(TNS) — Gasping for breath, unable to stomach more than a few bites a day, struggling to take even a few steps, Tia Howard realized she might not survive COVID-19.

Crisis after crisis, it was the latest blow to the family. Over the summer, Howard and her family — her adult daughter, three grandchildren and nephew — became homeless, after her landlord refused to fix electrical issues that rendered the AC units useless and made the home unbearable in triple-digit heat.

Her cousin emailed her about a new Sacramento County, Calif., financial assistance program, giving direct payment to residents impacted by COVID-19. Howard applied, a shot in the dark.

They had bounced from home to home, living with different family members. Howard knew it was risky with the pandemic and her Lupus diagnosis, but the alternative was sleeping in the car. They were staying at her brother's place in Escalon when her throat began to get a little scratchy. Days later, her entire family tested positive and her daughter's income dried up. A few weeks later, her case manager told her she and her family would be getting $3,000.

"I couldn't do nothing but cry," said Howard, whose family only now has finally shaken the last of their COVID-19 symptoms. "I told Juvon, 'Do you know what I've actually been though? And now my family can get back into something stable?' It's been a total blessing."

Since November, a coalition of Sacramento-based nonprofits and community advocacy groups have been distributing $4 million worth of direct payments to families impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Similar to the COVID-19 federal stimulus checks Americans received early in the pandemic, the county's financial assistance program has been a kind of eleventh hour lifeline, putting money into the hands of already vulnerable families to keep their heads above water and to avoid further virus spread.

Funded by federal CARES Act money supplied by the county, residents selected for the financial assistance program will receive a one-time stipend between $1,000 and $3,000 — a first-of-its-kind direct payment program in Sacramento County, starting just as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the region are reaching unprecedented heights.

"It took awhile for our county and city to catch up to understanding the gravity of the need," said Kindra Montgomery-Block, associate director of community and economic development at The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, which has helped lead the effort as part of the Sacramento County COVID-19 Collaborative, or Sac Collab.

"With the non-response in the early spring, now we find ourselves in a pivotal space — how do you create a safety net infrastructure for those vulnerable communities that can stop the immediate crisis of financial turmoil and COVID-19," she said.

The devastation of the pandemic has been varied and sweeping. Among the people receiving the stipends are those who have lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced; those who've family members have died from COVID-19, or who catch the virus and wouldn't be able to pay bills while taking time off. In a county where nearly 1 in 6 live in poverty and unemployment has tripled in the last year, many were already struggling to make ends meet.

Hundreds of families have already received payments, and Sac Collab hopes to give money to at least 1,700 households, said Kula Koenig, director of community impact at United Way California Capital Region, which is also involved in the stipend distribution.

The number of people who need financial assistance in Sacramento County, however, is far greater than current funds allow for, she said.

Some of the people receiving money are identified after testing positive for COVID-19 and being interviewed by community contact tracers. Sac Collab also opened an online portal for Sacramento County residents to apply to, but had to close it after receiving more than 2,000 applications.

"We never set out to have a window or (deadline) but there was just so much coming in we had to stop it to go through all the applications," she said. "The need is great, and it's kind of overwhelming and sad because you can't at this point help everyone."

COVID-19 Payments 'a Band-Aid'

Tim Harvey lost his job in February because of a slowdown in construction work, "I honestly figured I would've been back to work at this point."

Him and his wife ate into their savings, as bills piled up, waiting for unemployment insurance benefits to arrive. In April, they became sick with COVID-19. Recently, his wife's brother died from the virus. Now, they're behind on car payments and rent, and keeping food in the house has been a challenge. He's applied to at least 17 jobs, including openings at fast food restaurants, but he hasn't been able to secure anything.

"It's just been kind of a struggle," he said. "There's been a lot of sleepless nights."

Getting a stipend through Sac Collab was a bright spot in a lousy year. They put most of it towards their rent back payments, with some set aside for a proper Thanksgiving meal. "We can just focus on other things," he said. "That $1,000 did help, it helped a lot actually."

