The COVID crisis created widespread hunger across the city. Many CWE partners quickly mobilized to feed families who had lost income or had their usual sources of food disrupted.
In Queens, Urban Upbound organized a food distribution network serving some of the largest housing projects in the city, distributing weekly boxes of food to thousands of apartments and preparing special hot meals for hundreds of seniors and small children. The Independent Drivers Guild created “Labor Delivers,” a program which employed over 10,000 taxi and black car drivers, themselves hard-hit by the pandemic, to deliver food to people across the city. Henry Street Settlement increased their Meals On Wheels program to over 14,000 meals weekly and launched a community-wide response on the Lower East Side which included providing three meals a day to 600 residents. United Community Centers of East New York activated existing connections with urban farms in East New York to deliver food to approximately 150 families living in the NYCHA-operated Pink Houses.
CWE partners also responded to the COVID-induced mental health emergency, as New Yorkers mourned the loss of loved ones and struggled with isolation and stress. Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow counselors called students and helped them deal with mental health issues, with interpersonal disputes arising when family members sheltered together, and with the fear and anxiety that grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Nicks Alliance contacted 1,200 seniors in their network to check on their health, as well as bring them food. Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation conducted regular wellness checks for their participants and their families while assessing their employment and financial needs.
Many CWE partner organizations serve workers in industries that are facing high unemployment during the pandemic, and they are helping those workers with financial or housing assistance. With restaurants closed throughout the city, Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) New York created a relief fund and immediately was able to distribute $30,000 to 100 of its members most in need of groceries, rent, and medicine. Riis Settlement raised funds for cash grants, in addition to distributing thousands of meals and PPE to residents. Make the Road New York provided cash assistance to over 4000 families. CWE Immigration Protection Group partners, including Make the Road New York, fought for and won a state fund to support immigrant workers excluded from federal unemployment assistance.
The CWE network was able to respond quickly to the myriad of challenges faced by our communities because the organizations have been providing similar services to workers for years, as part of an inclusive approach to workforce development. If workers lack secure housing, dependable childcare, or even something as simple as appropriate clothes for a job interview, they are unlikely to succeed in their goal of getting and keeping a job. For example, when a community member arrives at CLOTH, a partner in CWE’s Jobs to Build on Program, the staff conducts an initial assessment to identify immediate needs beyond job training and placement.
This approach allows CLOTH to provide additional benefits such as metro cards, uniforms, and pre-employment medical services. “We start with their needs,” says Daniel Mercado, Director of the Technology and Workforce Center. “We enroll them in the ESL program if they are in need of language skills. We enroll them in our computer skills program if that is needed. Our holistic approach can mean the difference between completing training and getting and keeping a job.” At Black Veterans for Social Justice, another Jobs to Build On partner, the organization sees a good job as key to economic stability. Still, some veterans need other services first. “Many are homeless,” the organization says. “That is an impediment to getting employment.” BVSJ works to get homeless veterans into subsidized housing or shelter, which helps provide the stability they need to be ready for work. The headwinds workers face have only grown stronger during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reviving our city economy, and ensuring that revival benefits working class communities, will mean reinvesting in workforce development programs at the community-based organizations that know what their community members need to succeed at work.