Council Recap: COVID Relief Funds Begin to Flow in Austin
Artists and nonprofits at the front of the line for assistance
City Council approved a new $1.5 million Austin Artist Disaster Relief Fund to soften the impact of COVID-19, at its April 24 meeting, and directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to use an existing program to deliver relief to a creative community reeling from the economic blow of the pandemic.
The fund, championed by Council Member Kathie Tovo, will draw dollars from the city General Fund emergency reserve. Along with direct financial relief to artists, Tovo's resolution asks staff to explore creating an online portal as a virtual stage or exhibition space for local artists. Another resolution from CM Ann Kitchen will allow funds in the existing Creative Space Assistance Program to be used for emergency grants to artists and venues facing dislocations during the crisis. That program was designed to address ongoing displacement among Austin's artists over time, but Kitchen's resolution asks staff to deploy money from the program no later than June 15.
Council also accepted about $2.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that can be used – without matching city funds – to provide emergency housing for some populations vulnerable to COVID-19. One of the city's moves to do so already – the lease of a 150-bed hotel in Northwest Austin as an isolation facility for people who test positive for the coronavirus – was approved: a 31-day contract that will cost $2.1 million. Separately, two grants from the Texas Department of State Health Services totaling more than $2.5 million will support the city's public health response, funding new medical staff and purchases of personal protective equipment.
Two nonprofits awarded grants from the Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) Fund have already begun distributing money to the people they serve. El Buen Samaritano, which got a $500,000 grant, is giving $400 prepaid Visa cards to qualifying families; as of April 28, they'd given out 463 cards and plan to distribute 1,100 in total. Demand has been high; El Buen's Associate Director of Development Erin Wiegert told us they received 7,000 calls inquiring about RISE aid. "We're seeing very high interest from the community, which we anticipated, and which unfortunately speaks to the growing need among the families we serve." Those interested in applying should call 512/714-6917, Mon.-Thu., from 8am-2pm.
Catholic Charities of Central Texas received more than 1,300 calls on Monday, the first day it began accepting RISE Fund applications. Like El Buen, CCCTX asks families who might be eligible to begin their intake by telephone, using four phone numbers, based on the applicant's last name (visit www.ccctx.org/rise-fund for info). Applicants must be Austin or Travis County residents ineligible for federal relief through the CARES Act; earn an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level ($52,400 for a family of four); and have proof that their income has been impacted by COVID-19, such as a severance letter. CCCTX Executive Director Sara Ramirez told us it's important for everyone who thinks they might be eligible to call. "Survivor's guilt is a real problem," she said. "People feel like they don't have it as bad as others, so there is a reluctance to reach out. But once they've talked with someone, they might be open to help they might have needed even before the pandemic."