The cancellations at Roshonda Walker’s massage studio in Berkeley had already begun trickling in, and then the shelter-in-place order took effect. When Walker was forced to close her small business — Royal Touch Massage Therapy — she found herself among the more than 3.1 million Californians who lost their jobs in the last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost as quickly as the pandemic shuttered storefronts, individuals sprung into action to provide relief. Signs offering mutual aid — support for the elderly and immunocompromised — appeared on telephone poles in virtually every neighborhood.
Government agencies also stepped in, such as the Berkeley Relief Fund, which has $3 million for local businesses, arts organizations and renters, and the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which had distributed about $349 billion in forgivable loans.
But government funds can move slowly. To fill the gap, individuals have mobilized networks to allocate funds quickly to those in need, including GoFundMe accounts, informal loan programs, and money exchanged through Venmo and PayPal.
When Walker found her income drying up, she looked around for places to get help. She found an online spreadsheet that served as a go-between for people seeking money and people willing to donate to individuals. On the COVID-19 Financial Solidarity spreadsheet, Walker listed her email address, her usual source of income (massage therapist, dancer), and how much money she needed.
Then donations started coming in, all from anonymous individuals. So far, Walker has received $500, made up of small donations of about $20 each. All of the money went toward paying her April rent. Meanwhile, Walker is using Instagram Live to demonstrate massage techniques, asking her viewers for donations for the service.
In just a few weeks, the spreadsheet has redistributed over $150,000 directly into the hands of individuals in need. The spreadsheet is public: anyone can donate money through Venmo and anyone can sign up to receive money. Many of the recipients live in the East Bay, but requests are pouring in from all over the country, including North Carolina, Texas, New York and even Canada.
“We opened the floodgates of other people’s generosity,” said Binya Kóatz, who created the spreadsheet with her two friends, Doe Taryn and Elliya Cutler, the day before the shelter-in-place took effect. Kóatz, who lives in North Oakland, is inspired by her Jewish faith, believing that people have an obligation to give money to those who need it. “What you have is not really yours, it’s just given to you. Your job is to have it pass through you to where it needs to go,” she said.
Though Kóatz has been blown away by the generosity, the extent of people’s need is even more stunning. The waitlist to get your name on the spreadsheet is 2,000 people long, with over $2.5 million in requests waiting to be fulfilled.
“We 100% believe that this is a Band-Aid on a broken system,” Kóatz said. “Ultimately, we need to stop maldistributing the resources in the first place. Until that system is gone, the amelioration of its effects is something that should be around always.”
Kóatz and her friends have discussed what it might look like for such a spreadsheet to exist long after the pandemic is over.
“These moments of people needing cash, food, groceries, medical and people who have excess cash to spare — that isn’t really theirs by right — is always going to exist in the Bay Area. We have definitely thought what it could mean if this would continue to exist,” Kóatz said. Already, Kóatz has seen requests to replicate and localize the spreadsheet in other cities, such as Los Angeles.
Niya, who is taking time off from UC Berkeley for mental health reasons, was shocked when the first donations appeared in their bank account through Venmo. “I’m black, queer, and nonbinary. When it comes to fundraising for us, we usually don’t get anything,” they said, noting a contrast between people’s willingness to donate money during the pandemic and before.
For some, the COVID-19 pandemic will end, but the challenges will not end there. Marginalized people have struggled before the pandemic, and they will continue to struggle after it, Niya said.
Other individuals have taken different approaches to distributing money to those who have lost their jobs. Topher Lin, a Berkeley resident, organized his friends to create an informal money-loaning program. The group currently has 13 lenders and a lending-capacity of more than $65,000. The group has guidelines for lenders and borrowers, but individuals ultimately handle money transfers themselves.
Already, the small collective of lenders has lent out over $25,000. Lin hopes that loans, as opposed to grants, will free up individuals to give more money, enough to cover larger expenses such as rent.
Because the lending program relies on loose social connections, Lin doesn’t want to expand the existing program. “We’re relying on a chain of social trust. It’s a who-you-know network,” he said. Instead, he hopes that individuals will be inspired by his example to start lending programs in their own communities.
A patchwork of fundraisers has cropped up to support various people and groups in the area. The UCB Mutual Aid Fund has raised more than $22,500 through a GoFundMe campaign to help about 170 students at UC Berkeley with essential expenses such as food and medication.
“Many are undocumented students, otherwise lack SSN#’s, or are claimed as dependents and therefore will not receive Treasury Department checks in April,” wrote the organizer, Rumur Dowling, a PhD candidate in the English department. “Others have exhausted their loan privileges from Financial Aid, their paid/sick leave through work-study, and other known avenues of recourse through the university.”
A fundraiser that grew out of Berkeley Mutual Aid has raised $2,000. Small lump sums of $250 are distributed to individuals for basic needs. In this model, individuals requesting money can remain anonymous.
“The idea is that there are resources out there to help people, both from a federal and state funding level, and from a local level like SNAP, CalWorks, and unemployment benefits. But it can take a while, and some people need to buy things right away,” said Sydney Saubestre, who helps manage the distribution of funds through the GoFundMe.
Filipino Advocates for Justice is handing out $400 per person or $800 per household to elders, domestic workers, and low-income individuals and families living in Alameda or Contra Costa counties. Priority will be given to caregivers and nannies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, seniors and current/past FAJ program participants
Gabriel Christian, who is a freelance performance artist and teaches at Destiny Art Center in Berkeley, says industry-specific funds have been most helpful in providing financial support, citing Theatre Bay Area’s Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund and a national Artist Relief fund. Though he is grateful for the generosity, Christian worries that the funds are not a long-term plan for what is looking like a long-term problem. “I feel grief about the fact that it’s not sustainable. I already see that money is vanishing from a lot of these funds,” he said.
The Hebrew Free Loan of San Francisco, which has been lending money to individuals since 1897, is handing out $5 million in interest-free COVID-19 hardship loans to Jews and those who work for Jewish organizations. Individuals can get $20,000 for rent and mortgage payments, property taxes, small business expenses, child care, food and more.
Dozens of restaurants, bookstores and other businesses have set up individual GoFundMe campaigns to help employees. (Berkeleyside has set up a page that brings together many of the campaigns).
There has always been a need, but it is present now more than ever, said Kóatz.
“What we need is for people to really step up for their fellow human beings in this world,” she said. “What they have is not theirs to hoard or to keep. The poor and the struggling and the marginalized really have a claim on our money, whether it’s because we’re all human, we’re all children of the same God, or whatever. Disparities in this world are unconscionable. As much generosity as there’s been, there’s always more need.”