‘This is like having a fire, almost every day:’ Bay Area safety net agency struggles to keep up amid coronavirus outbreak

In Summary

The City of Sunnyvale is now recruiting city staff members to volunteer for the organization’s food distribution, providing a case study of a city's rapid-fire response.

Sunnyvale Community Services, the city’s largest safety-net agency, has been turned “upside down,” organizers say, as coronavirus cases rise in the Bay Area and the region has ordered millions of residents to shelter in place. Alreadythe nonprofit has had to cancel its weekly produce distribution indefinitely due to volunteer shortages and has seen a surge in requests for financial aid from residents facing layoffs and reductions in their work hours.

“This is like nothing we have ever seen,” says Sunnyvale Community Services executive director Marie Bernard. “This is like having a fire, but having it almost every day. We don’t know what’s coming.”

With the pandemic taking a toll on volunteer participation as older volunteers stay home and community and corporate groups cancel, the City of Sunnyvale stepped in to fill the void. It is now recruiting city staff members who were asked to work from home to fill volunteer shifts for the organization’s monthly food distribution.

The city’s reaction to Sunnyvale Community Services’ urgent appeal for help provides a case study in the rapid-fire response of Bay Area cities and counties at the epicenter of California’s coronavirus outbreak.

Organizers at the emergency assistance agency, like most other Bay Area service providers, food relief groups, and nonprofits, are scrambling to help residents hard-hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Like many of their peers, they are experimenting with solutions in real-time and keeping what sticks.

On Wednesday morning, at the organization’s free monthly food distribution for families, volunteers from the Sunnyvale School District methodically packed grocery bags filled lentils, canned fruits and vegetables, beans, brown rice, spaghetti, yogurt, eggs and protein in an assembly line as cars slowly streamed into a drive-through to pick up food. Usually, the line for food will extend down the block, organizers say. But an hour in, they were seeing fewer clients than normal, with about 23 people stopping by instead of the usual 100 by the same time. The lower volume had some volunteers and workers unsettled. But by 12:30 p.m., 200 people had come by after organizers sent out a phone blast that food was still being handed out and Bernard estimated they would hit their target of 600 families by 7 p.m.

Packing grocery bags at the front of the line, Cory Soule, 33, a teacher at Sunnyvale’s San Miguel Elementary School, says he responded to the request for help because he is not in a high-risk group and is seeing the toll business closures are taking on many of his students’ families.

“II feel like this is a small sacrifice I can make to help,” Soule says. “A lot of people are losing their jobs. A lot of my students’ families are low-income and they are not able to make ends meet right now. They’re not working.”

Maria Guadalupe, 41, who asked to use only her first name to protect her identity, is the only breadwinner in her family of four. Her husband has lost his job at a recycling center, which closed earlier in the week, and she is working fewer hours at McDonald’s. Without the extra food from Sunnyvale Community Services, she says she is not sure how they would be able to manage now.

Bernard says the agency has seen a sharp rise in clients seeking financial assistance. Usually, the nonprofit, which provides financial support to low-income residents struggling to pay rent and other bills, fields about 100 requests a month for help paying expenses. After Monday’s order brought restaurants, bars, and hotels to a halt, about 22 people called in on Tuesday alone Bernard says — about one-fourth of the agency’s typical monthly volume.

To help the organization provide emergency assistance, the Sunnyvale City Council approved a $250,000 grant to Sunnyvale Community Services late Tuesday to help  more people struggling with bills.

Erica Hellerstein is a reporter with the Mercury News. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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