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FII debuts as a major partner in San Antonio’s emergency response to COVID-19

A successful initial rollout also highlights needed improvements.


Key takeaways:

  • » San Antonians struggling during COVID were perhaps better served than those in other major cities because FII and the City of San Antonio were uniquely equipped before the pandemic.
  • » By some measures, it went so well that other cities are noticing and wanting to mirror this kind of work.
  • » Everyone who’s received aid is grateful for it, but agencies that FII is depending on are highlighting challenges that need to be addressed going forward.

When the COVID-19 crisis started in March, San Antonio was perhaps more prepared than any other major U.S. city in helping residents who had lost their job from being evicted. The year before, the local city government had established a program to help people in the crosshairs of gentrification pay their rent or mortgages, a response to rising housing costs associated with rising property values and taxes.

Meanwhile, on a national level, the Family Independence Initiative (FII), a nonprofit that helps people lift themselves out of poverty, was in its nineteenth year as a practitioner and advocate of direct cash transfers.

At the heart of both initiatives was a framework of protocols and, from the technical end of things, online platforms that had been built and already deployed in cities across the country, ready to get aid to the people who needed it most.

It just so happened that a month before COVID-19 began shutting down San Antonio’s economy, the H. E. Butt Foundation was in the process of introducing FII to the City of San Antonio along with some of this city’s largest and most influential foundations. The goal was to establish FII in San Antonio long-term, which meant selecting roughly 1,000 families for FII’s cash investments over two years.

When it became clear that the pandemic would have a crippling effect on San Antonio’s working class, the frameworks the city and FII had already established sprang into action.

The collaboration has resulted in more than $50 million committed to helping nearly 10,000 San Antonians with rent and mortgage assistance, utility bill aid, and cash in hand.

City officials say it’s the most robust partnership of its kind in the country. Other major cities are either starting their programs from scratch or facing already-exhausted emergency relief funding.

Like any large-scale philanthropic effort, the aid has also come with a few hiccups that highlight some of San Antonio’s long standing inequalities.

A system built for cash-in-hand

In addition to receiving help paying rent, households receive up to $500 in cash from a pool of $9 million, or nearly 20% of the overall budget, which has been cobbled together using city funding and local philanthropic dollars.

Cash-in-hand is a concept that has been debated within nonprofit circles. Some local housing advocates say people who are struggling with their finances need the cash so they can make their own decisions on how best to spend it during the pandemic. The city’s system is set up so that the landlords and banks are paid directly. It’s a clash in philosophies city officials are keenly aware of.

“We don’t want to be overly constraining when so many people are in so much need,” said Richard Keith, human services administrator for the City of San Antonio. What the city has built, with guidance from FII, is a system that implements both philosophies at the same time.

Because San Antonio had its program in place already, other cities have asked about it.

“Some cities were thinking about doing what we have done, and they weren’t sure they could do it,” Keith said, acknowledging the conventional nonprofit thinking: “‘You don’t give money directly to people.’”

In comes FII. So far, nearly 10,000 households have benefited from direct cash assistance from two pools of money that comprise the $9 million. In one, the predominant ZIP receiving assistance has been 78207, or the near West Side. In the other, the area receiving the most assistance has been near northwest San Antonio.

In a small survey conducted by FII, the nonprofit found that the majority of recipients used the cash to help pay bills. More than 60% were living paycheck to paycheck or had fallen behind on their financial obligations before the pandemic.

Rollout challenges

Family Service, the West Side-based community center that offers 28 social services programs to San Antonio at large, is one of the agencies working with the city to identify people in need of direct cash assistance.

Kim Arispe, director of Family Service, says the partnership between the city, FII and nonprofits like hers has been great, and many families have benefited tremendously from the stipends.

But she also describes two major hiccups in dispersing the cash. One issue was that families either didn’t have a bank or their bank wasn’t set up with Stripe, the financial services platform that FII uses to get funds into the hands of those who need it. The other was errors from people who weren’t everyday users of computers.

In some situations, Family Service ended up providing cash to a family out of their own Covid-19 emergency fund—roughly $100,000 they received from local banks at the start of the pandemic.

“I get that everybody was doing this really quickly,” she said, “but those are pretty important things that end up reflecting [on] not only the agency that is the intermediary, but also the initiative. My staff spent hours trying to fix these various errors.

“Again, we want to be part of the partnership. We want our families to enroll in this program. But this is a lot of work. The next go-around has to be smoother. We have to figure out these hiccups ahead of time, so that we’re not behind the curve trying to get the family set up.”

One of the other large agencies involved, the SA Hope Center, experienced similar issues, said Heather Pullen, director of case management at the center.

Faced with these challenges, the agencies ended up helping families get set up with bank accounts or with navigating the online platforms. That sort of activity runs counter to FII’s philosophy, which says families need to help other families via peer networks and communities FII helps them establish.

Family Service doesn’t wholly agree with this way of thinking, but Arispe said the nonprofit’s philosophy is close.

“Our work of financial empowerment was built on a belief that families know what they need,” Arispe said. “We are not the experts in their lives. We are not going to judge them or tell them how to do things having to do with their finances. What we’re there for is to really walk alongside them and provide them with guidance and coaching and information and knowledge—that they may need to make decisions that are going to impact their long term finances.

“FII very much believes the same thing. That’s the whole power behind their message: Give people money and let them decide what to do with it. I totally get that, and the work we’re doing with financial empowerment is built on a similar premise.”

Arispe is seeking an approach that allows more of a balance between perspectives.

“But I think there was a little bit of fear that we might step in and start telling people how to spend their money. That’s really not what we’re all about. I really do believe if you wrap FII with financial empowerment, the financial outcomes may be stronger and they may be more impactful to those families.”

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