COVID Relief is Drying Up. Where Can Artists Turn for Help?

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Artists are still struggling from over a year of lost income, and bouncing back has been difficult for those with rent debt and other hardships. (iStock)

Although it’s been four months since California’s economy reopened and a week since the state pandemic eviction moratorium ended, things haven’t gone back to “normal” for artists struggling to catch up from over a year and a half of lost income.

“It’s like, OK, well, we’re getting vaccinated and we’re going back to work, so everything should be OK now,” says Oakland fiction writer, painter and musician Jianda Monique. “[But] no, it just doesn’t work like that.”

Monique makes a living between her work as an artist and odd jobs like dog walking, and she’s struggled to find stability since March 2020. A fellowship at the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center fell through at the beginning of the pandemic. (Her start date of March 17, 2020 was the day the Bay Area began sheltering in place, and the program was put hold indefinitely.) Making matters more difficult, an error she made on her unemployment application rendered her ineligible for aid and forced her to pay back the EDD. And when she finally landed a job at a nonprofit, she made the difficult decision to quit a few weeks later because of racism at the organization.

“I usually would endure those types of things, but I think just because of the chain of things that happened, and my not having health or therapeutic resources or community to help with all of these things, eventually they add up,” she explains. “I just don’t have the capacity to stay and put up with it.”

Oakland artist Jianda Monique. (Courtesy of the artist. )

Now Monique is applying to jobs and fundraising on GoFundMe to cover her living expenses. She used up her savings to support herself during this period of unemployment, and is currently on the waitlist for Alameda County’s rent relief program.

Advocates and mutual aid organizers say that low-income artists across California, and the country, are facing similar predicaments. Brittani Escobedo, program manager for Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, has seen an uptick in COVID-19 relief applications at her nonprofit since federal unemployment benefits ended in early September.

“Honestly, we see a lot of people who are very scared of being evicted,” Escobedo says. “I can’t tell you how many applications we get where musicians are having to sell off their music equipment just to make rent, to avoid homelessness.”

Since the pandemic began, Sweet Relief has given out 2,231 grants to help musicians cover rent, bills, medical expenses, food and other life essentials. The fund is still accepting applications for aid and donations from those who want to help.

Escobedo says that although venues and promoters are booking concerts once again, performing artists have still had to deal with event cancellations because of the delta variant. “And it’s not just that,” Escobedo adds. “You have a lot of individuals who are at high risk of getting sick because of COVID, and they’re having to choose between getting a paycheck and knowing that they might get sick with every show that they go to.”

California’s rent relief program offers some help

An estimated 724,000 California households are behind on rent, according to data from PolicyLink and the USC Equity Research Institute. Help arrived this summer in the form of a $7 billion rent and utilities relief program from the state, but California has only spent about $1.69 billion of it so far, state officials told Bay City News last week. Since the program launched, many applicants have reported delayed responses and technical difficulties.

Several cities and counties in California, including Alameda, Sonoma and Marin Counties, also have their own local rent relief programs. And fortunately for Oakland tenants, the city’s eviction moratorium is one of the few still in effect.

Catalina Xavlena is a filmmaker and photographer who co-founded the mutual aid group Oakland Workers Fund with fellow artists Sophia Rocha, Samantha Espinoza and Mercedes Burke. Through crowdsourced direct donations and fiscally sponsored grants, they’ve distributed $193,000 to hundreds of struggling service workers, about half of whom are undocumented. Xavlena says the majority of Oakland Workers Fund recipients who’ve applied for rent relief are in a “waiting game.” The rent relief program “seems to be what folks are being told to turn towards now that the moratoriums are ending, and that doesn’t even feel like it’s accessible for folks,” she explains.

As former or current food service workers themselves, the Oakland Workers Fund organizers say that lack of access to aid is only serving to widen the racial wealth gap and other inequities.

Oakland Workers Fund’s four founding core organizers are Mercedes Burke, Catalina Xavlena, Samantha Espinoza and Sophia Rocha (clockwise from top left). With the help of a small network of volunteers, they've distributed nearly $170,000 in aid to service workers impacted by the pandemic. (Oakland Workers Fund)

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen that the arts workers who were able to work from home and keep their job are usually white, they’re salaried, they have access to higher education. While the non-salaried workers, who are primarily BIPOC, or they’re students, or don’t have access to higher education, were laid off or [had to] work in person,” says Rocha. “So I think definitely with pandemic unemployment ending, most artists are definitely struggling trying to figure out, what’s the next move?"

Jobs are available, but living wages are hard to come by

For many artists, that next move has been to change fields and take service industry jobs. “They’re having to go in a new direction entirely, working in restaurants or Uber or Lyft,” says Sweet Relief’s Escobedo. “And for someone who has made their entire career off of the music industry for years and years, having to do that up puts them in a very hard place and it takes a toll on their mental health.”

But Oakland Workers Fund organizers emphasize that the service industry isn’t a sustainable pathway out of debt either: busy kitchens don’t always follow COVID safety protocols, and many service jobs don’t pay a living wage. Applicants are reporting that restaurant owners—themselves squeezed by the pandemic—have been cutting back workers’ hours.

“Working in the food service industry now is one of the most dangerous positions in terms of contracting COVID or possibly passing it on to your family members,” Espinoza says. “And I think that employers are not thinking about all of the risks that come with that. ... You have to compensate somebody for the level of danger that they’re going to be bringing themselves into.”

Repeated financial and mental health setbacks can become a vicious cycle, where stress impedes an artists’ ability to be creative and make strides towards their career goals. “It’s much harder to take risks when you aren’t in a stable space,” says Xavlena, noting that the pandemic derailed her film project, and that she suffered through periods with no health insurance and delayed unemployment payments. “And so again, that just perpetuates spaces being taken over by white and privileged artists.”

Although the picture is bleak right now for low-income people, experts are encouraging Californians behind on rent to apply to state and local rent relief programs as protection against eviction. The state program is open to all residents, regardless of immigration status.

And the Oakland Workers Fund is urging politicians to do more: they’re currently running a campaign that encourages people to call and email Governor Newsom, President Biden, the House Ways and Means Committee and other elected officials to bring back the eviction moratorium and pandemic unemployment benefits. Oakland Workers Fund is also accepting donations, and will likely open the next round of applications for aid in a matter of months.

“We just feel like this is the absolute worst time for these programs to be ending when there’s so much uncertainty,” says Xavlena. “It’s not fair for folks not to be able to have pandemic support while they try to find safe and suitable work. It’s really just catastrophic.”

Additional resources

Apply to California’s state rent relief program

Find out if your city or county offers a local rent relief program

Apply to the CalFresh food assistance program

Apply or donate to Sweet Relief Musicians Fund

Donate to Oakland Workers Fund or learn more about their campaign

More COVID-19 relief grants for artists

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