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by Mark Reutter10:02 amFeb 9, 20210

After six-month delay, Baltimore to relaunch cash assistance program

Using funds originally intended for children, $400 cards will be given to up to 15,000 people in a city where, pre-Covid,134,000 lived below the poverty line

Above: Baltimore City Hall to reopen next month. (Mark Reutter)

Last September, the Board of Estimates voted to divert $6 million from the Baltimore Children & Youth Fund for one-time cash assistance to low-income households impacted by the pandemic.

Even before Covid struck, eliminating tens of thousands of restaurant, hospitality and construction jobs, there were about 134,000 Baltimore residents living in poverty, according to the American Community Survey.

They included more than 28,000 food-insecure children whose annual food needs would require $75 million to meet at an average cost of $3.32 per meal.

The city’s plan was to distribute $400 to up to 15,000 people, age 16 or above, who did not typically access government assistance programs, such as undocumented immigrants, the homeless, members of the LGBTQ community and those with criminal records.

Money from the youth fund would be transferred to the nonprofit Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which would then distribute sub-grants to “CBOs” (Community-Based Organizations) providing pre-loaded debit cards for eligible applicants to afford groceries and other essentials.

Cash withdrawals would be restricted, and the cards would be programmed to reject certain types of establishments, “including but not limited to liquor stores, bars, wholesale clubs, computer/video stores and record/music stores,” according to the agreement entered into between the OSI and outgoing Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Educational activist Melissa Schober last fall questioned the use of youth fund money for a cash assistance program run by a mainstream nonprofit. The Open Society Institute says it will pay for all out-of-pocket administrative costs of the program.

Civic activist Melissa Schober questioned the use of youth funds for a cash assistance program run by a mainstream nonprofit last fall. OSI says it will pay all out-of-pocket costs for the program.

At the time, there was scattered criticism that the Young administration was diverting money that city voters had approved “exclusively for the purpose of establishing new and augmenting existing programs for and services to the children and youth of this City” (Article 1, Section 13 of the City Charter).

With $6 million taken out for debit cards, has Baltimore’s Youth Fund become a City Hall slush fund? (9/24/20)

But these objections were not the reason why a program originally set to have all 15,000 cards distributed by December 31, 2020 never got started.

“Technical reasons” were the culprit, according to the city and OSI, including replacement of an online service provider.

Rebranded by Scott

Now rebranded as “the final pillar” of incoming Mayor Brandon Scott’s Covid-19 Emergency Food Strategy, the program will undertake the same mission with a new contract and new time frame.

According to an announcement yesterday:

• The program will start on March 1.

• Cards will be distributed to participants by June 30.

• Progress in deploying the $6 million will come under virtual view through the mayor’s “100 Days of Action” tracker.

“We know that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the socioeconomic inequities in Baltimore, and we must do everything in our power to leverage our resources to support our most vulnerable communities,” Scott said in the press release.

“We are very eager to launch the Covid-19 Emergency Assistance Program with OSI,” said Tisha Edwards, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success, while OSI director Danielle Torain added, “OSI is proud of this innovative public-private partnership.”

Under the revised contract, OSI has made Baltimore’s Promise Inc. the administrative platform that will manage the funds.

Formed several years ago with $335,000 in assets at the end of 2017, according to its IRS filing, the group is based at The Village of Cross Keys.

Baltimore’s Promise boasts a who’s who of establishment figures such as Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels, Exelon senior vice president Calvin G. Butler, Associated Black Charities CEO Diane Bell-McKoy, Greater Baltimore Committee’s Donald C. Fry, City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises – and Mayor Scott himself.

At present, it is in the process of hiring an administrative coordinator.

What’s unclear is how the group will coordinate with the CBOs to identify individuals most in need of cash assistance.

Part of agreement between the city and the Open Society Institute to use Children & Youth Fund money for one-time emergency aid to low-income families.

Part of the city’s revised agreement with the Open Society Institute that uses Children & Youth Funds for one-time emergency aid.

Coordination Issues

According to the revised contract, CBOs are supposed to screen applicants based on their “self-reports” of income and are prohibited from “check[ing] other systems to verify eligibility criteria.”

Those employed by a CBO are barred from applying for cards for themselves or their immediate families, but they “may apply to another participating organization” if “otherwise eligible.”

How those most in need will gain access to the relatively few cards available is far from clear.

As for detecting false addresses, counterfeit IDs and “double dipping” (only one person per household is supposed to receive a card), Baltimore’s Promise is supposed to “perform a fraud check” by looking for duplicate entries while processing the applications.

When a duplicate application is flagged, Baltimore’s Promise “will consult with the issuing organizations to determine whether it is truly a duplicate,” according to OSI’s agreement with the city. There are no stated penalties for phony applications or any recourse other than reporting “discrepancies or concerns” to a manager.

In keeping with the program’s mission, the CBOs will be given a certain number of “access codes” (used to obtain the gift cards) that will target underserved and vulnerable populations.

They include:

• 1,700 codes to Banner Neighborhoods for seniors and young adults.

• 1,500 to CASA of Maryland for Latino and immigrant families.

• 2,800 to Center for Urban Families for fathers and families.

• 1,150 to Job Opportunities Task Force for young adults and job seekers.

In addition, four “formal referral groups” will help the CBOs connect young people and those with criminal records to the application process.

They are Safe Streets Park Heights and Cherry Hill, Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, and Roca, the anti-violence program.

These groups “will strongly encourage participants to use the emergency assistance funds for the intended purposes,” while “the City represents that its allocation of the grant funds for the program. . . is consistent with the Children & Youth Fund funding.”

The pact is set to be ratified by the Board of Estimates tomorrow.

To reach this reporter: reuttermark@yahoo.com

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