A small Latino nonprofit in St. Paul has taken on a massive and unlikely role amid the COVID-19 pandemic: distributing $14 million in government aid to prevent evictions or foreclosures for 5,000 households statewide.

The Latino Economic Development Center was the largest administrator among 52 organizations tapped by the state Housing Finance Agency to administer $100 million in federal housing aid. From December to March, the nonprofit distributed $14 million — and it had never handled a $1 million contract before.

"The pandemic needed everybody to step up," said Henry Jiménez, the nonprofit's executive director. "And I felt that we stepped up by helping the state administer these funds to everybody because the need was that big."

The St. Paul nonprofit typically helps about 200 Latino entrepreneurs and small business owners a year. The center, started by Latino immigrants nearly two decades ago, had just seven employees at the height of the pandemic to field 800 calls a day from business owners trying to apply for grants or loans.

Thanks to increasing philanthropy, the organization now has expanded to 17 employees and hired 40 contractors to provide outreach services and administer rent and mortgage assistance.

Across Minnesota, small nonprofits helping people during the pandemic have been forced to rapidly adjust to meet increasing demands for help.

"We could not have helped so many Minnesotans with rent last year if it hadn't been for Henry and the Latino Economic Development Center," Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said. "They just had this deep commitment and were willing to do whatever it takes. ... I think it's the best of what a public-private partnership should look like."

Many of the 40 Latino contractors hired by the nonprofit were in need of work and assistance themselves. Antonio Estrada Ramirez, 36, of Maple Grove, lost his job as an interpreter at a hospital because of COVID. Not only did he get connected to rental assistance, but he landed the contractor job, handling often emotional calls from other Minnesotans in similar distress.

"It helped me get back on track to pay my bills to sustain my family," Ramirez said. "I know how it feels. It's like giving back to be able to help more people."

The Latino Economic Development Center is now helping the state with the outreach and administration of Rent Help MN, which provides rental assistance. In the meantime, it's doing its usual work helping Latino farmers and small business owners start and grow their businesses, offering technical assistance and trainings, and lending money as a community development financial institution.

There's a growing movement to boost funding for nonprofits focused on and led by people of color. But funding for Latino nonprofits remains about 1% of philanthropy, according to Hispanics in Philanthropy. That figure mirrors funding disparities for nonprofits that are led or focused on African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

In Minnesota, most foundations say they plan to give more money this year to organizations led by people of color, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

But Jiménez worries that boost in giving won't be sustainable long-term. He hopes the work his nonprofit has done in the past year — delivering on multimillion-dollar government contracts — will show agencies and foundations that small nonprofits can rise to the occasion.

"The need is still high," Jiménez said. "We're still struggling to meet the demand."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141