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Baltimore to restart COVID relief program, distributing debit cards to 15,000 households

After a failed start under a previous administration, Baltimore is again kicking off a $6 million program to distribute debit cards to city residents affected economically by COVID-19.

The initiative, dubbed the COVID Emergency Assistance Program, is funded by the city and administered by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. It is expected to issue $400 prepaid debit cards to up to 15,000 households affected by COVID. The cards will be targeted toward immigrant households or those with ex-criminal offenders as well as LGBTQ community members and the homeless.

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The city’s Board of Estimates approved the program Wednesday which will be paid for with money from the city’s youth fund.

The program was originally approved by the board in September, but implementation was delayed by technical issues, according to Mayor Brandon Scott’s office.

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Stefanie Mavronis, Scott’s spokeswoman, said OSI had initially hoped to partner with the National Domestic Workers Alliance on the program, a group that has been involved in similar direct cash programs across the country. However the alliance was reticent to enter into a contract using government rather than philanthropic funds, she said.

The group instead donated its software to the city and helped Baltimore coordinate with a local partner, Mavronis said.

Baltimore’s Promise will lead the distribution of the prepaid cards with the help of about a dozen other community organizations including CASA and Roca.

Baltimore’s youth fund was created via referendum in 2016, guaranteeing a percentage of the city’s tax revenue each year would flow toward youth-focused, grassroots organizations. It was intended to provide funding for community-based, minority-led organizations that typically have been passed over for city funding.

City leaders have tapped the fund several times to assist residents affected by the pandemic. In April, city officials authorized the use of up to $9 million from the fund to buy kids food and laptops to use during virtual learning.

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