COVID-19: How Detroiters are building community, creating solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down bars, restaurants, and schools in Detroit and across the state. Gatherings of more than 50 people in indoor spaces have also been banned for the foreseeable future. As people adjust to a new normal of social distancing and brace for what’s to come, many are not waiting for solutions.

In the wake of coronavirus, local organizations have stepped up efforts while community-based collaboratives and solutions have risen up in Detroit in response to the outbreak, addressing everything from health and wellness to food and childcare. Harnessing the power of technology and social media, residents and organizations are filling in the gaps, especially for communities of color, low-income families, and marginalized communities.

Organizations ramp up efforts

At J&E Community Relief in Hamtramck, the food pantry will distribute food items today in a move-and-go style outdoors starting at 12 p.m. until the food runs out, instead of allowing families to pick up foods indoors per the new guidelines and coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings. Volunteers and clients will also be given face masks and gloves.

Emina Ferizovic, founder and president, says the agency has seen an increase in registered clients who are requesting services in the past two days, estimated to be about 1,000 more individuals to serve this month. The pantry serves about 3,000 individuals each month — about 330 families that includes 130 women and children at the homeless shelter Genesis House III in Detroit.

The pantry will give out a month’s worth of food to limit the need for families to visit the pantry instead of weekly distributions. Items will include what J&E receives from Gleaners Community Food Bank, which announced Monday it was increasing the number of mobile food distributions to address food needs amid coronavirus.

Ferizovic says the people who will be impacted most are families who rely on one income and may be affected by layoffs and closures, and those who work under the table.

On the other side of town, Detroit Friendship House will also provide distribution service so families can pick up supplemental food.

Executive Director Cathy Maher says families need the food now. "We are continuing our services while everyone else is closing down because we believe that obviously food is essential at any time, especially times of crisis. We’re committed to staying open in the face of everybody else closing down. It makes a difference for all these people who are talking about going to the grocery stores and there's nothing on the shelves. So I think it's probably more important than ever that they have backup supplemental food.”

She says about half of Hamtramck’s population live below the federal poverty line, therefore the crisis will deeply affect the city. “Half of the city is at risk of going hungry tonight or being or what we call suffering from food insecurity,” she says. Maher says their client base is 50% Bengali families, 4% Yemeni, and the rest are Eastern Europeans: Polish, Albanian, and Bosnian.

With restaurants and bars closing down, many of her clients and Hamtramck residents in general will be losing jobs, which usually pay minimum wage. "They are the working poor. They are working 2-3 jobs at a time just to make ends meet. Now they are losing those jobs. Who knows for how long. Generally those people don't have paid time off. So that’s a big concern. That’s probably how the economic fallout from this is going to be huge for Hamtramck,” Maher says.

She says these are families living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have savings.

“They are the people who can't take the time off. They don't have day care. [Districts] are closing schools. And now [parents] can't take their kids anywhere. They can't take them to parents, they are the susceptible group, they are the elderly. Problem for anyone who is losing their job... their job isn't shut down but school is shut down so they can't go to work,” Maher says.

Organizations are also looking to meet people where they are. In Detroit, the homeless population is among the most vulnerable, and health facilities such as Covenant Community Care are looking for ways to care for people living on the street amid COVID.

Homeless Outreach Program manager Jeff Hunt says there are increased challenges here when it comes to providing medical care. "What do we do with someone who's presenting with symptoms but has no place to quarantine? When you're unsheltered, or if you're living in a tent or an abandoned house, you don't have running water, so hygiene is harder."

Community steps in to fill gaps

In Southwest Detroit, a coalition of organizations — Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, Congress of Communities, Urban Neighborhood  Initiatives, 482Forward, We the People Michigan, and more — is working together to provide mutual community care and is reaching out to see what the community needs through a Google form.

Community organizer Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who is overseeing the form, says the responses so far are mostly from people who want to offer resources. As more responses come in, she estimates that the requests for aid will be food, childcare, water drop-offs, medicine, and potentially housing, as well as services in helping people navigate processes such as applying for free Wi-Fi.

For marginalized communities that have gone without basic needs for so long, coronavirus has underscored the need for more resources for underserved populations, Santiago-Romero says. “I think this is a moment where we do everything we possibly can to serve most marginalized,” says Santiago-Romero. “Their health literally depends on it.”

