Hands On Hartford

COVID 19 Report: Monday on the Front Lines at Hands On Hartford

March 29, 2020

COVID 19 Report: Monday on the Front Lines at Hands On Hartford

So much is going on at our Center for Community, it’s hard to know where to start.  As I walk through the building on Monday this week, I am proud of the team that’s helping so many of our neighbors and simply grateful that we have so much community support to get the job done.

Breakfast in our Community Meals Day Program is scheduled for 9AM, but folks whose stomachs pang with hunger and are cold in this bizarre late March snow start arriving at 8:00AM. I see a few folks limping as they walk down Bartholomew Avenue towards our building, many of whom spent the night outside or in a shelter, most of whom walk with a pained stride that embodies their fatigue and struggle.

This morning, one of the guests, Amelia (not her real name), asks whether she moved up at all on the waiting list to get a regular shelter bed and sadly the answer is no. She is dejected but understands, and remarkably she is grateful. She remarks in a soft but hardened way to our social worker, “I’m not surprised, but I appreciate that you remembered me by my name. Nobody ever remembers my name, but you did. It’s Amelia. Thank you for continuing to try for me.” I offer her coffee but she politely declines.  I am stunned by Amelia’s gratitude when all she has been told is there is no change in her status, but there is no time to be stunned. The coffee pot needs to be refilled and it’s time to serve breakfast – after I wash my hands.

What used to be 100 people at a time coming inside for a community meal is now 30 at a time, in 3 different rooms with each chair carefully measured to be at least 6 feet apart.  Meal service is now done in shifts, so the process takes longer and requires more work, but it’s the best way to keep everyone safe. Every table and chair is sanitized between guests, and the bathrooms thoroughly cleaned every 15 minutes. We worry about running low on sanitizing supplies as we are using a lot each day.

Some of our guests take coffee and breakfast to go on their way to look for work or to a temp job. Others come in to warm up, use the bathroom and eat a hot meal here. We encourage those who have a safe place to go after eating to give up their seats so that folks who are living outside, seniors and disabled folks are able to spend the day with us. Our Executive Director jumps in to help with coffee pots and sanitizing tables.  Our social worker works double-time serving meals and triaging problems and referrals with clients.  Luckily she has been developing relationships with many of them for months, so she is able to provide a lot of assistance in a much shorter time, but there are new faces every morning in the line.

In the midst of all of this, we are still receiving much-needed food donations.  These donations make all the difference; when they arrive, our staff pivots with energy and good nature, and it’s all hands on deck to help unload, log and store the food properly. A local nonprofit calls to say they have tooth brushes, toiletries and diapers to donate.  Grateful, I go with a co-worker out into the snow to pick them up, which entails a ride in a loading dock elevator where 6 feet of separation can’t possibly be maintained for those few moments for the three of us. We hold our breath.

I check in on the food pantry to see how the team is holding up.  Our pantry is no longer the full-choice shopping model which we designed to preserve the dignity of the food insecure families we serve. The space is simply too small for that to be safe during COVID 19, so we assemble pre-packed bags of groceries and have them ready to hand to families in need one person at a time in the waiting room, all day.

New clients arrive with emergency needs and regular clients try to adjust to being given their groceries instead of choosing for themselves. They understand why we are doing it – for their safety and ours – but it doesn’t quite feel right to me at some basic human level.  I watch the staff try to customize for each client as best they can, ensuring that a Muslim family gets Halal meat, offering a choice of breakfast items – and toilet paper.  I learn that we are having a hard time accessing canned fruits and soups with protein in them like beef and chicken, even though that is what all of the families struggling with food insecurity and hunger right now want and need. I check in with a colleague about getting the word out about this need.

Our Housing staff are working around the clock (this is normal operating procedure, of course) to provide supportive housing assistance to tenants in our program.  But things are changing – my co-workers explain that they are trying to provide assistance over the phone as much as they can.  This is very personal and very intensive work – necessary to ensure that folks get the support they need to address complex health conditions and maintain safe and stable housing, so in the end, it’s vital to show up with in-person support when necessary – but at a 6-foot distance.

Now it is time for a quick staff meeting at the end of the day in our Café, which is now temporarily closed, each of us 6 feet and more apart in chairs we just sanitized again with Lysol.  Among other concerns, all of us are feeling the tension between not wanting to let the most vulnerable, food insecure individuals and families down, and not wanting to risk getting sick ourselves because we know COVID 19 is even harder on those we are serving, and we don’t want to let them down. Where do you strike the right balance?

There are dilemmas every day and we try to make the safe and compassionate choice every time. When we are all working around the clock, we can only get to so many things. Do I help the team in the pantry pack grocery bags for the dozens of families coming in the next few days, or do I make another pot of coffee for the person who has just come in for breakfast wave #4 and looks cold?  Or should I turn my attention to the urgent need for more funding for this work – the long term financial hit which looks like it might be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And when I arrive home late in the evening, wash my hands yet again, and think about my day – filled with physical labor, emotional moments, conflicting demands, and difficult problem solving – I hug my family tight, and I feel proud but also scared; filled with purpose but also plagued with worry; and hit with how vital it is that I, our team and our entire community act in solidarity to care for one another in this moment.

The alarm rings at 5:30AM the next day and I am up to do it again, hoping we are doing the right thing and making the right choices as we respond to our new normal, and knowing that we aren’t alone.  Stand with us. Support us. Support our work. And, most importantly, support the people we serve. We aren’t going to stop. Knowing that her name is Amelia isn’t enough is it? We see Amelia. We help Amelia. It’s our job to do more than know her name. And we hope you will join us in helping Amelia too.

Please make a donation of whatever you can afford right now to The Hands On Hartford Community Crisis Fund and show us you stand on the front lines with us. We appreciate you and we know Amelia does too.  (Make your donation here:  https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/hoh2017donate)

In Gratitude,

An HOH staffer

This post was written by An HOH Staff Member, . You may contact the author at info@handsonhartford.org.