Applicants scrambled to apply for Portland’s emergency cash assistance program when the program came online Monday morning. Despite trying to submit an application just seconds after the portal opened, many Portlanders found themselves unable to get through.
Some applicants who applied over the phone say they were immediately stuck on hold. Others who applied online say the website proved glitchy. The city ultimately shut down the website less than half an hour after it opened due to overwhelming demand.
In recent weeks, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler's office has been promoting the city's new Emergency Household Stabilization Fund, a $1 million fund that was made available to provide cash assistance for low-income Portlanders hit hard financially by COVID-19. Most of the cash, which came from the Portland Housing Bureau's budget, will be distributed based on referrals made by local social service providers. But $200,000 was set aside for low-income Portlanders to apply directly for $250 VISA gift cards.
On Monday morning, beginning at 10 a.m., eligible households were told they could apply to receive the gift cards on a first-come, first-serve basis. Yet with so much demand, even those who came first were out of the running.
“I was right on it at 10 o’clock,” said southwest Portland resident Robin Jensen, who was unable to access the fund. “I waited for that second hand.”
After calling 211 to access the funds at 10 a.m., Jensen said she got a busy signal for 12 minutes. She then got through to someone, but they kept her on hold for 50 minutes. By the time Jensen got through around 11 a.m., the application had already been shut down for half an hour.
As a self-employed hair salon owner, Jensen said she’s unable to collect unemployment. Her stimulus check has not arrived. She was hoping to use the money for food, utilities, or possibly her mortgage payment.
Jensen said she suspected that she had only a small shot of getting money from the fund, which only held enough for 742 households to receive gift cards. (The remaining $14,500 not used for the cards went to administrative and staffing costs for 211 to administer the application process, as well as a small activation fee for the cards, according to the city’s housing bureau).
“There are so many people needing it and so little available,” said Jensen. “I knew it was like playing the lottery.”
Others who spoke to OPB said they found the experience demoralizing as they scrambled for a VISA gift card from the city, only to miss out or to received a website error while applying.
Portland Housing Bureau’s spokesperson Martha Calhoon said the issues some people experienced while trying to apply Monday morning were “likely a matter of capacity” as the system was quickly overwhelmed. The bureau said 211, which the city contracts with, had tripled its phone system capacity, and yet reached that capacity within minutes of the application opening. By the time 211 closed for submissions a little after 10:20 a.m., more than 2,800 applications had come through.
Calhoon said 211 has followed up with everyone who contacted them after the application closed to help them find other resources.
Kaia Sand, the head of homeless advocacy nonprofit Street Roots, said she’d been preparing for three days to help the unhoused people she works with have a shot at accessing the cash. She said 70 people were lined up outside the group’s headquarters in Old Town Chinatown. The plan was to shuffle people into the building five at a time where staff had set up computer stations. She had done a practice run and drafted a letter that everyone could use as proof of income loss.
The atmosphere, she said, was almost celebratory.
“People were just pumped,” she said. “It was like, ‘Let’s get everyone this $250.'”
Ultimately, she said almost nobody did. While disappointed, she said she understands the need is dire. A report last fall found a third of households in the Portland area can't meet their basic needs.
She just wants the city to try again.
“I just want them to give more money,” she said. “Just keep it coming.”
Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify that the Portland Housing Bureau worked through its contractor, 211, to receive applications on Monday