The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be over, but for many families in Mountain View the path to recovery looks daunting.
Displaced from their homes, reeling from devastating illness and up to $10,000 in debt, numerous families have been quietly struggling while others revel in the return to normalcy. Among them are Latinos and immigrants -- with mixed or undocumented status -- working jobs that were the first to be cut and may the last to be reinstated.
Despite a raft of emergency relief programs and multiple rounds of stimulus checks, the help isn't reaching these households, prompting the city to take a different tack. This week, the Mountain View City Council is expected to pour $1 million into the Mountain View Solidarity Fund, a newly founded grassroots group.
The group is spearheaded not by the typical heavy-hitters in the nonprofit world, but by well-connected Latina parents who have worked as community organizers for years. Instead of strict criteria for spending the money, the Solidarity Fund will have broad flexibility to help those unable or unwilling to tap into government assistance.
The organizers have a lived experience in common with the working-class families in Mountain View and are fiercely driven to help those still struggling through the pandemic, said Paula Pérez, one of a group of Solidarity Fund leaders interviewed by the Voice. The interviews were all conducted in Spanish.
Pérez used the example of one family with three children whose father lost his job and plunged into a deep depression, eventually being hospitalized. The family burned through its savings within months, and was forced to move into a single rented room in another family's home.
Other Solidarity Fund leaders described families who got COVID-19 and have yet to rebound. One family had all but one of its members contract the virus, said Azucena Castañón, putting them out of work for nearly four months. The mother was admitted to the hospital multiple times with severe symptoms, and continues to suffer chronic health issues.
Statewide data has consistently shown California's Latino residents -- the Solidarity Fund's target demographic -- have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. They're more likely to get sick and die from the virus, and more likely to work in frontline jobs severely impacted by the pandemic. Those working jobs in hotels, restaurants, landscaping and housecleaning were either laid off or saw their hours reduced, leading to financial instability, the inability to pay for food and the threat of homelessness.
Though plenty of state and local rent relief programs were set up for affected residents, they remain out of reach for some. Residents who don't have a written lease and landlords who refuse to do the paperwork are among the problems, and rent relief is no longer applicable for those who borrowed from relatives to keep up with the rent.
The paperwork can also be confusing for those who aren't used to applying for government assistance, said Solidarity Fund member Isabel Salazar, and it depends on employers who are willing to cooperate and confirm that their employees have lost work.
"They go to ask their employer for a letter and they are denied," Salazar said in Spanish. "There have been people who say, 'I no longer want to ask my employer if he can give me a letter, because he has already denied it twice.'"
For those who are undocumented, the options for government assistance narrows even further. State unemployment requires a green card or a work visa, and money from federal stimulus packages are contingent on a valid social security number.
The state's eviction moratorium has done little to comfort those behind on rent, according to members of the Solidarity Fund. There is palpable fear that landlords can oust those who are in arrears, fueled by threatening letters to pay up or face eviction, which has prompted desperate tenants to borrow money from friends or max out credit cards. It's reached a point where some families can no longer keep up with minimum credit card payments, according to the group.
Since launching in January as a fiscally-sponsored project of Los Altos Community Foundation, the Solidarity Fund has raised $50,000 to help more than 40 undocumented families in Mountain View, largely through $500 checks. With a $1 million grant on the horizon, the group has been strategizing how to scale up, and is expected to boost relief payments to $2,000 for families facing financial hardship and $4,000 for those in more dire situations, which could include medical expenses or other emergencies.
Pérez said the aid will be a lifeline for families with young children who have struggled since schools closed down in March 2020. She recalled how the sudden loss of employment left many families in shock, suddenly unable to pay the rent and forced to double-up, or even triple-up, with other families in tiny apartments. It's difficult for children to attend remote school in that kind of environment, she said, and some kids are too ashamed to turn on their computer camera even when it's required.
"We hear stories that break our hearts, because they are children who had a normal life and suddenly the pandemic came and ended everything," Pérez said.
In April, Councilman Lucas Ramirez proposed that the Solidarity Fund receive $1 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the stimulus package that passed in March that will grant the city $14.8 million in pandemic recovery funds. He said he believes the group is worth supporting and can quickly get the money into the hands of people who need it.
Though council members were generally supportive of the $1 million grant for the Solidarity Fund, some cautioned that they wanted to know more about how the money would be distributed and how the group plans to track the spending.
Many of the Latina leaders of the group, like Pérez and Olga Melo, have been entrenched in city matters for years, working with the Mountain View Tenants Coalition and in support of rent control. But they've also been deeply involved in local schools, supporting Latino families through English learner advisory committees across multiple Mountain View Whisman School District campuses.
Laura Ramirez Berman, a Mountain View Whisman board member speaking on her own behalf, called the women "pillars" of the school community for over a decade.
"They have lived and worked alongside our most vulnerable community members for years," Berman said. "They understand personally and intimately the needs of those they are committed to serving. Perhaps most importantly, they have the trust and respect of our most vulnerable."
The grant is part of the annual budget going before the City Council for a public hearing on Tuesday, June 8, with final approval scheduled for a vote on June 22.
Chief Visual Journalist Magali Gauthier and Visual Journalism Intern Daniela Beltran B. contributed to this report and provided the translation.