The symptoms struck just a few days into his new car-washing job.
First came the numbness. Then, headaches so intense he couldn’t see straight. “I seriously never felt this type of pain,” says Fernando Santoyo, a 30-year-old father of two.
A nasal swab test at Healing Grove Health Center, a nonprofit clinic in San Jose’s Washington neighborhood, confirmed the ailment as Covid-19—the same virus that sickened his parents a few months earlier.
The contact tracer who delivered the news told Santoyo to quarantine for at least 10 days, per public health orders, and advised him to call a Santa Clara County hotline to apply for wage-replacement benefits. Though it meant losing his job, the severity of Santoyo’s infection left him no choice but to comply.
“I was in bed for 15 days,” he says.
Santoyo did his part. He stayed home until the sickness passed. But that hoped-for financial help from the county never came through, leaving Santoyo’s entire household at the mercy of private charity to make rent and pay bills.
“They did offer help,” he says, “but their process was difficult for someone like me.”
Since Santoyo lost his most recent job before getting a proper paystub and worked a cash gig before that, he couldn’t satisfy the county’s standard of income verification.
“So,” he says, “the lady told me, ‘I can’t help you.’”
That’s the message relayed to the vast majority of patients at Healing Grove, which serves mostly poor Latino families in one of the most Covid-ravaged communities in Silicon Valley. The clinic’s coronavirus positivity rate pushes about 30 percent compared to 5 percent for all of Santa Clara County.
According to a recent survey of clinic clientele, less than a fifth of those eligible for paycheck-replacement subsidies from the county ever receive them. Respondents cited documentation as one of the biggest obstacles, as well as cultural and communication barriers such as a lack of literacy or email access.
With applications for financial help taking weeks and months to process, if at all, the county’s would-be beneficiaries face an impossible choice. Amid a staggering surge in Covid-19 filling up hospitals and prompting economically devastating lockdowns, Healing Grove Executive Director Brett Bymaster says an untold number of mostly poor, mostly Latino people are choosing to go back to work to avoid homelessness.
“We think that’s a key source to the disease spread,” Bymaster tells San Jose Inside. “And we want to break that cycle by inserting quarantine supports. The money’s there—the county just isn’t giving it out fast enough.”
How much the county’s gave out in isolation subsidies remained unclear until this week.
Despite repeated requests for data on the number of applicants and recipients, processing times and available funding balances, the county waited several months to provide a transparent accounting of the program, even as its five-member Board of Supervisors geared up for today’s vote to expand it.
Based on stats released at the 11th hour Monday, it’s no wonder the county kept mum, relegating what piecemeal information it did release to off-agenda reports.
According to its Office of Supportive Housing, just 38 percent of the 1,149 people who sought paycheck-replacement help between June 17 and Nov. 30 ever got it.
Meanwhile, the average turnaround time of 40 days meant it left most recipients scrambling to make the following month’s rent.
Bymaster calls the numbers “shocking,” and says they affirm the survey his clinic conducted among the South Bay’s most impacted demographic.
“The thing that’s so frustrating is that the money’s there,” he says. “The county has CARES Act money, but obviously no capacity to get it out.”
The memo released Monday by the county predicts faster turnaround now that it offers flat payment of up to $2,500 for two-or-more-income households. Going forward, county staff says, it should take 12 days on average to process applications—and 18 days for San Jose, where more than 80 percent of prospective recipients reside.
While the flat wage-replacement payment is considerably less than the $5,000 available through federal block grants, they require less documentation, making them more accessible to the two-thirds of applicants who struggle to, or simply cannot provide rental agreements or W-9 forms from landlords.
Flat payments have remained out of reach for most applicants, however. Initially, the county only made them available to residents of unincorporated areas as well as Los Altos Hills, Milpitas, Morgan Hill and Saratoga. The option wasn’t extended to San Jose—which has the greatest demand—until Nov. 3.
Bridging the Gap
In the absence of timely help from the county, Bymaster formed a coalition of Silicon Valley businesses, faith groups, public officials and nonprofits to fill the gap.
Called United Against the Poverty Pandemic, the initiative calls for the affluent to donate to families on the brink of eviction, businesses to hire laid-off workers and public agencies to fund local organizations that can quickly match resources with need.
Come Wednesday, the coalition will launch its own emergency operations hub with more than double the staff the county initially assigned to quarantine support services. This week, the county expanded the team to 30, which is still five fewer people than Healing Grove’s urgent-response unit.
According to Bymaster, the Poverty Pandemic response team has the manpower and infrastructure to get cash assistance to the folks who need it within five days—if the county funnels money into the effort.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, a member of the coalition, joined a press conference on Monday to applaud the Poverty Pandemic’s push for public-private collaboration.
“Look,” he said, “we know that the government can’t do it alone.”
The mayor noted how San Jose has been distributing 2.5 million meals a week and recently committed tens of millions of dollars to help struggling families. Even so, he said, that’s “just a drop in the bucket” compared to “the need we know exists.”
“As with all endeavors, we know we can’t win this game for survival and to help our entire community thrive if we’ve got half the players sitting on the bench,” Liccardo went on to say. “We need everybody on the field.”
County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg echoed the mayor’s call for more cooperation from local government. While local public health officials have in many ways done a commendable job tackling a historic pandemic, the District 4 rep said the county must do more for small businesses bearing the brunt of sweeping shutdowns and low-income residents most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“We cannot expect infected residents to stay home from work if they don’t have the resources to pay rent or feed their children,” she said during the same press event, “and we cannot expect our community to lower transmission levels if we’re not making sure that infectious residents are able to isolate.”
Pleas and Prayers
At Healing Grove, where a team of staffers call scores of people a day to bear the bad news to patients with Covid-19, the pleas for help are a constant.
Many of those calls end in tears, or divine supplication.
One clinic staffer, who asked to go by Maria, knows full well the fear and frustration of the people she calls to inform of Covid-positive tests results.
Last month, her husband stopped working after finding out he fell sick with the virus. With three kids to feed and rent due on Dec. 1, the couple applied for the county’s isolation assistance. The rent bill came due. The county’s help never came.
Jesus—a 35-year-old construction worker, father of two young girls and Healing Grove client who also asked to withhold his surname—finds himself in a similar holding pattern, having gone more than a week since testing positive for Covid. Through a translator, he told San Jose Inside today that he worries about falling in debt from taking so much time off work. But he’s trying to stay strong for his wife and daughters.
When calling coronavirus-positive patients like Jesus, Maria can offer few assurances. Instead, more often than not these days, she closes those conversations with prayer.