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Connecting families to federal benefits

September 3, 2020

By ROSE COSTELLO | September 3, 2020

From her remote workspace, Case Manager Cristina Sosa accompanies clients to overcome obstacles to housing, employment, nutrition, and family well-being.

“You will see that everything we do in Social Services goes toward the community,” said Cristina Sosa, Canal Alliance Case Manager. She effuses joy as she speaks of her clients. “Our whole team realizes that each client has different needs, but if we don’t direct them in the way they need, that family can lose everything….or win everything.” 

Cristina recalls the challenges her clients have gone through recently: whole families contracting COVID-19, loss of employment and income, the day-to-day stress of COVID risk for frontline workers. She delights in sharing the moments when she can tell her clients that they have been approved retroactively for a payment of $6,000 or even $12,000. At these times she is grateful to be “able to say with certainty that the family will continue to have a roof over their heads.” This support during these times of crisis helps a family stay on their path towards education, employment, and well-being, mitigating setbacks that hit the Latino community disproportionately. 

With the support of Canal Alliance, about 200 people have received Unemployment Insurance (UI) and 150 have been granted Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) this year. Many families, such as the undocumented, are excluded from federal benefits and relief. However, those who do qualify have received between $167 and $400 per week in addition to the $600 provided through the CARES Act.  

“We are talking about families,” Intake Specialist Rocio explains passionately. “I am helping one individual but I know that behind the screen there’s a whole family unit using these benefits. I have a case load helping 80 families and these families are helping people in their home countries, so there’s a ripple effect. I want to make sure they get what they have the right to obtain.” Rocio came on part-time with Canal Alliance in May, hired specifically to connect people with Unemployment Insurance—a response to the rapid pace at which people in the Canal lost their jobs when the pandemic began. 

In tandem with all of Canal Alliance’s Social Services team, Rocio and Cristina support their clients to navigate significant systemic barriers to accessing benefits available to them, including internet literacy skills. As Rocio expresses, “This job really requires patience and understanding of where people are coming from, and trying to empower them and show them that they can do it and there are all these resources they could have access to…but there are technology challenges keeping them from benefits.” 

Cristina, Rocio, and their colleagues help bridge this technological gap and also assuage their clients’ “fears of public charge and the current administration.” As Rocio elaborates, “I did have a few clients who didn’t want the benefits because of public charge” and the concern that receiving these benefits would make them ineligible for U.S. residency in the future. Fear of deportation has been planted with the intention of preventing our immigrant neighbors from using benefits that they have the right to access. Rocio assures her clients this isn’t a public charge issue. Fortunately, Canal Alliance’s Immigration and Legal Services team is available for public charge consultations and additional legal support. Additionally, our partners at Legal Aid of Marin  support clients if the Employment Development Department denies their claim. Rocio’s role goes far beyond filling out an application; she’s guiding people in the community about their rights and addressing their fears. 

On August 8, 2020, a new Presidential Memorandum was released indicating that those qualified can get $400 weekly in federal benefits; 25% of which would be paid by states. Since, Cristina and Rocio have been waiting to see and understand the impacts of this. Given that the State of California does not have the funds to cover this cost, FEMA is stepping in to supplement benefits; it is still unknown when deposits will start or how long they will last, though they will be paid retroactively beginning August 1. 

PUA and UI make a sizable impact for families during the pandemic. There’s a whole person, a whole family, and a whole community whose well-being Canal Alliance works to support. As we wrapped up our conversation, Cristina mused, “Today I will also help another client apply for unemployment. But when we start working together, I will probably see more needs that this family has, and I’ll see what I can do to help them.” 

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