For Roberto, a 55-year-old father and restaurant busser whose hours were slashed during the pandemic, the few thousand dollars promised by the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) would have lifted a heavy burden off his shoulders.* Instead, Roberto’s attempt to access the funds only added to his worry. After submitting an application to ERAP, he never heard back.**

“What if we don’t get the help? How are we supposed to know our application status?” Roberto asked.

Latinos — especially women and immigrants without documentation — have experienced disproportionate rates of income loss due to COVID-19. For the past two years, El Tímpano has provided information to our audience of Latino and Mayan immigrants about public resources that can help them navigate the financial crisis — resources designed or expanded to stave off displacement, homelessness, hunger, and extreme poverty. These resources include emergency rental relief, affordable internet, and more. As a participatory platform for Latino and Mayan immigrants, we have heard nearly two years of frustration from community members like Roberto that these resources aren’t reaching the pockets of those who need them most.

A needs assessment to map barriers to access

From December of 2021 through January of this year, El Tímpano set out to learn why. Through in-depth interviews with community members subscribed to our SMS (text-messaging) platform, we conducted an information and resource needs assessment to gather data about the accessibility of existing resources among Latino and Mayan immigrants, and to better understand how immigrants’ resource needs have evolved since the start of the pandemic.

We designed our participatory research to answer the following questions:

  • What barriers keep Latino immigrants from accessing resources, and what strategies might eliminate those barriers?
  • What are the primary resource needs among Latino and Mayan immigrants nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic?

To conduct this assessment during the surge in Omicron cases in a socially-distanced and community-based manner, we sent a text message to El Tímpano’s more than 2,000 subscribers asking about their resource needs, followed by 25 in-depth phone interviews. The text message received 110 responses, many interwoven with a story sharing who they are and what their family is going through. This willingness to share authentically and openly continued in our phone interviews. Approximately half of the responses were from residents of Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood (reflecting El Tímpano’s subscriber base), while a number of responses were from Deep East Oakland and other East Bay cities such as Hayward and Richmond.

Rent remains the top need, while mental health climbs as a priority

We began by asking our SMS subscribers, “What resources would be most helpful for you and your family during this time? For example, utilities, rent, transportation, mental health…” Rent assistance continues to be the primary resource needed. Fifty-nine percent of responses to the initial text message included rent, followed by help with utilities at 16 percent, mental health support at 13 percent, and help paying for internet at 12 percent. Compared to findings from the Information Needs Assessment El Tímpano conducted in 2018, mental health support has surfaced as a pressing resource need among our communities today.

Those who responded received both information about relevant resources and a request for a follow-up phone interview in Spanish. The 25 people we interviewed were diverse in background, with ages ranging from 21 to 55 years old. The most common occupations were stay-at-home moms, domestic workers, construction workers, and restaurant workers. Mothers talked to us while they fed their babies, domestic workers and restaurant workers chatted during their bus commutes, and construction workers carved time out of their lunch break to answer questions and share their stories. Eighty-five percent of these respondents stated that El Timpano’s SMS service was their primary and preferred method of receiving news and information. “Me gusta que me responden” (“I like that they respond to me”) one interviewee said.

Each interview began with the interviewer expressing, “My primary goal here is to listen to you.” With that framework, many interviewees immediately began sharing their stories. They told us who and what they lost this year, who they miss, and how these hardships interweave with and heighten the resources they need most during this time.

Barriers to accessing resources

Community members described social services and financial assistance such as rent relief, food aid, and utilities assistance as among the programs they could use, but described frustration with the challenges of the application processes, generally due to one or more of the following reasons:

  • Difficulty of providing documentation when many undocumented immigrants are paid under the table or are not named on rental leases
  • Challenges accessing information digitally
  • Complicated/confusing applications without assistance readily available

The Emergency Broadband Benefit, for example, a program to assist low-income residents to pay for internet connection during the pandemic, required proof that one’s income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, information best gathered through tax information. Additionally, the application is most easily accessed through the internet. For many community members, the online application and required documentation proved to be a barrier to successfully applying. “I don’t know my email address and cannot apply to the services they send links for,” one interviewee expressed. “It would be helpful to learn how to navigate these applications online. My kids do not have any patience to teach me.”

Many shared that the documentation required — for example, three prior pay stubs, a drivers license, or a Social Security Number — made applying to social services nearly impossible. “I needed a cosigner, so not everything is under my name,” one shared when expressing their difficulty in filling out a rental assistance application. The requirements for a social security number or proof of residency often make the services inaccessible to undocumented immigrants.

To be clear, most of the social services interviewees referred to are ones that undocumented immigrants are technically eligible for. Both local and state Emergency Rental Assistance Programs, for example, state clearly that citizenship status is not a factor. However, the required documentation, such as proof of rent owed and the applicants’ name on all housing documentation, are barriers for the thousands of immigrants who sublease a room or are paid “under the table.”

