it doesn’t feel any different,” Karchner said. “It’s not shocking to me at this point.”
She cannot reapply on Friday because she will be working. She still considers herself lucky to have an income, albeit depleted.
“I can’t imagine how many people who need this money more urgently than I do couldn’t even apply today,” said Karchner. “Maybe they don’t have a computer, maybe they have slow internet…there are so many different factors.”
This isn’t the first time Portlanders have seen COVID-19 relief funding dry up due to sky-high demand. In April, the city was able to give about 740 low-income Portlanders $250 in direct cash assistance. Within 30 minutes of opening their application portal online, the city received more than 1,000 applications.
The same problem played out on a larger scale in August, as hundreds of low-income Portlanders queued outside local credit unions to apply for $500 in emergency funds, which were distributed statewide. Within three days, the state’s 70,000 available payments were cleared – many are still hoping to apply.
However, the total of 2,800 prepaid cards being distributed this week are not the only tools available to low-income Portlanders who have been harmed by COVID-19.
The program is part of the city’s $36 million investment in housing assistance, which includes millions for rental assistance and housing stabilization assistance. PHB has already given out $500 home help cards to low-income Portlanders since August, through partnerships with 34 different culture-specific organizations and other affordable housing programs that already have relationships with low-income Portlanders.
In all, community organizations have access to 20,000 prepaid cards, each worth $500. According to PHB’s Callahan, 6,913 cards have already been distributed to Portlanders.
Callahan said this week’s distribution of funds — coordinated with help from the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette — is intended to reach members of the general public not affiliated with the 37 community groups.
That’s why Schlomo Rabinowitz tried to apply on Tuesday morning. Rabinowitz said he was laid off in April because of COVID-19 and is still out of a job. He couldn’t even access PHB’s application form as of Tuesday morning – the site was already overflowing with applicants.
“The city has said that you can access these maps through other organizations, which I think is great,” Rabinowitz said. “But I am not affiliated with any of these organizations. And I won’t join either [an organization] and pretend I’m only invested in it for $500. It’s not real.”
Rabinowitz said he will attempt to reapply for the funds during Friday’s application period. But he doubts the outcome will be any different.
“The need is just too great. We are too many,” he said. “The city essentially throws coins over the heads of the public and makes them reach for them.”