Organizers involved with the financial assistance program say it's been a vital way to triage the uneven impacts of COVID-19 among low-income communities and people of color, and is one of the most cost-efficient ways to help a large number of people financially.

"They know if they could just give their landlord $2,000 they would not be kicked out, that they're not going to be homeless," said Richard Dana, director of community and economic development at The Center at Sierra Health Foundation. "The only way to secure a new job is getting repair work done on their car."

But while a couple thousand dollars may stop the bleeding, "to be frank, it's a Band-Aid," Koenig said.

"The people who are really impacted by COVID-19 and are unable to have that resilience are people who didn't have jobs that were well-paying or had sick leave, and it's those things, those parts of the system that we have to think about," she said.

Though the CARES Act money must be spent by the end of the year, some of it will be moved into the county's general fund to continue payouts through the beginning of next year, Dana said.

But when those funds run out, community advocacy groups are hoping the success of Sacramento County's direct payments will have laid the groundwork for similar programs to emerge next year, even after the pandemic ends.

"We believe there is the ability to continue in 2021," Dana said.

'From Charity to Investment in Social Justice'

The direct payments echo those of the universal basic income, a no-strings-attached financial assistance program which has gained increased attention over the last couple years as a potential way to address wealth inequality and lift people out of poverty. It was a major campaign platform of former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and there are several pilot programs running across the country, including a high-profile program in Stockton.

A similar but lesser known model, started by the Oakland-organization Family Independence Initiative, gives cohorts of families regular payments as they work with each other and set goals such as putting a down payment on a house, or starting a small business.

The Family Independence Initiative, which has helped operate programs in cities across the country, found on average that families increased in their monthly income by 22 percent, and decreased their use of government assistance like food stamps by 42 percent after two years.

The model could help a generation of families in Sacramento escape poverty, Koenig said, while giving them the autonomy and flexibility to spend the payments as needed unlike most welfare programs.

"We have to move from charity to investment in social justice," she said.

Koenig said since COVID-19, donors and funders have been far more receptive to starting a similar program in Sacramento. Prior to the pandemic, United Way was in early talks with city staff this year about exploring a Family Independence Initiative pilot program.

"The City remains committed to inclusive economic development," said city spokeswoman Jennifer Singer in an email. But a review of the pilot program "is currently on hold right now and staff will look back on this, as well as the other programs, once we have passed through the pandemic."

Several local elected officials have expressed interest in keeping up direct financial assistance to residents through next year. Councilmember-elect Mai Vang said during a Sacramento Bee event last Tuesday that any additional CARES Act money must be "laser focused" on rental and mortgage help for residents.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg later that night called for the council to vote to use the city's remaining $675,000 in CARES Act money to bolster its rental assistance program, later tweeting, "We will continue to look for other monies as well."

"The debt that people are accruing right now through the eviction moratorium is going to be insurmountable for too many families," said Councilmember-elect Katie Valenzuela during the virtual event.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress introduced a coronavirus aid proposal worth about $908 billion on Tuesday, including $160 billion for state and local governments, which could ultimately help fund community assistance programs. Senate Republicans have proposed a more limited coronavirus relief package, without additional aid to state and local governments.

"As long as Sacramento County continues to receive federal COVID relief assistance, we'll continue to make swift and deliberate decisions to best assist the community," Supervisor Phil Serna said in a statement. "We will not be able to do that, however, if Senate Republicans continue blocking legislation to help those suffering the most."

Howard, who is receiving $3,000 through Sac Collab, said she hopes more people like her can receive financial assistance. "Not only did we survive this pandemic, but we also just confirmation that we can move. We're not going to be homeless anymore," she said. "This is something so big, I just knew God isn't going to give up on me."

Supporting residents like Howard, so one road bump in life doesn't lead to a cascade of challenges, is a "really, really good investment," Koenig said.

"People respond in crisis, and yes we are supposed to do that," she said. "But we could have less crisis and less people suffering if we're brave enough to invest in people during times that are not a crisis, to invest in people's strengths instead of waiting for people to be suffering and down and out."

(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.