As the coronavirus outbreak causes people across Georgia to lose their jobs, there’s been a surge in requests for assistance with rent, food and other bills.
Among those seeking help are Latin American immigrants within the city of Atlanta, and they’re finding even fewer options for aid.
For Ofelia and her family, the situation was already difficult. They live in Atlanta’s Lindbergh neighborhood, which was 30% Hispanic in the last U.S. census.
It’s convenient — close to jobs in Midtown restaurants and Buckhead hotels. But the apartments have become costly. Her family of six pays more than $1,100 for a two-bedroom.
“That’s very expensive for me,” said Ofelia, who originally spoke to WABE in Spanish. “More recently, in this situation with the COVID-19 virus, it’s become really hard.”
The restaurant where she had a job has closed because of the coronavirus, and her husband’s hours as a gardener were cut in half.
Ofelia said her family can only cover expenses if the two of them work.
“I feel helpless. With the rent and the bills, I can’t do anything,” she said. “Despite being in a country of opportunity, I feel like I have no opportunity.”
During the coronavirus crisis, her family is left out of most opportunities for financial help. That’s even though Ofelia has lived here for more than a decade and her sons are citizens.
The problem lies in the fact that she and her husband are undocumented Atlanta residents — which is why WABE is only using Ofelia’s middle name.
“Unfortunately, most of our immigrant residents, they will not qualify for unemployment, nor will they qualify for any federal stimulus checks,” said Michelle Maziar, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in Atlanta.
Maziar is referencing the relief package Congress approved, which provides an extra $600 a week for unemployment and $1,200 check for taxpayers making less than $75,000 a year. Both require Social Security numbers, which in turn require legal status.
I feel helpless. With the rent and the bills, I can’t do anything. Despite being in a country of opportunity, I feel like I have no opportunity.
And that rule often affects how state and local aid is used, too, according to Gigi Pedraza of the Latino Community Fund.
“A lot of the local funds that exist for rent assistance come from federal dollars, and those federal dollars require proof of residency and a Social Security number,” Pedraza said.
Outside of public sources, there are charitable funds. Often, though, Pedraza said her group has to remind fundraisers of the nonprofits that are able to serve Latin American immigrants.
Some can still require Social Security cards or may not have Spanish-speaking representatives available.
“Considerations for undocumented families are oftentimes not part of the design of everything that we do in Georgia,” she said.
During this crisis with the coronavirus, the United Way and the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta have raised $8.7 million. And so far, several hundred thousand dollars goes to organizations focused on the Latin American community — a bit more if you include agencies serving those families as part of a broader mission.
But the funds are still scarce. One of the few nonprofits specifically serving undocumented households near Atlanta is Los Vecinos. It works just outside the city limits, along Buford Highway.
“I’m getting at least 20 calls to my personal cellphone a day, and then our Facebook is getting about 25 messages a day,” said Rebekah Cohen Morris, the housing director.
Morris, who is also a Doraville City Council member, said the need around the corridor has been overwhelming — even for the $20,000 her group received.
“We’re giving $200 to each family. That’s how little we’re able to help,” she said.
Right now, she said her group can’t support any families beyond Buford Highway.
And so what about undocumented families who live just blocks away in Atlanta?
Maziar, with the city, said there is very little for this significant but often overlooked immigrant community. It’s a community that has always staffed the city’s hotels and restaurants.
“This is their first time in the decades that they’ve lived in Atlanta and worked in Atlanta and pay taxes in Atlanta, that they have just found themselves without work overnight,” she said.
This describes Ofelia. She’s never had to ask for help before.
She said she has covered April’s rent. She borrowed money from her brothers. And after getting connected by a reporter, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia is expected to assist her with utilities.
But if she can’t go back to work, she’s still not sure how she will make the May rent. And she said she knows so many other families, like hers, need help, too.
Ofelia’s trying not to worry her four sons even as they notice how much she’s home.
“Mommy, you don’t want to work? You don’t want to work?” she said her sons ask her.
She just says no, no work. “We’re in quarantine.”