Managing vulnerable populations during the pandemic Central Coast providers vow to keep feeding the hungry and housing the homeless

Archive photo of Dorothy’s Kitchen | David Royal photo

By Joe Livernois

Nic Bianchi has been distributing food to homeless men and women around Chinatown in Salinas for more than a dozen years without a day of interruption, despite some seemingly insurmountable problems — and he said he isn’t about to stop in the face of a pandemic.

But the resources at Dorothy’s Place, where he is kitchen manager, are being severely tested because of the reaction to the coronavirus. Volunteers are disappearing and the pantry is bare.

“We rely on a lot of out-of-date food items,” Bianchi said on Monday. “But people are stocking up and we just aren’t getting enough. Also, people are reluctant to come down here to volunteer, and I don’t blame them.” 

It’s not that volunteers are worried that they might contract the virus — though that is an issue for many of the older volunteers — but that they might spread it themselves to a vulnerable population. Limited testing protocols for COVID-19 has spread so much uncertainty about personal health that people don’t want to take chances, he said.

Staff and volunteers for agencies that provide for the neediest Central Coast residents vowed to keep providing services, even as volunteers and resources dwindle. “We are reeling to  keep up with changing guidelines, trying our best to keep providing services to those in need,” said Janet Mason, a Monterey volunteer for a couple of local agencies. “For now all the agencies … are still open, trying to reduce risk to guests and to volunteers.” 

Melissa Kendrick, executive director of the Monterey County Food Bank, said she is running into problems similar to Bianchi’s, particularly with volunteers. “They’ve evaporated,” she said.

And after all schools were shut down in Monterey County starting Monday, school district officials have been asking the Food Bank to provide food to the students who were dependent on the schools for breakfast and lunch. Starting on Tuesday, the Food Bank will be delivering grocery bags of food to 26 different schools.

“I’m about to issue a plea for funds,” Kendrick said. Even before coronavirus became an issue, demand for Food Bank provisions increased 25 percent in February, much of that due to an increasing number of homeless students in the county, she said. “Shutting down the schools is devastating,” she said, because so many of those students relied on the schools to provide nutritional meals.

The Food Bank typically keeps about 500 volunteers busy to supplement the paid staff of 26. The organization delivers meals or food to 240 different distribution sites throughout the county, while providing foodstuff to 160 nonprofits, including Dorothy’s Place.

“I’m going to the Food Bank tomorrow,” Bianchi said on Monday. “And I hope they can help us.” 

Dorothy’s Place provides about 600 meals a day — breakfast and lunch — to the homeless from its kitchen on Soledad Street. Usually the meals are served in a dining hall that provides warmth and companionship. 

These days, Bianchi is handing out meals to people from the front door. “We’re trying to work with the social distance,” he said. “We’re trying to honor space. No one is ill. That we know of. No one is ill in the kitchen. That we know of. But then no one is being tested either. I can say that I heard no one coughing in the kitchen today.”

The shortage of food is an issue. The kitchen usually serves oatmeal in the mornings, along with pastries, fruit and coffee, Bianchi said. “But oatmeal is nowhere to be found,” Bianchi said. On Monday the kitchen served potato soup for breakfast. On Tuesday they did potato soup over rice.

Bianchi and Kendrick both said volunteers don’t know if their assistance might actually contribute to the spread of the virus. “That’s the rub,” said Kendrick, and that’s why volunteers are hard to come by. And increased demand is putting an added strain to the Food Bank’s workforce, she said.

“The illness is one thing,” she said. “But the entire economy is falling apart as well and it’s going to have a long-term impact on people. I don’t think people realize that we serve about one in four children in Monterey County. We’re afraid those numbers are going to grow in the near future. What we need right now is funds. And volunteers.”

On the Monterey Peninsula, Gathering for Women is also dealing with a reduction in its volunteer workforce. “Most of our volunteers are older and so if they have any health concerns we are perfectly happy for them to stay home and be well,” said Staci Alziebler-Perkins.  

She said Gathering has cut back on some of its services because of the volunteer shortage, but the agency is concentrating on providing food and a place to take a shower for the women who need those services. “We think those are the most important things right now.”

At the Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program, better known as I-HELP, officials were awaiting word from Monterey County emergency-services officials about the status of their operation. The faith-based program shelters about 35 men and women in church halls each night at various churches throughout the Monterey Peninsula.

“It’s a very fluid moment for us,” said Tony Finnegan, chairman of the I-HELP board. “We’re looking for direction and help.” He said most churches are still offering their sites, but is unsure how new emergency directives will impact the agency’s operations.

“We work with vulnerable people and they’re on edge right now,” Finnegan said. “The uncertainty of the situation is leading to more anxiety.”

Homeless men and women are picked up at designated spots and transported to churches by vans. Finnegan said that clients are provided hand sanitizers when they enter the vans and the drivers wipe down seats and handles inside the vehicles at regular intervals. Participants are encouraged to wash their hands constantly while at the churches. 

Finnegan said he hopes and county’s “shelter-in-place” order will have specific protocols for homeless people in the region. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday has considered a proposal to issue a shelter-in-place order that requires people without important business to stay home.

“The truth is, there is no shelter in place for our people,” said Finnegan. “So we’re looking for guidelines. And if we don’t hear what they are, I guess I’ll be the squeaky wheel.”

Meanwhile, representatives for organizations in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties that provide food to homebound senior citizens said on Monday that they will continue to maintain their delivery programs in the foreseeable future.

“To conform with social distance practices, we are instructing our drivers to stagger individual bag pickups for site deliveries, and to place bags at the doors (after knocking) for our homebound deliveries,” according to a statement released Monday by Grey Bears, which delivers bags of vegetables, fruits and grocery staples to about 1,000 homebound elderly and about 3,800 others at pickup sites around the county.

The Grey Bears is asking for donations of food, hand sanitizer, latex gloves and money. The Second Harvest Food Bank in Santa Cruz County has also put out an “urgent call” for volunteers to help sort and pre-package food items. 

Christine Winge at Meals on Wheels of the Monterey Peninsula said her organization has been fortunate that a cadre of new volunteers have stepped up to fill in for many of the older regulars who are following the advice of experts to stay home. “People are stepping up,” she said. “People still want to help.”

Regina Gage, executive director of Meals on Wheels in Salinas Valley, said “our clients, volunteers and staff seem to be holding up during this disconcerting time; we are more grateful than ever to our dedicated and caring staff and volunteers. The volunteers are truly the driving force of our agency. We’re honored to work with them.”

Gage added that “we plan on continuing our home-delivered meal service as long as possible.”

Meanwhile, Bianchi said Dorothy’s Place has overcome hits over the years that might have forced it to suspend operations. The city shut down the kitchen because of problems with the flooring and the site once went for days without power. But the staff and volunteers continued to deliver food to the homeless that are encamped in tents or under tarps in Chinatown. And he said he expects to continue serving the people in the neighborhood.

“If the Health Department or the city came and shut us down tomorrow, we’ll still find a way,” he said. “Because what’s the alternative?”

Meanwhile, the Community Foundation for Monterey County and the Monterey Peninsula Foundation have created the COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is meant fund will address the immediate and longer-term needs of the county’s most vulnerable residents who will be impacted by the coronavirus. One hundred percent of the fund will be used for grantmaking, according to Dan Baldwin, Community Foundation CEO.

The fund will provide a trusted repository for philanthropic assets to be directed specifically for this purpose.

“We’re concerned about community health, and the potential for people to face economic hardship and food insecurity in the coming months,” said Baldwin. “By being proactive during times of uncertainty, this fund will allow us to help one another through this challenge,”

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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