Nonprofits are scrambling after SF Mayor Breed proposes slashing COVID assistance funding

Dozens of nonprofits across San Francisco are asking Mayor London Breed and the city’s public health department to reconsider their abrupt cancellation of funding that has helped thousands of low-income residents cope with COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Breed’s $14 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 eliminates $9.5 million in COVID assistance funding that flows to at least 25 nonprofits across the city, including the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, Excelsior Strong and the Rafiki Coalition for Health and Wellness. The money has been part of the city’s much-publicized effort to provide an equitable response to COVID so that low-income residents, many of them people of color, could have similar health benefits as wealthier San Franciscans.

“What we’re advocating for is a six-month extension that will provide the time necessary to create a transition plan,” said Monique LeSarre, executive director of the Rafiki Coalition that tests hundreds of people a week for the coronavirus, vaccinates them, and provides food if they get the disease.

“We didn’t even have 30 days’ notice,” said LeSarre, whose group created the “94124 COVID Project” for people in the Bayview Hunter’s Point area. The agency expects to lose 11 staffers on July 1 as a result of the funding loss.

The nonprofits argue that, because the city is still experiencing high rates of COVID, they need time to seek alternative funding or help clients find care elsewhere. Thousands of people visit the sites to be tested, receive free tests or to get vaccinated and boosted. Many of the nonprofits also support clients who come down with COVID, often providing free food and other necessities.

On Thursday, the public health department told The Chronicle that it had identified $6 million from a related funding source for COVID services and that some nonprofits would be able to use it to continue providing support for a short period. How it will be distributed has not been decided, the department said.

LeSarre said she and other groups are not sure if the money will help them and are waiting for clarification.

Meanwhile, Parisa Safarzadeh, Breed’s press secretary, acknowledged “with a heavy heart” that the city won’t be able to include the COVID relief funding for nonprofits in the new budget. She said the nonprofits have long known that their COVID efforts were supported by temporary funding from the state and federal government that is “completely vanishing.”

This year, the city’s public health department had $172 million to spend on its COVID response. But because most of that has gone away, she said, the mayor’s budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year is proposing $57 million. Going forward, the mayor will use that money to prioritize “people with the highest risk for the most severe disease,” Safarzadeh said.

Meanwhile, the public health department will also re-focus attention on health conditions that may have been sidelined during the pandemic, Safarzadeh said.

“It goes beyond COVID now,” she said, pointing to mental health, substance abuse, HIV prevention and maternal health, among other areas that need greater focus.

LeSarre of the Rafiki Coalition, who has chaired the city’s mental health working group and whose agency provides pop-up services for pregnancy and other health needs, said she agrees those needs should be met. “But we are in a COVID surge currently,” she said. “We still have people dying, testing positive, still needing to quarantine in place. They still need to be tested and vaccinated.”

She said vaccine approval for children under 5 is expected soon, and “we won’t be able to support that” without funding — or an extension to give the nonprofits time to seek other funding or help clients find other services they can realistically use.

For many residents of the Bayview and other largely low-income communities of color, having access to a full range of medical care is difficult.

“They won’t go to a UCSF or Kaiser because they don’t have the insurance,” said Jon Henry, executive director of the nonprofit Both Sides of the Conversation that got $50,000 of the COVID grants through Rafiki to spread the word about where residents in the 94124 ZIP code could get vaccinated and tested.

Henry said he and other nonprofit representatives are asking ask the Board of Supervisors and the public health department to extend the funding.

The public can comment on the budget throughout June, and the supervisors can make changes until the end of the month, when they are required to approve a final spending plan.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

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