With schools closed until next month, many low-income families are scrambling to find child care. To address the need Mothering Justice and 482Forward and their partners are also surveying parents and families on their needs through a Google form.

“We would like to activate our community to support and answer any questions for parents and students during this closure — especially those families that are most vulnerable,” the two groups stated in the Google form. As of Monday night, there were 100 responses, says Wytrice Harris, communications lead with 482Forward.

After reviewing the responses, the groups will call respondents to provide the resources or connect them to resources.

The need for child care is great, Harris says, especially for families who still have to go to work and don’t have extended family who can help look after children during the school closures. Another issue is the digital divide. Schools are providing educational packets to help with students’ learning at home, but what if you don’t have the internet to download those packets?

The collaborative is pooling resources to meet the needs in various neighborhoods and assessing what’s available at the city, state, and county level, from food access especially for kids whose only meals may come from what they get at school as well as transportation to receive food.

“How can we partner to make access to a resource even easier for parents in neighborhoods where access may not be as simple as jumping into the car?” Harris says.

Transportation is one gap that groups like Unity in Our Communities Time Bank in Southwest Detroit is hoping to fill.

Alice Bagley, the coordinator of Unity in Our Communities Time Bank, says the time bank “ideally built” for times like these. The time bank is a network of support where people can offer services in exchange for hours they can redeem for something else. For example, a senior can offer sewing in exchange for gardening work.

“We’re all feeling a little frightened and people are really giving into scarcity mentality (like people hoarding toilet paper) but … [with the time bank] look at all these [skills] people are offering. There’s this richness of community right now.”

They’re working with Bridging Communities to recruit drivers to bring fresh, healthy meals from local restaurants to seniors in the 48208 and 48210 ZIP codes. Planning for this initiative began six months ago and with the coronavirus pandemic, the time bank has seen an increase in people interested in being volunteer drivers to deliver food.

Right now more people are interested in offering help but Bagley says she expects that to change as “people start getting sick and as testing gets more widespread. … I wouldn’t be surprised to see more requests for help in the next few days.”

Meanwhile, Detroiters are leveraging their skills and talents to help during these unprecedented times.

In response to a post on the Metro Detroit COVID-19 Support Facebook page where someone expressed mental health concern over self-quarantining for two weeks, Detroit therapist Julie Weatherhead commented that she could do therapy sessions through a video platform or phone on a sliding scale.

Having to self-quarantine amid a pandemic is a type of trauma, Weatherhead says.

“All these plans that we had whether that be travel plans, business growth, this changes everything,” she says. The feeling of having to scrap everything is a type of “loss and grief,” she says.

Terra Castro is founder of Detroit Body Garage, which is offering free workouts online.

Asking for help, especially when mental health is stigmatized, can be difficult but she hopes to be able to do her part for people who need someone to talk to.

“I think that my perspective on grief and loss and being a mental health counselor, hopefully, I can be helpful to folks.”

She’s also talking with a friend who teaches yoga on some kind of collaboration to offer another kind of support online. Now is the time to look out for one another, she says, whether that's organizing a group of people who check in with each other regularly or creating new routines for ourselves, "whatever it takes to get into your new normal."

Terra Castro, founder of community-oriented gym Detroit Body Garage on the city’s east side, is also leveraging the power of the internet by posting free workouts online.

She’s offering them, even as a business that had to shut down per the new guidelines regarding shared public spaces, which will inevitably negatively impact her bottom line, because it’s important to “help keep our body healthy but also our minds. The live workouts add an element of connection for us all at a time of social distancing and having to stay home. It is free because at this time as a coach I am most concerned about this community — all of us staying well mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.”

The first online workout was posted on Monday and it’s already reaching far beyond Detroit, she says.

“Our heartbeat is for community and now just today (Monday) our workout was used not just in Detroit but in other cities — families, a professional athlete — this is about how movement connects us and keeps us bold to keep going to the finish line. DBG will still be standing — this is Detroit. It is who we are.”

Model D freelance writers Nargis Rahman and Sarah Williams contributed reporting for this article.

Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.
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