When COVID-19 began to spike in the U.S., California was one of the first states to institute a shutdown. Local nonprofits quickly understood that the economic fallout of shelter-in-place would affect vulnerable families the most, and that the need for relief to cover basic necessities would be vast. One Bay Area nonprofit, Live In Peace, sent around a survey in March asking members of its community what they were most concerned about. Paying rent topped the list.
That might not sound surprising, given the region’s infamously astronomical housing costs. But even before the pandemic, low-income Americans across the country faced a housing crisis, often laying out sizable portions of their incomes—sometimes the majority—to stay housed. And while COVID-19 has prompted many states and localities to issue moratoria on evictions, those measures are temporary. So are the CARES Act’s one-time stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits, which are still scheduled to expire at the end of July.
Yet even those meager protections are largely out of reach for undocumented people, around 2 million of whom call California home. “We understood that undocumented families would be the most vulnerable group,” said Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, founder of the education equity nonprofit DREAMer’s Roadmap. “It’s because they’re people of color, low-income, often have little to no savings, and they’re not getting stimulus or the opportunity to apply for unemployment.”
Starting in March, Live In Peace, DREAMer’s Roadmap, and another local group called the Kafenia Peace Collective organized First of the Month, a community-led effort to provide rent support to families struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. It’s focused on the communities where the three groups are based, East Palo Alto and Redwood City. First of the Month has seen some promising success so far: $2 million raised by the beginning of July, including from local foundations and tech donors. The organizers say that’s enough to ensure that around 300 families can pay rent for the next three months.
First of the Month is just one example of a vast array of local charitable initiatives set up to mitigate the pandemic’s toll. It’s also an instance of philanthropy’s rising interest in direct relief to vulnerable groups. On top of that, the campaign is notable for where it’s taking place. Silicon Valley is known the world over as a place of colossal wealth, and has gained notoriety as a springboard for vast philanthropic fortunes. And yet, all that affluence hasn’t managed to lift up the region’s most vulnerable in a sustainable way.
“I can’t imagine Silicon Valley without a community like ours,” said Heather Starnes-Logwood, executive director of Live In Peace. “COVID might feel like the final nail in the coffin of gentrification, but I feel this area can actually support our families.”
Starnes-Logwood heads an organization with deep roots in the area. Live In Peace began as a community response to high rates of violent crime, and has evolved as crime subsided toward a focus on the social and educational empowerment of local youth. Live In Peace’s familiarity with residents in need informed First of the Month’s initial phase, in which the organizers tapped social networks in the community to identify families to assist. DREAMer’s Roadmap, which also serves local youth, joined in.
So far, the families First of the Month has aided are mostly people of color living in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and Menlo Park. Many lost jobs in industries like childcare, restaurants and domestic work when COVID hit. The majority are undocumented or come from families with mixed immigration status. “It’s based on need,” Salamanca said. “The No. 1 priority is to stabilize families that are financially impacted by COVID and make sure they can stay here.”
Rather than handing families one-time infusions of cash, First of the Month aims at longer-term stabilization. Right now, it’s funding rent for families over a period of three months, but the organizers acknowledge that the “intensity of need due to coronavirus fallout… is far beyond what any of us expected.” First of the Month has been paying rent for hundreds of families since May 1. The organizers are also partnering with other local institutions to find new families to consider. However, simply providing for those they’ve already committed to help requires a significant allocation—around $6,000 per family.
Fortunately, First of the Month doesn’t appear to be lacking for donors. The organizers say they’ve received support from over 570 people and organizations, mostly in Silicon Valley. Community foundations are one part of that story: First of the Month has benefited from support though the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Palo Alto Community Fund. The Anne Wojcicki Foundation and Susan and Peter Pau of Sand Hill Property Company have chipped in. First of the Month is also partnering with New Story, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling global homelessness.
Then there are the tech CEOs, several of whom were instrumental in growing the campaign’s funding momentum in May. “They revved the engine,” said Starnes-Logwood. “When you’re surrounded by the Googles and Facebooks of the world, this is a good way the tech industry can partner [with community organizations]. This is how you sustain diversity.”
One of the top names is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who’s funding First of the Month via his $1 billion COVID-19 relief commitment. Others include Box co-founder Aaron Levie and his wife Joelle Emerson, as well as Zoom founder Eric Yuan. “I believe it is important to contribute to our neighbors who need the most help right now so their lives can remain safe and stable,” Yuan said.
It’s clear that when given a platform toward which they can direct funds, many of Silicon Valley’s wealthy will rally to support the region’s less fortunate. It’s a hopeful sign when some of today’s captains of industry can get behind a community-led and volunteer-run effort like First of the Month. It also speaks to the work of the groups behind First of the Month that they’ve been able to channel that charitable impulse toward people most in need.
But at the same time, immediate relief funding tends to be more universally palatable than community power-building and advocacy work, which could target the roots of housing insecurity in the Bay Area by spurring policy changes. Dorsey, for instance, was among the tech leaders who opposed a 2018 San Francisco proposal that would have levied a tax on business to fund homeless programs—and got into a Twitter spat with Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, who supported the idea.
Wherever one stands on tech billionaire giving, First of the Month is an impressive example of a community-led relief initiative drawing in a range of support from local foundations and donors large and small. And it isn’t going away anytime soon. Over 150 families are currently on the wait list for assistance, and fundraising efforts are ongoing. “Until we can’t see the need anymore, we’re going to keep going,” Starnes-Logwood said.