At 9 am Tuesday, the city began accepting applications for its latest round of financial assistance—1,400 debit cards carrying $500 for low-income Portlanders who've been financially impacted by COVID-19.
The application portal was only open for 5 minutes: By 9:06, the city had already collected more than 1,400 applications and had to close submissions.
Nicole Levine said she had gotten up early to apply for the funds, and began refreshing the application webpage at 8:58 am.
"As soon as the application was live, I filled it out really quick and hit 'submit'," Levine told the Mercury. "It told me the form had been deactivated, that applications were closed. This was at 9:02. I don't know how you could fill that out in a minute."
To be eligible for these funds, distributed through the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB), individuals must be a Portland resident over 18 who have experienced a loss of income or increased health risks due to the coronavirus—and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. For a two-person household, that amount is $58,960. For a one-person household, it's $51,600.
The funds are meant to be spent on rent, food, health needs, utilities, transportation costs, childcare, and other household expenses. Tenants are already skimping on these basic services to stay housed. In September, a Portland State University study found that 53 percent of Portland renters have cut back on food and medications to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Levine has lupus, an illness that makes her immunocompromised and particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and has a part-time job doing technical writing from home. She's been unable to find another job during the pandemic that doesn't require her to leave her house, which would risk her health. The extra $500 could have given her a little more time to search for remote work.
"The whole thing has been discouraging," Levine said.
PHB Director Shannon Callahan said there's no indication of technical issues or bots interfering with the application process, or any alternative explanations for why submissions were filled so quickly.
"I really think the need is that great, and 1,400 people got right on at 9 am," she said. "There were another 1,400 still in the system trying to do apps when the program closed."
PHB will be reviewing the applications over the next two days, Callahan added.
Tuesday's application submission window was the first of two opportunities to apply for the $500 card this week. On Friday at 1 pm, Portlanders can apply for another installment of 1,400 cards.
Levine said she's not encouraged to try again. Neither is Emma Karchner, another Portlander who tried to apply Tuesday morning. Karchner was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, but was able to land another job in recent months. Last week, Karchner learned her new job's hazard pay was going to end, a cut that would critically impact her finances.
Karchner said she wasn't necessarily surprised when, after filling out the online application by 9:03, she received an error message that the form had closed.
"When I was laid off, I couldn't even get through to the unemployment website—and this feels no different," said Karchner. "It's not shocking to me at this point."
She's not able to reapply Friday because she'll be working. She considers herself still fortunate to be making an income, albeit depleted.
"I can't imagine how many people who need this money more than me weren't even able to apply today," Karchner said. "Maybe they don't have a computer, maybe they have slow internet... there are so many different factors."
This isn't the first time Portlanders have witnessed COVID-19 relief funding dry up due to sky-high demand. In April, the city was able to provide $250 in direct cash assistance to about 740 low-income Portlanders. Within 30 minutes of opening its application portal online, the city had received more than 1,000 applications.
The same problem played out on a larger scale in August, when hundreds of low-income Portlanders stood in line outside local credit unions to apply for $500 in emergency funds, distributed statewide. Within three days, the state's 70,000 available payments were accounted for—with many still hoping to apply.
Yet the total 2,800 pre-paid cards being distributed this week aren't the only funds available to low-income Portlanders harmed by COVID-19.
The program is part of the city's $36 million investment in housing relief, which includes millions for rent assistance and housing stabilization support. PHB has already been dispersing $500 cards for household assistance to low-income Portlanders since August, through partnerships with 34 different culturally specific organizations and other affordable housing programs that already have relationships with low-income Portlanders.
In total, community organizations have access to 20,000 pre-paid cards, each carrying $500. According to PHB's Callahan, 6,913 cards have already been dispersed to Portlanders.
Callahan said this week's dispersal of funds—coordinated with help by the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette—are meant to reach members of the general public who aren't affiliated with the 37 community groups.
That's why Schlomo Rabinowitz tried to apply Tuesday morning. Rabinowitz said he was laid off from his job in April due to COVID-19, and is still without work. He wasn't even able to access PHB's application form Tuesday morning—the site had already been overloaded with applicants.
"The city said you can access those cards through other organizations, which I think is great," said Rabinowitz. "But I'm not affiliated with any of those organizations. And I'm not going to join [an organization] and act like I'm invested in it just for $500. It's not genuine."
Rabinowitz said he's going to try and reapply for the funds during the Friday application period. But he doubts the outcome will be any different.
"The need is just too high. There's too many of us," he said. "The city is essentially throwing coins over the heads of the public and having them grab for them."