Sam Buckwalter requested a loan from Hebrew Free Loan after being laid off from his job at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco early in the pandemic.
Sam Buckwalter requested a loan from Hebrew Free Loan after being laid off from his job at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco early in the pandemic.

Hebrew Free Loan ‘inundated’ with $1 million in loan requests

With the Bay Area already feeling the crushing economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Hebrew Free Loan has received approximately $1 million in loan requests from laid-off workers and small businesses suffering major financial setbacks.

“We’ve been inundated,” said Cindy Rogoway, executive director of HFL, which offers interest-free loans for a variety of needs. “It’s an unprecedented increase in our loan requests.”

Cindy Rogoway
Cindy Rogoway

To put it in perspective, Rogoway said, the San Francisco-based organization usually disperses around $400,000 in loans per month. During a two-day period last week, HFL received 40 requests related to coronavirus alone, totaling over $500,000.

HFL announced the special program for coronavirus-related hardship and began accepting applications on March 6. Rogoway said many of the applicants are hospitality workers, small-business owners and ride-share workers.

“People are definitely hurting,” she said. “They’re afraid for the future. You can feel their stress and fear in the language of the applications they’re filling out.”

One individual who reached out to HFL is Sam Buckwalter, 33, a host at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District until he was laid off on March 14. While his restaurant promised to hire him back when it reopens, Buckwalter said he has no savings to cover his bills and $1,700 monthly rent.

“It’s just been this very surreal shock,” he said. “It’s just wild. The notion I won’t have an income, I don’t know how long this is going to go on for.” Buckwalter said he’s asked his landlord to reduce his rent but hasn’t gotten a reply.

It’s an unprecedented increase in our loan requests.

On March 19, Buckwalter requested a $20,000 loan from HFL. His application is currently under review. He has also filed for unemployment and expects to get about $450 a week.

But even with this financial help, Buckwalter says it’s likely he will have to leave San Francisco. And moving back home to Santa Cruz isn’t an option, he said, since his parents are in their mid-60s and he doesn’t want to risk exposing them to the coronavirus.

“I never expected [coronavirus] to affect so many little things in my life,” Buckwalter said.

Rogoway said it’s unclear how many requests like Buckwalter’s her organization will be able to fulfill but believes it will be a “majority” of applicants. At the same time, she said, HFL is concerned about its own cash flow as existing borrowers may not be able to make payments during the pandemic. To offset that possibility, Rogoway said she’s engaged in “a lot” of emergency fundraising.

“We need to do triage,” she said. “[We’re] trying to help people who need it most.”

Rogoway offered three ideas for people in financial straits: Cut back on any nonessential bills, avoid incurring credit card debt, and consider withdrawing money from a retirement fund. (The economic relief package being considered now by the Senate would waive the early withdrawal fee on retirement funds.)

At the state level, California’s unemployment filings have spiked. Over the weekend, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, James Bullard, predicted that national unemployment may reach as high as 30 percent.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.