Arviance Bryant is trying to catch up.

After her position at the Wilder Foundation was cut because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mother of two high schoolers fell three months behind on rent. A federal stimulus check covered two months, and a St. Paul Bridge Fund grant covered the third — but by that time, she had fallen another month behind.

"I feel like a squatter situation, sitting in the house without being able to pay rent — that has never happened to me," said Bryant, 35, who said she was approved for unemployment in mid-July. "It's very hard, but I feel like you've just got to get up every day and figure it out."

The St. Paul Bridge Fund, an emergency cash assistance program for families and businesses that lost income as a result of COVID-19, drew nearly 5,300 applications from families, less than a quarter of whom got a check. Three months later, the money is gone, but the need remains — and it's only expected to grow when the statewide eviction moratorium and $600 federal unemployment supplement come to an end.

"For us to be able to do this — it was life-changing, but it definitely isn't enough," said Council Member Nelsie Yang, who represents part of the East Side. "We definitely need to continue thinking about how we can support families."

A Star Tribune analysis of city data, obtained through a public records request, shows applications were concentrated in the city's lowest-income areas. More than 1,000 applications came from a single East Side ZIP code that includes the Payne-Phalen and Dayton's Bluff neighborhoods, where about 40% of households earn less than $35,000 a year, according to Minnesota Compass.

Council Member Dai Thao, whose First Ward had 879 family applicants, said he wasn't surprised to learn where applications were concentrated.

"If we look at the poverty map, it aligns with that," he said. "If we look at the rental properties and the disparities, all of that aligns."

St. Paul officials built the Bridge Fund from scratch, using about $4 million in city and philanthropic dollars. City staff combed through the applications from families and 2,032 from businesses — including more than 1,000 that were ineligible because they were from outside the city. Those who got grants — $1,000 for families and $7,500 for businesses — were selected at random.

A similar program in Minneapolis received nearly 6,500 applications for rent assistance from eligible applicants, according to the city, but had enough money to help about 1,500 families.

St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said she helped review Bridge Fund applications, and the stories that people told, their anxiety and fear, were "heart-wrenching."

"We were going through application by application, and we were just rooting for them," she said.

Tincher said the Bridge Fund did what it was supposed to do: It provided a stopgap for people who had been laid off or had their work hours cut in the early days of the pandemic. The city is projecting a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall for 2020 and plans to make substantial cuts in 2021, but Tincher said officials are continuing to look for ways to help residents struggling with immediate issues like housing and food insecurity.

"There's a lot of Bridge Fund-type of work that is going on in a lot of spaces, but I don't know that it will look exactly like the Bridge Fund did," she said, "because it really was to meet a very specific need based on the information that we knew about the pandemic at that time."

Congress is debating another round of virus aid that would include direct payments to families. Community organizers say they'd also like to see the city provide another round of cash assistance — potentially using CARES Act dollars — and work to reach people who didn't apply the first time, such as immigrants who face language barriers and residents living here illegally who may be anxious about providing personal information to the government.

Though applications were available both online and by phone in multiple languages, data show nearly all applicants filed in English.

"If you look at all the applications, you can probably see that most of the people were not immigrant business owners or immigrant families," said Isabel Chanslor, an organizer in St. Paul. "It was necessary to have internet, it was necessary to have a computer, and it was necessary to be comfortable with filling out that kind of form and having all of that information ready."

Neighborhood organizations and independent organizers are putting together assistance programs of their own. But like the city, their resources are limited.

The Greater East Side and Payne-Phalen district councils partnered with a food shelf to distribute food on Sundays in June, serving about 1,500 people a week, said Athena Hollins, Payne-Phalen board president and a candidate for state representative. The West Side Community Organization raised $38,000 to provide emergency cash assistance to about 80 families, "specifically focusing on the undocumented community," said housing organizer Charlotte Colantti.

While programs like the Bridge Fund are helpful, she said, a one-time payment is "a drop in the bucket compared to the need that exists."

"What I think I see happening is that there's a lot of attention given to COVID job loss in the immediate, and the long-term ramifications of this financial crisis are going to get a lot less attention," Colantti said. "And it's going to be a lot less exciting to help people when it's six months in."

Bryant, the former Wilder Foundation employee, said she never imagined her position would be cut. And right now, there's no end in sight: With a work background related to education, school closures have limited her options for finding a new job.

Help from others, including people she met through her job at Wilder, has been a saving grace.

"I can't imagine me struggling this hard and not having the community," Bryant said. "I know I can get through it somehow, because we got through it — we're getting through it."

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509