Our Community's Greatest Needs

Caring for those who can't yet leave COVID behind

This article was previously published as a Guest Commentary in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on March 16, 2022.

By Susan True, CEO

There was a bright blue cloth on the picnic table out behind Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes and cheerful bouquets of spring flowers in tin can vases. Seated around me in the fresh air were a few incredible nonprofit leaders and donors who’ve helped Santa Cruz County families stay fed, housed, and cared for as COVID-19 wreaked havoc, locally and globally. We were grateful to be together on the eve of the pandemic’s two-year anniversary, smiling at the friendships we’ve built through service. But we were also there to discuss the reality that too many of our neighbors are living in COVID-19-worsened poverty with little way out.

Around the table, we shared stories of strength: the folks holding two, three, four jobs to pay the bills. The stories of kindness: people that took friends and family into already crowded homes so loved ones wouldn’t be without shelter. The stories of fierce persistence: students that navigated remote schooling while caring for siblings, still graduating with honors and becoming the first in their families to go to college.

And there are the stories of generosity. Donors’ gifts to the Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund made possible $10 million in grants to local nonprofits over the past two years. These gifts helped keep an average of 32,000 families per month afloat during our darkest times.

Behind each of those 32,000 families are individual stories. The middle school boy whose mental health improved after he and his parents moved from a motel room into a stable apartment when they received that final bit of money needed for the deposit. The single mom who’s learning that there’s no shame in asking for help feeding her kids as she works hard to cover the latest increase in rent. The family that got help applying online for a rental assistance program because they didn’t have an email address, let alone access to the digital skills to navigate the process. The senior cancer patient served with an eviction notice but who got legal aid to negotiate a settlement to stay in place until he found another house.

None of these stories are simple, nor are the solutions. Right now, the greatest need in our county is to help thousands of working families stay housed. Many are still buried under the economic wreckage of COVID-19 – debt from back rent, credit cards, and loans, lost wages from shutdowns and illness, medical expenses, and years’ worth of savings wiped out. The state renter protections and rental assistance programs both expire at the end of March. There are not yet local protections to take their place. More than half the applicants who applied and qualified for the rental assistance still haven’t been paid – even though the program is designed to help these working families.

So many remain in desperate need of assistance, legal aid, and landlord tenant mediation. We’ve transitioned from the triage of the COVID-19 Relief Fund to our ongoing Greatest Needs Fund, which is supporting nonprofit partners including Community Bridges, Community Action Board, Families in Transition, Conflict Resolution Center, and Senior Citizens Legal Services whose offices are clamoring with families looking for help.

During our time at Loaves and Fishes, as we talked with workers coming for lunch and families picking up groceries from the pantry, two things felt clear. First, for two years, we’ve been barraged by numbers on a near daily basis. The number of new COVID-19 cases. The number of days to isolate after exposure. New hospitalizations. New deaths. Total deaths. Jobs lost. Jobs gained. And second, there is a person – and a story – behind each number.

As we enter year three, we aren’t to the finish line yet. As we keep going, let’s have the stories give us strength rather than the numbers discourage us. Because we’ve proven, time and again, that we can depend on each other to meet our greatest needs with care and in community.

If you can, please consider giving to the Greatest Needs Fund.

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