Three years ago, La Comida was facing an existential crisis.
The Palo Alto nonprofit, which for decades had provided affordable lunches to seniors at the old Avenidas building, was facing an uncertain future when Avenidas began reconstructing its Bryant Street building, which would no longer house La Comida's lunches.
After negotiating with various churches and nonprofits, La Comida shifted its program to Stevenson House, where it has been providing lunches to seniors for a suggested donation of $3.
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic creating new demand for food, the nonprofit is experiencing a growth spurt. When the public health emergency kicked off in late March, La Comida began providing about 50 meals twice a week to low-income residents in Palo Alto Housing apartments. And last week, the nonprofit signed an agreement with Lytton Gardens, a senior community in downtown where the nonprofit will be providing lunches Monday through Friday, said Bill Blodgett, member of the La Comida board of directors.
La Comida is one of several nonprofits that have modified and expanded their services to meet the challenges caused by the pandemic. Boosted with recent funding from federal, county and local agencies, donations from local foundations and a surge in demand, some nonprofit groups are transforming their offerings to meet the moment.
Many are benefiting from increased grant opportunities, which includes more than $1 million in federal funding that Palo Alto is preparing to disperse in the coming months. The funding includes about $850,000 from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), a federal program that supports social services, housing and economic development. Palo Alto has also received $294,909 from the Coronavirus Air, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in late March.
For La Comida and other nonprofits serving low-income residents, the funding comes at a critical time. The economic shutdown has prompted mass layoffs throughout the region, creating income disruptions. While some seniors whom La Comida has long served have stopped coming because of the shelter-in-place order, about 15% of the people the nonprofit serves are those it hasn't seen before the crisis, Blodgett said.
Between its programs at Stevenson House and Lytton Gardens, as well as the lunches it distributes at the Masonic Center, the nonprofit has roughly doubled the number of daily lunches it is providing, from about 145 before the coronavirus shutdown to about 295 today, Blodgett told this news organization.
"We're thinking about ways to help seniors. It's difficult for many to get out to the store. It's risky. A lot of seniors prefer not to go to the grocery stores for supplies," Blodgett said.
Instead of holding lunch gatherings, La Comida volunteers now set up tables outside Stevenson House and hand out lunches to visitors. They wear personal protective equipment and they ask seniors to space out, consistent with social-distancing protocols. They are also de-emphasizing the suggested donations, which Blodgett notes have never been a requirement.
"We'd rather not be handling a lot of cash and asking seniors to be donating at this time," Blodgett said.
Like other area nonprofits, La Comida was able to secure some grants that allowed it to expand services. The City Council's Finance Committee approved on May 5 the city's allocations of CDBG funding that include $48,181 to La Comida. The nonprofit has also benefited from Santa Clara County support and from the Palo Alto Community Fund's COVID-19 Relief Fund, which was set up during the pandemic and which Blodgett said has been "very generous" in helping La Comida fulfill its mission.
The social aspect of its lunches has been significantly diminished by the crisis, Blodget asked. This has caused some frustration.
"Certainly, the program is lacking some of the social interaction that is so valuable," he said. "So we look forward to the day where we can be having the congregants dining again and have our seniors together," Blodgett said.
In addition to supporting nonprofits that provide food services, Palo Alto is also directing more funding toward rent relief, an area that has seen a surge of demand because of the pandemic. The biggest recipient of these funds is LifeMoves, which is set to receive $294,000 in federal funding through the city-administered program.
The growing demand for rental assistance has nearly depleted the nonprofit's rent relief fund, which was down to about $25,000 in the first week of April, according to city staff. Philip Dah, senior director at the Opportunity Services Center, told the Finance Committee on May 5 that the facility continues to see new requests for help.
"We're seeing a lot of people who are coming to us for rent," Dah said. "These are folks who under normal circumstances, we've never seen before. Under normal circumstances, we probably see about three or four applications a month. Now, we're seeing about 15 a day. It's really unprecedented."
LifeMoves has also reported an increase in unsheltered clients who are using the center for food, restrooms, sanitation and showers, according to a statement the nonprofit provided to this news organization. It has seen more demand across all of its 23 shelter and service sites. Its shelters have been operating at capacity and its rotating shelter program in Palo Alto has extended hours to better serve the growing need.
"We are also providing information and resources related to COVID-19 and a direct connection to urgent health care if needed — protecting both our clients and our wider community. While our resources have been stretched, our frontline staff has been remarkable and we've had great support from our community," LifeMoves said in a statement.
The city's funding plan also includes $10,000 in rental relief for the YWCA Silicon Valley, which supports victims of domestic violence, and $75,000 for the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center — grants that were made possible by CARES Act funding.
Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the Finance Committee on May 5 that the recent boost in federal funding allows the city to quickly disperse money out to agencies that are helping residents who are struggling to pay rent. Rent amounts would range from $1,500 to $2,000 and recipients would be able to get help for up to three months.
The city's largest provider of affordable housing, Palo Alto Housing, is set to receive $149,950 in federal funding through the city. This funding, however, would be used not for rent relief, but to rehabilitate Alma Place, a housing complex at 753 Alma St.
The agency did, however, receive close to $800,000 through the "Payment Protection Plan" program in the federal bill, said Randy Tsuda, CEO of Palo Alto Housing, which this week announced that it is changing its name to Alta Housing. The funding has helped the nonprofit offset some of the losses that it would otherwise experience and make it easier for Palo Alto Housing to defer rents for those who are feeling the financial pain.
Tsuda said the nonprofit has been regularly checking in with residents who have reported difficulties in paying rent. In the first month of the shutdown, about 17% of the tenants had reported that they were experiencing income interruptions to the point where they're struggling to pay rent, Tsuda said. He said the agency expects the numbers to climb as the economic shutdown progresses.
"We are seeing a lot of residents struggling with income loss," Tsuda said. "Many of our residents are those who are most affected by the COVID-19 shutdown. … They are very susceptible to disruptions in income."
Tsuda said the nonprofit is collaborating with its residents and that it had no plans to evict anyone, even before state, county and local laws made evictions illegal during the public health crisis. Eventually, the agency plans to put residents on payment plans, he said.
"That gives us some financial breathing room for eight weeks and it can cover a lot of salaries, benefit costs and rents," Tsuda said of the federal grant. "It takes some pressure off our organization and gives us the ability to work more cooperatively with residents."
In addition to the CDBG funds, the city plans to distribute another $74,600 through its Emergency Needs Funds, which provides one-time grants of up to $10,000 to local nonprofits. LifeMoves and Palo Alto Housing would each receive $10,000 through this fund, money that would be used for grocery gift cards for low-income residents, according to a report from the Community Services Department.
The fund would also provide $10,000 for the Downtown Streets Team food closet (in addition to the $100,000 that the city is providing through the CDBG program) and for the Heart & Home Collaborative, a seasonal shelter for unhoused women.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.