Check in hand, a woman exits Live in Peace’s East Palo Alto office, where the nonprofit coordinates fundraising and check distribution to help tenants cover rent. (Photo taken by Kelly Younger, courtesy of Live in Peace)

Alberto Fajardo Sepulveda’s parents had no idea he’d applied for rental assistance to help them cover rent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

That was until one day in May, when they got a phone call notifying them that their application for rental assistance was approved. It was a happy moment for Sepulveda, who had seen his parents stress about money. The assistance came through a fundraising campaign organized by East Palo Alto-based nonprofit Live in Peace and other organizations.

The “First of the Month” campaign aims to raise money to help families cover rent during the pandemic. It is a joint effort by Live in Peace, DREAMERer’s Roadmap, a free mobile app that helps undocumented students find scholarships for college, and the Kafenia Peace Collective, a multi-cultural community that hosted weekly gatherings to foster support and connection pre-Covid. Since May, they’ve raised $2.3 million to help more than 370 families in East Palo Alto, east Menlo Park and Redwood City to cover their rent through the fall.

The Sepulvedas – Alberto, 18, his parents, and two younger sisters – live in an apartment in Redwood City. For a time, they struggled to pay the rent and even considered moving to Stockton.

Alberto Fajardo Sepulveda (left), a volunteer with the DREAMer’s Roadmap, stands with another volunteer at a recent event. Sepulveda’s family is one of over 372 that received financial assistance through the “First of the Month” campaign to cover rent during the pandemic. (Photo taken by Federica Armstrong, courtesy of Live in Peace)

“It’s been stressful and nerve-wracking,” Sepulveda said about trying to make ends meet during the pandemic. “At one point we were like: we don’t know if we will get this help. We don’t know if we can afford to still live here.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, work had been on and off for his dad, who is employed by a hardwood floor company. At one point his dad had to stay at home for two weeks – unpaid – because of Covid-19 exposure at his job. 

Over the course of three months, though, his family received $4,800 in financial assistance from the campaign to go toward their $2,400 monthly rent. Now, they’re back on their feet and able to make up the rest of their rent payments.

Low-income and Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in San Mateo County. Tenants frequently struggle to pay rent amid rampant unemployment and lost income.

Even with protections like the statewide Tenant Relief Act — which prohibits evictions if tenants cannot pay rent because of Covid-19-related hardship — renters worry about the debt they’ll accrue when protections expire.

“Families are in fear of losing their housing,” said Heather Starnes-Logwood, executive director of Live in Peace. “Our mission is not just to fundraise and give folks one month’s rent. We want to be able to stabilize as many families as possible.”   

One difference between Live in Peace and other nonprofits doing similar work is that it provides families with three months of rent instead of just one. In addition, families receive help within 48 hours, free from lengthy applications and paperwork. Once it approves a family, Live in Peace writes checks directly to the landlord.

It’s a form of mutual aid, intended to help renters as quickly as possible.

“We are doing trust-based philanthropy,” said Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, CEO and founder of DREAMer’s Roadmap. “We are the community we’re serving. We don’t need to ask all those questions. We know everybody is struggling.”

In April, the campaign quickly fundraised and distributed $1 million to 167 families within its own social networks, according to Starnes-Logwood, and this was just phase one.

As word spread and the need lingered — and realizing the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon — the nonprofit raised its fundraising goal and referred more families to the fund.

Since May, it has received more than 600 small and large donations from individuals and companies, including Twitter, Box and Zoom. Susan and Peter Pau of Sand Hill Property – which owns affordable housing units in East Palo Alto – also donated.

New challenges ahead, including a growing toll on mental health

The campaign aims to raise up to $8 million more to continue supporting families through the Winter, when Covid-19 cases may increase. Adding to the sense of urgency, the restaurant industry – fueled by outdoor dining – may slow down, creating more employment uncertainty for its workers.

Many of the families assisted by the campaign are Black, Latinx or Pacific Islander families who worked in hard-hit  industries like the restaurant industry. Many live in crowded housing, making it difficult to isolate if someone contracts the virus.

“These families are experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety and depression,” Salamanca said. “People are afraid…it’s just a lot of trauma that these families are going through.”

In addition, many of the families are undocumented and do not qualify for federal unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. 

Volunteers wear masks and gloves at their headquarters in East Palo Alto, where the nonprofit distributed checks to families who needed help paying rent. (Photo taken by Heather Starnes-Logwood, courtesy of Live in Peace)

As a formerly undocumented immigrant herself, Salamanca said she understands the trauma of  living in the shadows, for fear of being caught and deported.

“Just hearing the stories bring a lot of triggers and memories,” Salamanca said. With therapy and a supportive network, she’s able to stay strong. 

“These families need us in our most authentic selves.,” she said.  “If my mental health is not being addressed, I can’t be the best person I can be for those people. It’s an emotional toll, but they’re my inspiration to work hard and stay focused.”

More help needed

While fundraising like theirs helps offset the direct financial hardship families face, Salamanca and Starnes-Logwood believe resources will eventually run out.

When the pandemic first hit and caused business closures in March, they didn’t think it would continue for so long. But helping families pay rent is now a long-term issue as the pandemic draws out.

Now, despite the continuing need for money, donations have stalled slightly. Starnes-Logwood said there’s been “giving fatigue” as donors tend to “follow the newsfeed” and “move with the headlines”. 

“People have been like ‘oh you’re still doing that?’,” Starnes-Logwood said about fundraising. “I think the real issue is that there are these two (types of)lives. Many people’s lives are not disrupted. It’s inconvenient but they have forgotten what’s really happening on the other side.”

Research from the Bay Area Equity Atlas warned in July about a “wave of evictions” that may happen when eviction moratoria expire. But even with the extended statewide eviction ban, financial strain could push people out of existing homes in search of cheaper housing. 

In an ideal world, Salamanca and Starnes-Logwood think the federal government would give more assistance to households. So far the government has distributed one round of stimulus checks, and lawmakers are negotiating the possibility of a second, but nothing has materialized as of late October.

Styarnes-Logwood believes the nonprofits have room to leverage the wealth of Silicon Valley, and she called on wealthy donors, philanthropists and large companies to donate. 

“This region has enough money to support its own and I wish they would step into it,” she said.

To learn more about the fundraising campaign or to donate, visit https://live-in-peace-emergency-fund.funraise.org/