Apr 06Always Essential
Just south of Sacramento is Stockton, California, a city of around 309,000 people in the Central Valley on the San Joaquin River. The town never fully recovered from the Great Recession, and a history of disinvestment disproportionately affects Stockton’s Black, Latinx, and Filipino residents. The Crosstown Freeway is an unofficial boundary, a scar of redlining’s painful legacy, a border between downtown and a neighborhood with a city park, school, and Gleason Park — a Mercy Housing community. It offers 95 affordable apartment homes, with about 15 seniors and the rest, families. These homes are more than affordable, they offer solace for people that need a welcoming place to call home. Budgets are tight, but strong family ties and community support keeps the community vibrant. Kids get homework help, seniors have opportunities to socialize, and neighbors share news of job openings with each other.
It was February 2020, and Liz just got a promotion as a Resident Services Coordinator Manager for Mercy Housing, overseeing three other Resident Services Coordinators (RSCs). Her role is a lot of responsibility and every day is different. RSCs, property management, maintenance, and all onsite employees are critical to Mercy Housing’s mission, because they make these homes more than four walls and a roof. Resources like after-school programs, job readiness classes, housing stability, and senior social groups give residents access to opportunity and a sense of belonging. Many residents are single mothers, and this is the first time some of them have been in charge of a home all on their own. Liz was staying busy, ensuring that families had the support they needed. She had already been working at this community for four years and was still getting used to her new role in March 2020 when the world stopped.
Everyone was still coming to terms with the virus, confusion and worry were rampant across the country. With a husband and three kids of her own, Liz was used to juggling a lot and is a natural leader. She answered chaos with calm, prioritizing safety and communication at Gleason Park. She kept residents updated with daily CDC guidelines and Mercy Housing’s relief efforts, like donated PPE and cleaning supplies. “It really mobilized my advocacy and the activist in me — my community is really struggling,” she recalls from those early days of the pandemic. Many Gleason Park residents work in healthcare, agriculture, and the service industry. Residents had to leave the safety of home to work — essential workers that were high-risk for infection. Working remotely is a luxury they didn’t have. Missed days at work means lost income.
Liz made sure that social distancing measures were followed in this close-knit community, but like all communities, it’s impossible to be 100% safe from Covid, 2020 offered no guarantees. By the end of June, Gleason Park got its first cases.
Keeping Residents Connected
“We organized a testing clinic. A lot of residents were super thankful because they didn’t want to go out and get tested or they didn’t know how — being able to provide that onsite was so helpful,” said Liz. The nurses were even kind enough to go to seniors’ apartments who feared leaving their homes, residents like Rosalie. She was known in the community for her delicious home-cooked tortillas, often sharing them with neighbors (before the lockdown). Rosalie had a lot on her shoulders, she’s 90-years-old and is caretaker for her two granddaughters. Figuring out remote learning for her girls was a must but it was very stressful. The nurses helped her to safely get tested about twice a month to be safe. She was a cancer survivor and knew she had to take every precaution to not get Covid, her girls needed her.
“Distance learning was one of our focal points because a lot of parents are working parents and figuring out how to have multiple children in class, on-time, with internet, hotspots, school supplies — all of it was really challenging for parents. In checking in with them, they mostly just wanted help with the madness of it all, the stress and anxiety of it all. I can definitely relate with residents and the struggle of distance learning… I have three kids myself: a first-grader, seventh-grader, and my oldest is a senior in high school,” Liz said.
Before the pandemic, just 30 or so families used the once-a-month food bank at Gleason Park. It offers fresh fruits and vegetables to fuel busy schedules on a budget. But once the pandemic took hold, practically every family started using the food bank. They could no longer visit it in person due to social distancing. If they needed to access the food bank, they were able to request deliveries and Resident Services dropped care bags at their doors. The food bank used to take just a few hours each month to organize and run, requiring minimal time from Liz and her fellow RSCs. Now because of Covid, it’s turned into a day-long process of delivery, and hours more of planning logistics. Staff from Mercy Housing’s Sacramento office got involved in helping communities with deliveries too. Everyone pulled together to support families in need, as many were experiencing layoffs and other issues compounded by the economic fallout.
Liz has worked at this community for years. Residents and their families are her friends, people she cares about. This makes her phenomenal at her job, but it can be tough when tragedy strikes:
“There were so many times I came home crying … There was one point when one resident had Covid, he had had organ transplants, with a compromised immune system, and there were others in his home, we didn’t know if he was going to be ok … This is somebody whose family is very active in the community, his grandkids were all in my after-school program, I knew his daughter-in-law when she was pregnant, and I knew her when her son was born. Then she died in a car accident while all this was going on. It was a breaking point, she was so young, her son was not going to get to know her, and I was so close to this family, they looked to me for support, funeral, insurance advice … To be grieving and to help a family who was grieving was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I remember printing her pictures out [for funeral] thinking: all of this is so serious, so devastating, there’s so many people suffering tremendously at once. It was so painful, but you know, my staff, my supervisor was super supportive. I could call him any time and say, ‘this is what’s happening at my property’ … and just kind of cry it out with him. He was like ‘you’re amazing, you’re doing a great job, if you need to take some time off go ahead’ … knowing that Mercy Housing had my back, whatever that meant you know taking time off or changing my schedule to accommodate my kids’ distance learning, meant so much.”
Liz kept on because she loves Gleason Park and was driven to serve these families at a time of need. Over 2020, she became an expert with everything that could improve residents’ lives: virtual learning, unemployment benefits, Covid relief, stimulus eligibility, healthcare, Covid testing regulations, food delivery logistics, and so much more. She says that the monthly, and sometimes twice-a-month, check-in calls with residents were incredibly helpful. They’d start with small talk and distance learning updates or maybe food pantry delivery, but the conversations would often go deeper. It was an opportunity for Liz to understand everything that was going on. Liz shares, “Those community connections we have are SO vital … I think Mercy Housing mobilized quickly during COVID to support onsite staff and to just be like, ‘what do residents need?’ ‘Let’s figure out how to do food banks again.’ ‘What do we need to do when people get COVID?’ And now, ‘how do we get residents vaccinated?’”
Keeping Hope Alive
When someone in a family did get Covid, quarantining was an extreme hardship on everyone. Large families couldn’t go out, wages weren’t earned, and it got even harder to make ends meet. RSCs took the initiative to order essentials like groceries, paper towels, toilet paper and other cleaning supplies and deliver the care packages with a knock and a note, letting them know that someone cares about them. No one has been evicted due to lack of payment during the pandemic either. The respect and mercy that Liz brings to communities every day creates hope where there might’ve been fear, and opportunity where there was doubt.
Mercy Housing serves over 45,000 residents in 21 states. Onsite staff and RSCs, like Liz, continue to keep hope alive at our communities. Their can-do attitude made the impossible, possible for Mercy Housing households. Employees that work directly with residents are invaluable to our mission. We’ve known that Mercy Housing onsite staff were essential frontline workers before the pandemic.
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