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Baltimore will use youth fund money to help families afford groceries, necessities amid pandemic

Baltimore will use $6 million from its dedicated youth fund to assist families in affording groceries and other necessities as they continue to weather the coronavirus pandemic. City Hall is shown in 2019.
Baltimore will use $6 million from its dedicated youth fund to assist families in affording groceries and other necessities as they continue to weather the coronavirus pandemic. City Hall is shown in 2019. (Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore will use $6 million from its dedicated youth fund to assist families in affording groceries and other necessities as they continue to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

Up to 15,000 people are expected to receive a $400 prepaid debit card to help them pay for essentials via the COVID-19 Emergency Assistance program, a partnership with Open Society Institute Baltimore.

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The Baltimore City Council in April authorized the use of up to $9 million from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund to buy kids food and laptops to use during virtual learning.

Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott said at the time that the withdrawal aligned with the fund’s purpose of supporting children and addressing systemic inequalities. The initial $3 million, for education technology, was distributed in the spring.

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In the months since, the pandemic has continued to devastate families, and the city estimates as many as one in three people in Baltimore require food assistance.

The new program will provide debit cards to families that demonstrate a financial need and may not be eligible for federal coronavirus relief, such as undocumented immigrants. The city will also target homeless youth and other vulnerable groups.

It was approved Wednesday by the Board of Estimates.

Tisha Edwards, director of the mayor’s office of children and family success, said the debit cards will provide families with additional flexibility on what kind of food they buy. While the city has been handing out prepackaged meals and grocery boxes, Edwards said this model restores some choice and dignity for families.

The 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.

As of April, more than $37 million has been appropriated to the fund. At the time, the balance was nearly $18 million, with another $17 million scheduled to flow in at the start of the latest fiscal year.

Edwards said the money earmarked for the COVID assistance program comes from leftover funding from previous years. She said the choice to draw from the youth fund comes amid a time of “extraordinary circumstances."

“I think ultimately what the people of Baltimore wanted was for the needs of children to be met through a dedicated, focused resource,” she said. “It’s a more than appropriate use in light of current challenges.”

Open Society Institute Baltimore raised private funding for administrative costs, according to the agreement, so the $6 million figure will go entirely toward the debit cards. It will work with community groups to administer the program, including CASA de Maryland, Roca and Safe Streets.

Families living in ZIP codes with high rates of COVID-19, poverty and unemployment will be targeted.

According to the approved agreement, the money is intended to go toward food, toiletries, over-the-counter medicine and protective gear. The cards are not expected to permit cash withdrawals.

Edwards said she anticipates the program will start next month. The city expects biweekly reports on the program’s rollout.

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