Local nonprofit organizations that serve the most needy and vulnerable are hurriedly changing their programs to protect their clients and compensate for the loss of volunteers in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, leaders say. Others are shutting down to wait out the public health emergency.
Avenidas, Palo Alto's senior services agency, said in an online announcement on Thursday that it is temporarily shuttering its three centers: the main center at 450 Bryant St., its enrichment center at Cubberley Community Center, both in Palo Alto, and the Avenidas Rose Kleiner Health Center, the day health program in Mountain View.
The two Palo Alto centers will close as of Friday, March 13, and the Rose Kleiner Center will shut at the end of Friday after helping people who use the program to transition to other services.
No Avenidas staff or members have the virus, but the nonprofit's leaders wanted to ensure the safety of the senior community out of an abundance of caution, the agency said on its website.
"We are taking these steps voluntarily in order to fully support the health and wellness of our public, but also our staff. This is an extraordinary, temporary, and hopefully short term situation which we will continue to assess on a week-by-week basis," CEO Amy Andonian said in the statement.
Some organizations are struggling with how to serve their clients after seeing a drop in the numbers of volunteers and clients coming in since the public health emergency began.
"We are highly volunteer dependent for our labor force. We have had a significant fall off in volunteerism due to the COVID-19 precautions," Samaritan House CEO Bart Charlow said in an email to city of Menlo Park officials. "Most of our regular volunteers are in the senior age group at higher risk. Some services, such as the Kids Closet, may have to reduce hours in the immediate term. We are hoping it does not create fall off in our food programs or our free clinics, which are vital."
In Mountain View, Community Services Agency has seen a serious drop in participants and volunteers. Christine Flego, the food and nutrition center program director at CSA, said on a typical Thursday around 200 clients come to the food pantry. A week ago, on March 5, only 115 clients came through.
Tom Myers, the agency's CEO, said 15 to 20 volunteers work at the pantry on days when it is open. On Tuesday, March 10, there were only two volunteers and eight paid employees handing out food and checking in clients.
Many of the volunteers are retirees, a demographic that is most vulnerable to the virus, and they are staying home to limit their contact with the public, he said.
The coronavirus has changed how CSA is conducting its services. Its food pantry is closed off to clients, who used to walk in and browse among the food items. Instead, CSA has set up booths in their parking lot, and clients go to different areas to receive food staples, including eggs and chicken, in ready-to-go bags. CSA is handing clients who are homeless bags of ready-to-eat food, such as granola bars and ready-made salads.
The new procedure minimizes how much the food is handled, Myers said.
The senior nutrition program at the Mountain View Senior Center was no longer seating and serving its typical 150-200 seniors in the big hall at the center in an attempt to limit social contact, he added. Since March 9, the center has switched to handing out to-go hot meals to the seniors. The seniors line up out the door of the hall and enter two at a time, sanitize their hands and receive the hot meal, milk, fruit, condiments and cutlery wrapped in a napkin.
On Monday, the program saw a significant drop in seniors getting meals with only 85 coming in. That number decreased to 64 on Tuesday and to 50 on Wednesday.
La Comida, a Palo Alto nonprofit providing seniors with hot lunches, said it is also serving take-out meals at Stevenson House and offering take in or out lunches at the Masonic Hall in downtown Palo Alto. Staff and volunteers have increased cleaning and disinfecting of the lunch-serving areas and tables and placed sanitizing liquids at every table. Clients who don't want to eat on site can request take out bags.
Sue Tenerowicz, interim marketing director at Jewish Family and Children's Services, said their strategy is "ever-changing." They are seeing more requests through the Seniors At Home program from seniors who can't get out or who are afraid to go out. Staff are making more visits and fielding more phone calls, she said.
"Many of our programs serve Holocaust survivors," she said, and it's especially hard now around Passover when seders are being canceled. The organization is doing other things to connect people, such as Zoom conferencing and livestreaming events.
Samaritan House is having to plan ahead in case staff have to be quarantined. The organization runs a health service and a social service that is designated as an emergency food operation for disasters. It is having to make alternative plans for serving clients in both areas, Charlow said.
"In the event of a major local epidemic, or closure of any of our facilities due to exposure, or quarantine of any of our key staff, this will be highly difficult, maybe even impossible to implement. Right now we have a set of extra protocols in place to mitigate the risk," he said.
