Editor’s note: This piece contains mention of self-harm, depression, and anxiety.
Months after coronavirus first ravaged the labor market, the pandemic continues to send shockwaves through the American economy. While 22 million jobs have been regained as of January, new infection surges have been promoting tighter shutdowns and increased layoffs. In the meantime, Democrats hurriedly continue to work on the next coronavirus stimulus package in an attempt to avoid a potential mid-March expiration of unemployment benefits and other pandemic-related programs.
In Ohio alone, over 2 million have sought unemployment compensation during the past 45 weeks. During this same period, 16.4 million Ohioans have filed continued claims. The combined number of jobless claims over these past 45 days has totaled a number higher than those filed during the last five years. In Oberlin alone, the poverty rate has risen to 28% compared to a national average of 10%.
And while many Lorain County residents are still receiving unemployment checks, they continue to rely on community organizations for utility, rent, and food assistance. Two such organizations include Oberlin Community Services and El Centro Services de Sociales in Lorain.
Liv Hanson, OCS’s Food Program’s Coordinator, notes that OCS’s services are in high demand as ever.
“Emergency services like rent and utility assistance, in particular, have skyrocketed, as people who were already in financial distress have had an even harder time, and others who were previously stable are struggling in ways they haven’t before.”
OCS acts as a responsive community organization that provides a general “safety net” to Oberlin and Southern Lorain County residents to ensure basic needs are being met. The organization offers several services, the largest of which is their food pantry, which services roughly 300 households per week, and emergency financial assistance, which can include help paying utility bills, rent, mortgage, and sometimes prescription or transportation costs.
OCS has about ten total food programs—including direct services like their food pantry, delivery routes, pop-up produce pantries, and various partnership programs with the City Schools. Other OCS programs include sustainability initiatives like food rescue, a gleaning program, a community garden, and seasonal programs (i.e., holiday food and gift distributions).
Food programs continue to be in demand, as at-risk community members or those who lack transportation are less able to leave their homes and show up for in-person drives. In response, OCS has instituted two new delivery routes and increased Oberlin’s delivery schedule to once a week instead of once a month.
While expanded unemployment benefits have been extended to March 13th, many residents face difficulties accessing government assistance. According to Anabel Barrón Sánchez, a caseworker and immigration specialist at El Centro de Servicios Sociales in Lorain, many clients express a sentiment that shines a light on a larger stigma surrounding federal assistance.
“I talk to people who don’t know if they are going to get an eviction notice or what is going to happen to their kids. Many of them have never applied for federal assistance programs,” Sanchez said. “While we help them apply for SNAP, Medicaid, unemployment, and other programs, they are hesitant and feel like others need it. They have worked for their whole life, so asking for any type of assistance is difficult for them.”
The undocumented immigrant community also faces a number of additional difficulties in receiving support. For one, they do not have access to the same types of unemployment checks or social programs as documented citizens do, often being shut out of receiving aid altogether. A language barrier presents yet another hurdle to accessing government assistance.
“Trying to fill out the application online has been difficult for our clients—over 50% of our clients are not used to technology, so that makes filing hard,” Sánchez said. “Plus, they often wait on the phone for 2-3 hours. At the same time, El Centro’s services are also online. So now our clients face a general limitation in resources.”
Hanson states that while it is hard to know exactly how much of increased demand in OCS’s services is directly correlated to higher unemployment rates, it is clear that Covid-19 has fundamentally altered living situations for many in the community. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, OCS gave out about $156,000 in emergency financial assistance. In the 2020 calendar year, which covers much more of COVID, OCS gave out over $200,000. Hanson adds that, “this increase has been true all over the county: Lorain County Community Action Agency’s online sign-up for rent and utility assistance crashed an hour after it opened the last time they took new clients, simply because the demand was so high. OCS saw more new clients than usual as well in both emergency assistance and the food programs.”
Sánchez additionally points out the necessity of holistically approaching the difficulties presented by Covid-19 related unemployment. Specifically, she highlights that many disadvantaged communities are experiencing dire mental health conditions.
“I have had people telling me ‘I think I would be better off dead’. This is not something you ever want to hear. We need to connect our clients to services, but it continues to be difficult when we are not in person.”
Even before the pandemic, El Centro provided a bilingual mental health call-line, where callers could call 440-240-7025 to discuss mental health concerns. Through the helpline, callers speak to a certified Navigator, who then connects them to the relevant mental health agency. On a three-way call, clients get help navigating language barriers, scheduling, and transportation.
In addition to El Centro’s Mental Health Navigation Call Line, the organization’s own counselors were contacted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and subsequently trained as crisis counselors. Now, in addition to their regular mental health call line, El Centro’s staff is now running its own mental health support groups in Spanish, creating a space to discuss the different impacts of living under Covid-19.
Sánchez notes that mental health is deeply intertwined with other issues presented by Covid-19, and the role of El Centro is to isolate immediate needs and help connect clients to services.
“When you are constantly thinking about how you are going to pay this, how you are going to pay that—you won’t be okay. We are trying to provide them with resources and advocate for them. We are trying to provide them with hope. Because there is hope. And there are people who care. And there are agencies who care.”