CHICAGO - For nearly two months, Maria Torres has lived day by day on $200 a week from her job while she recovers from a medical procedure.
The single mother is now three months behind on her $900 monthly rent, but she said she’s hopeful a new program that would provide some residents with $500 monthly payments for 12 months can help her stay afloat.
She walked into the basement of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Pilsen last week as Rush University Health Center workers helped her and others apply for the program. Torres doesn’t know how to operate a computer and needed help filling out the application.
"I don’t have a lot of money to pay my rent," Torres said in Spanish. She said she had to miss work during the coronavirus pandemic when her 8-year-old son had to stay home. "I only get $200 and that’s not enough. I ask God — we are inside a church and from here I ask — to help me, to choose me for the $500."
The launch comes as people continue to reel from the pandemic on top of increasing costs of living. About 17% of people in the Chicago metropolitan area live below the poverty line, according to an analysis from the Census Reporter.
A recent report from the Greater Chicago Food Depository found that earlier this year, about 29% of Black households experienced food insecurity compared to 24% of Latino households and 11% of white households.
Across the country, other cities and states in recent years have started similar programs that don’t have stipulations about how participants can use the funds. A study in Stockton, Calif., found that participants of a similar program were able to pay off debt, get full-time jobs and reported lower rates of anxiety and depression after receiving $500 monthly benefits for two years, the Associated Press reported.
When Yessenia Cervantes-Vázquez, a lead community health worker with Rush, walked into the church to set up for the day, there were already five people eagerly waiting, she said.
"They’re hopeful to get it because they’ve had a lot of moments where they’ve felt hopeless in the past year or so," Cervantes-Vázquez said. "Asking them about difficulties they’ve faced, and they (say) they’ve had three, four people pass away in their family and that they are facing economic hardship on top of that. There’s a lot of need."
The city-run program will select 5,000 participants to give $500 a month for a year. Residents who faced economic hardship because of the pandemic have until 11:59 p.m., Friday, May 13, to apply at chicago.gov/cashpilot.
Chicago residents must be 18 years or older, and have a total household income at or below 250% of the federal income level. That means for a household of three, the total income must be $55,575 or less. For a single person, it’s $33,975 or less. The city is only accepting one application per household.
Applicants are asked for contact information, a form of identification, proof of residency — such as a utility bill — along with proof of household income — like a tax document or public benefits letter.
Residents can apply regardless of immigration status, and those without a home can list the area or shelter where they stay, officials said.
In February, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the program as a way to help struggling residents. The city’s Department of Family and Support Services is overseeing the pilot, though a contractor, GiveDirectly, was chosen to conduct the lottery to pick the 5,000 recipients.
Commissioner Brandie Knazze said the agency intends to distribute the first payments by late May to recipients’ pre-paid debit cards or bank accounts.
She said the pilot, which is funded with federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, is already humanizing the struggles of residents. It will help the city push lawmakers to create similar programs in the future.
"What we’re trying to prove with this pilot is that financial stability, their economic mobility, their health and wellness, that it will make a difference," said Knazze, who added that the number of applications the city has received in its first days shows how much a cash assistance program is needed. "I think it will also give us lessons learned about how we at DFSS and the city can be transformative in how we deliver services."
In the South Loop, people drank coffee and ate a hot breakfast in StreetWise’s cafe as workers helped residents apply for the program.
StreetWise, located at 2009 S. State St., is helping anyone fill out the application from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The other days, workers will help its vendors and others who use their programs apply for the pilot, said Amanda Jones, the director of programs at StreetWise.
Tina Graham, 64, traveled from West Rogers Park to the South Loop to get help with the application because she doesn’t have a computer. She’s been out of work as a housekeeper for about two years, and she’s now exhausted her unemployment benefits, Graham said.
She and her husband, who receives disability benefits, are raising two of their grandchildren. She would like to use the $500 toward their $1,250 monthly rent or to pay other bills. Graham said her family’s already gone through their savings in the past two years.
"It’s just a chance," Graham said about the application. "At least they are offering something."
Tommie Hannah, 47, applied for the program as soon as the city started taking applications. Hannah, who was once a vocal activist for single-room occupancy hotels, has been living in a shelter and wants to use the monthly benefit to help him transition into his own place.
He would like to get back to the Uptown area where he once lived in a men’s SRO.
"It would, for a year, ensure me having a roof over my head where I wouldn’t have to worry about having that," said Hannah, who applied for the program on his own using StreetWise’s cafe and internet. "Because a person in my position, you can’t even think about going back to work or focusing on going back to school or anything like that if where you live is still in question."
On the city’s Far South Side, Alma Battle sat patiently for about an hour as workers from the Phalanx Family Services helped her fill out the application. They had to create a new email address for her to receive a security code to complete the process after she was unable to log into her email and she didn’t have a cell phone.
Phalanx Family Services, located at 837 W. 119th St., is helping people apply from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.
About half of what the 89-year-old receives in monthly Social Security benefits goes toward paying for her housing in the Roseland area, she said. She wants to use the $500 monthly benefit to pay off debt, pay for her health insurance and help her great-grandchildren who are in college.
She said the money could also come in handy to pay for things that she’s noticed are costing more like gas and groceries.
"I live from month to month, basically," Battle said. "And I’ve survived like that for all these years, but if prices continue to go up, I don’t know what to expect."