COVID-19 escalated many of the challenges our residents face. There was an increased focus on accessing support networks and resources. We looked closely at addressing food insecurity and Wi-Fi access. Food insecurity immediately became an issue for our residents when COVID happened for several reasons.
When the pandemic struck, food insecurity immediately became an issue for our residents for several reasons. Initially, WHC was purchasing food and providing residents with a virtual pantry of shelf-stable staples. While this was a good short-term idea, it wasn’t a long-term solution. Residents’ concerns about food also decreased their capacity to address other concerns in their lives. Food was scarce in many stores as much of the general public engaged in bulk purchasing, and other factors began coming into play to make food insecurity more challenging for our residents.
Starting in April 2020, WHC partnered with J.C. Faulk from Bmore Community Foods, a project spearheaded by Faulk’s non-profit that “rescues” food from restaurants, retail outlets, farms, etc., and distributes it for free to those in need. Faulk’s work with food insecurity has been especially important during this time, and through this partnership, we have been able to provide our residents with 20-25 pound boxes of fresh produce, food staples, frozen food items, and meat twice a month. While helping our residents stretch their food budgets, we’ve also given them the opportunity to try new foods, depending on the produce in the boxes they receive. To help with food distribution, The Junior League of Baltimore has been an essential partner; they coordinate and execute the delivery of these boxes to our residents.
Throughout 2020, WHC became especially aware of how the absence of access to high-speed Internet impacted our residents’ lives. Not having access to the Internet during COVID has meant additional challenges with accessing health care via telemedicine once in-person visits to doctors were decreased. When human services organizations stopped seeing clients in person and moved their services online, lack of access to high-speed internet meant applying for benefits like the SNAP program and unemployment benefits became increasingly more difficult. Without high-speed internet, online learning for children in our program also proved problematic. Even our residents who had smartphones often did not have data plans large enough to navigate the internet for any extended period of time.
The reliance on the internet that has increased since the pandemic began is not going to decrease when COVID is less of a threat. This has become the “new normal.” Internet access has ceased to be an unnecessary luxury, and basic knowledge of how to operate technology is not something primarily for non-low-income individuals and families, especially when it comes to finding work. Digital equity is an important issue for us to tackle as a human services organization. Thanks to a partnership with Baltimore City Schools and our case managers’ diligent work, we have been able to provide all our students with electronic devices.
The food support we offer residents has freed up money that has allowed us to help people enroll in the subsidized internet connectivity program that Xfinity offers at a monthly cost of $9.95 for residents not living in SRO units. Additionally, thanks to grants from Abell Foundation and France-Merrick Foundation, we have wired our four SRO buildings for high-speed internet access, and we have been awarded funding to purchase devices for our residents to use. Once we purchase these devices, we will roll out our “Loan or Own” program to residents who have been with us for at least a year with the recommendation of their case managers.
Though 2020 was a trying year, it brought about new ways and opportunities to help our residents as they work towards their future. We look forward to seeing the benefits of these new resources for years to come.