Fundraisers canceled, financial concerns mount
In addition to service changes, nonprofit organizations are worried about their long-term financial health if the coronavirus threat continues to disrupt life on the Midpeninsula.
Jewish Family and Children's Services has postponed its large fundraising gala to celebrate 170 years of service -- services that it employed during the 1918 influenza pandemic, she said. The fundraiser is one of their larger events and typically raises $1 million.
Other organizations have canceled or postponed major fundraising events to keep from spreading the virus. Without additional funding, many programs could be at risk at a time when they are most urgently needed.
Samaritan House is so heavily impacted by the loss of its fundraiser that it has reached out to city leaders for help.
In a letter to the Menlo Park mayor and city council members, Samaritan House, San Mateo County's safety net leader, said the cancellation of its major fundraiser for the year will mean a substantial loss.
"It is unlikely that we can recover most of the deficit this will create. We are attempting to postpone until mid-June, but that may not work out. Since we are 67% dependent upon public fundraising (not government) this is a major hit to our budget," Charlow said.
LifeMoves, which runs the Drop In Center at Palo Alto's Opportunity Center and many area shelters, has canceled its 2020 LifeMoves Thought Leader Luncheon, which was scheduled for March in Palo Alto, the organization announced on its website.
"The funds we raise at this event are vital to our work," CEO Bruce Ives wrote, noting the organization provides shelter for more than 950 men, women and children each night.
Leaders are also worried about their staff. Charlow said that if paid staff are quarantined or treated, the agency would not be able to cover their income loss, which he said would be crushing.
"While we have generous sick leave for all paid workers over 20 hours, two weeks of quarantine would exceed most of their accumulated leaves. They are already at the margins of what it takes financially to live here, and we cannot afford to lose our key staff, who right now do a mighty job of leveraging the labor of almost 4,000 volunteers.
"So things don't look very good right now and we're acting on everything we can anticipate, but are likely to be short the resources we will need," he said.
The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, based in Mountain View, has set up a regional response fund to support organizations that are leading public health and housing efforts in the nine Bay Area counties.
It has already identified about $1 million to support the fund and is just beginning its fundraising efforts, according to foundation spokesperson Chau Vuong. Organizations that will receive the funds for each county were identified based on past community leadership, as well as their ability to quickly distribute funds and deploy resources to nonprofits during a time of crisis. Most focus on supporting low-income residents, Vuong said.
"When COVID-19 first hit the Bay Area in February, SVCF immediately activated this fund to be able to respond to the evolving needs of our community. As COVID-19 grew more pervasive in our region, we and our other community foundation partners recognized that this fund needed to be a regional effort. It was a mutual decision with our fellow community foundations for SVCF to house and administer this fund for all nine Bay Area counties," she said in an email.
On Wednesday, the foundation hosted a phone conference for donors with the CDC Foundation. The latter provides funding for programs and services that are not covered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and government agencies and works with city, county and state officials.
CDC Foundation President and CEO Dr. Judy Monroe called efforts to support services amid the pandemic "a marathon." Particular areas of need include housing for the homeless, psychological support, particularly among the isolated elderly, and expanded testing for the coronavirus. Emerging needs include support for small businesses and hourly wage earners who are heavily impacted by income losses.
Places such as Santa Clara County, a large county with a big population, could need millions of dollars in support, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation said.
In Santa Clara County, funds will go to Destination: Home, a public-private partnership which will provide financial resources and help to people at risk of homelessness if coronavirus-related disruptions worsen. Destination: Home will work with its Homelessness Prevention System partners to provide rapid financial assistance and resources to individuals and households who would be at risk of homelessness if coronavirus-related disruptions worsen.
In San Mateo County, funds will go to support the county's core service agencies, to provide emergency housing and financial assistance for rent, mortgage, utilities, medical and transportation costs for people who risk homelessness due to hardships related to the new coronavirus outbreak.
Contributors to the emergency fund can choose to support any of the nine Bay Area counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma) in their efforts to address issues associated with COVID-19 coronavirus, or national response efforts managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Foundation. More information on how to donate to the fund can be found at siliconvalleycf.org/coronavirus-fund.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.