Many we spoke with decided to sacrifice other aspects of their wellbeing, such as skipping meals, or making diapers from old clothes, to avoid the accumulation of debt from overdue rent or the threat of an (albeit illegal) eviction. The fear of a deportation threat being waged as a potential punishment for protesting mistreatment, or documentation status being revealed when requesting help, led many undocumented community members to struggle in silence. For instance, while undocumented immigrants can receive CalFresh if their children are citizens, several shared that once their children turned 18, they were unable to access adequate food. This was the case for many extended families with young adults and elders in the house, or breadwinners lost to COVID.

“My husband died from COVID and these services do not take into account my circumstances.”- Yolanda

The most common struggles community members experienced when applying for and navigating social services were: questions that are too confusing, non-responsive or exhausted phone lines (such as two-hour wait times to speak with a representative), and a lengthy application process without a clear time frame of when they can expect the service benefits to kick in, or if they will even receive the resource.

Documentation-heavy and time-consuming requirements combined with non-existent follow-up leave community members experiencing application fatigue. “Are they going to help us?,” asked one community member when El Tímpano directed her to a financial assistance program. “Because I applied for rent help and they’re asking for a number of requirements.” Despite the urgency of their need for assistance, many have expressed a wariness of taking the time and effort to submit one more application only to never hear back about it.

It is worth noting that feedback about accessing assistance is not entirely bad. El Tímpano’s timely messaging about relevant resource deadlines and information has provided community members with answers to questions and supportive follow up, and we occasionally hear stories of successfully accessing rental assistance, utilities assistance, or other basic needs. Notably, those stories are more likely to involve resources provided by local organizations — such as the cash assistance that many grassroots organizations distributed in the past two years — than large nonprofit or public agencies. That said, the overwhelming sentiment community members have expressed throughout the pandemic is that of frustration.

What would make applications easier to navigate?

We asked interviewees, “What would make social service applications and processes better for you to navigate them more comfortably and confidently?” The top four responses were: less documentation-heavy requirements, help with the application process over the phone or in person, more promotion and support in Spanish, and a shorter application process.

“I can’t talk for too long, and I need help filling out applications. I can give you all the requirements but I need someone to help me out and explain things to me,” said a father of two who commutes from Oakland to Richmond for work.

“Links are confusing”, another shared, “I need someone to explain what they mean to me.” In-person or over-the-phone support is crucial during a time of deep isolation, especially with a steep learning curve in managing online applications. One interviewee learned that she missed a deadline for financial support because she did not know she needed to check an email. When she did, the email was in English and there was no one to translate it into Spanish for her. She tried going in person and interacting over the phone, but recounted that even then, she experienced a long wait, poor treatment, and was unable to learn the status of her application. “It makes me angry and feel helpless. I am already getting a ride from someone, I can’t just wait there for hours.” She expressed frustration that resource providers would not empathize or attempt to understand the difficulty of accessing the email and resource in general. The long phone waits, inconsistent communication, and lengthy requirements leave many Latino immigrants without the tools to navigate supports that are supposed to be made for them, and without a recourse to share their frustration and the urgency of their need.

“There is no way to check your application status, the hours of the phone line vary, and no one can tell you whether or not you will be getting the rental assistance.”

Putting research into practice

For El Tímpano, these findings have inspired new ways for us to better connect community members to resources that are available to them. Rather than simply directing our audience to an application or a phone number, we are working more collaboratively with the organizations and agencies behind the resources, to ensure that community members are able to access them and that their questions are addressed. This will look like office hours and expanded in-person outreach to provide opportunities for community members to get their questions answered. We also plan to prioritize reporting on mental health within Latino and Mayan immigrant communities, and connecting our audience to information and resources to address mental health issues.

We welcome peers from community-based organizations, government agencies, media, and advocacy organizations to utilize this research as well. This data can inform community leaders about programs in need of more funding and what strategies will ensure they are equitably accessed.

It is crucial to continue to listen to and invest in the demands of community members whose resource needs were often unmet before the pandemic, and have greatly expanded since then. Based on the dozens of community members who shared their stories, concerns, and frustrations with El Tímpano, these recommendations are steps service providers can take, grounded in a realistic expectation of the ability of Latino and Mayan immigrants to apply for resources and services meant for them:

  • Support with application processes in communities’ native languages in person or over the phone.
  • Collaborate with community-based organizations like El Tímpano and others to field questions and provide extra guidance.
  • Invest in technological support such as digital literacy courses, device distribution, and courses on applying for social services.***

Desahogo 1. m. Alivio de la pena, trabajo o aflicción.

Translation. Noun. relief. Alleviation.

Despite the significant challenges community members described throughout our interviews, there was also a resounding sentiment our interviewees shared: gratitude to have a moment of desahogo — to finally share this isolating experience with someone, even if it is just a phone call with a person listening on the other side.

* El Tímpano is only using the first names of interviewees to protect their privacy.

** El Tímpano was one of several local organizations provided grants from AllHome to support outreach of the Oakland Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

*** The TownLink initiative, organized by The Greenlining Institute in collaboration with the City of Oakland, is just such a program. El Tímpano is a partner in this initiative to connect community members to information and resources to bridge the digital divide.