Only a small fraction of applicants got money from Harris County’s $30M COVID-19 relief funds. Where did the money go?

HOUSTON – For months, Channel 2 Investigates has been keeping tabs on a $30 million Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund. The money was distributed in two phases, but the information on exactly who got the money, and exactly how much, has not been as easy to come by.

According to data from Harris County, more than 500,000 people applied for relief funds. The need was so great that only a small fraction of the applicants were approved for the emergency assistance.

Amanda Ward is barely making it.

“I’m living in a container,” said Ward, when KPRC 2 Reporter Joel Eisenbaum met with her at her home in Northeast Harris County. It’s about 170 square feet. She shares it with her cats.

“I got 21 cats,” she said.

Ward says she was on the phone “all day long," when she applied for Harris County COVID-19 relief funds. But in the end, she lost, passed over for a $1,200 hand-up.

The truth of why she didn’t get help, really may not be that sinister. More than half a million people applied for $1,200-$1,500. However, just over 20,000 were approved. That’s only about 4%.

“Yes it’s a small number,” said Renee Wizig-Barrios with the Greater Houston Community. “We wish we could help every single person that needed help," she added.

The county hired the Greater Houston Community Foundation to administer the COVID-19 Relief Fund program and paid the foundation $1.5 million. Those were additional funds, separate from the $30 million.

As for the $30 million, we wanted to know more about where specifically the money went.

“What we’re responsible for sharing is... the basic demographics of who received (the funds),” said Wizig-Barrios.

That part is already public. That data was handed over to the firm January Advisors and they were tasked with making an interactive dashboard.

The online dashboard maps the demographics of who applied and the social vulnerability of the community, which were all factors in the decision making process.

But when we tried to get the underlying information, the raw data that was used to make the map, to verify it’s accuracy, well we’re still waiting.

Channel 2 Investigates filed several Texas Public Information Act requests, asking for additional information.

On July 15, Channel 2 Investigates requested:

  • The names of all organizations that received any portion of the $15 million from the Harris County COVID Relief Fund (PHASE 1) and the amount of money they received
  • The names of individuals that received any portion of the $15 million from the Harris County COVID Relief Fund (PHASE 2) and the amount of money they received.

On July 26, the county replied:

“As you know, Harris County contracted with the Greater Houston Community Foundation to administer the Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund. According to Exhibit A of the contract (attached), GHCF must provide ‘the County with a report within seven (7) days of distribution of grant to a Sub-recipient in the form as agreed to by the Parties and should include at least the amount of funds provided, the name of Sub-recipients, geographic area and number of estimated applicant recipients.’ Further, it is the Community Services Department that represents the County in this contract and that department, presumably, receives the reports. Therefore, your PIA request should be directed to the Community Services Department.”

KPRC 2 followed up with the Community Services Department. The county responded on July 29:

"Please find attached the responsive records for a portion of your public information request. As it relates to the second portion of your request:

- The names of individuals that received any portion of the $15 million from the Harris County COVID Relief Fund (PHASE 2) and the amount of money they received.

The Harris County Community Service Department does not have any records responsive this portion of your request. According to the Texas Public Information Act, a governmental body is only required to provide copies of public information in its possession; the act does not require a governmental body to obtain new information in order to comply with a request. With the remittance of this email, the file associated with your request in our office will be closed. Thank you."

That same day, KPRC 2 responded:

“Can you please tell me which agency would be in charge of managing the disbursement of the Phase II money to individuals? Is there a record of where that money went somewhere?”

Channel 2 Investigates did not receive a response.

On Sept. 17, Channel 2 Investigates sent a follow up request for the information. The County told KPRC 2 that we had the option to clarify our request.

"Further, section 552.160 specifies the information that would identify an applicant of disaster funds that is confidential and cannot be disclosed:

(1) name, social security number, house number, street name, and telephone number of an individual or household that applies for state or federal disaster recovery funds; and

(2) the name, tax identification number, address, and telephone number of a business entity or an owner of a business entity that applies for state or federal disaster recovery funds; and

(3) any other information the disclosure of which would identify or tend to identify a person or household that applies for state or federal disaster recovery funds.

(c) The street name and census block group of and the amount of disaster recovery funds awarded to a person or household are not confidential after the date on which disaster recovery funds are awarded to the person or household.

On Sept. 24, Harris County emailed, an Excel spreadsheet that provides data by census tract, including the number of households served, and the amount of assistance provided as a result of awards from the Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund.

“I am advised that the street-level data that you have requested is not readily accessible and will take some time to extract," the county wrote. The county then sent us back to the Harris County COVID-19 Relief fund dashboard for additional information.

“In the meantime and for the most-up-to-date information about fund awards, please refer to the fund’s website, at https://www.harriscountyrelief.org/data.”

With the information provided in the excel spreadsheet, there was no way to decipher how much money individuals received or how the funds were used or the identity of the recipients.

“It’s important to respect that if you want people to come forward and apply for any future relief program that is any way they’re identity is going to be shared with the public, you’re not going to have people apply for disaster assistance,” said Wizig-Barrios.

“I got a grant for $1200,” said resident Pam Steely. It didn’t bother Steely to share with us her identity. For Steely, the $1,200 was a lifesaver, but a temporary one.

KPRC 2 asked Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia about transparency with the distribution of the funds.

“We’ve been trying to see the accounting process nobody will let us look at it,” said Joel Eisenbaum.

“It’s a public program. I will make sure to ask at commissioners court that there should be a full accounting of this.”

“You know we’re going to follow up and harass you about that?” said Eisenbaum.

"That’s fine, "said Garcia.

KPRC 2 has not been able to independently verify the data used to create the COVID-19 Relief fund dashboard.

But according to the county, $23,716,300 in assistance has been provided.

These are the top 10 number of applicants approved by neighborhood.

AreaNumber of Approved applicants
Alief 485
Five Corners 251
Greenspoint 250
Spring Southwest197
Northside / Northline188
Eastex - Jensen181
Bear Creek176