As the fallout from COVID-19 continues to grow, some of the most vulnerable people who rely on agencies that provide them with vital services are not able to access the programs because they are now online, according to Palo Alto's recent Human Services Needs Assessment survey.
Many organizations have had to pivot to online or "virtual" programs to deliver services to comply with state and county health orders for social distancing related to controlling the spread of COVID-19. Yet the survey showed the greatest hurdle facing the most vulnerable is limited access to these services because they can't afford computers or access technology at libraries, which aren't allowing the public inside, according to a city staff report of the survey.
At the same time, many organizations are also struggling financially.
"The loss of program and fundraising revenue is hitting organizations hard, while expenses for most are increasing. The unknown length of the COVID pandemic is also making it challenging to plan and budget for the future," a survey summary noted.
The survey results will be presented to the Human Relations Commission on Thursday evening during its discussion and recommendations on priority needs for the 2022-23 Human Services Resource Allocation Process (HSRAP). The program provides city funding for local organizations providing human service needs in the community. The city conducts a needs assessment survey and updates the city's demographics every two years as part of preparing for HSRAP.
The city received 27 responses from service providers, who said they have a greater need to help clients with basics such as food, mental health assistance and financial support, even though they aren't the regular services that they offer. The organizations are also seeing more unhoused people, particularly more older adults, who are seeking assistance.
In general, affordable housing, case management, emergency financial assistance, behavioral health services and disability services were the top five greatest needs of their clients, the providers said. Clients need access to low-cost or free behavioral health services, such as mental health. They also lack the ability to pay for other services such as health care, housing, child care and educational support beyond the free and low-cost services.
Vulnerable populations of older people, those with disabilities and individuals and families who are homeless are experiencing isolation and an increased need for food, medicine, well-care visits with nurses and protection from financial and physical abuse related to the COVID-19 crisis. Human services organizations are also seeing an increased need for individuals and families who didn't need to ask for help in the past, the city's Office of Human Services found.
Older adults are also malnourished, a condition that is exacerbated by the pandemic. Many seniors — particularly those living alone — are afraid of leaving their homes to pick up food due to the virus and the risk of becoming infected, the organizations said.
Accessing services during the pandemic has also changed significantly. Many, if not all agencies have moved most of their programs to a virtual format including telehealth, teletherapy, dispute resolution, fitness classes, book clubs and support groups, staff said the survey found. Funds to purchase technology so clients can access online services is among the greatest new gaps the providers identified, according to the needs assessment.
Meeting the increased demand has also become more challenging due to the pandemic. More than 60% of the organizations said COVID-19 has either "significantly" or "somewhat" decreased their fundraising efforts or overall revenue. Less than 25% reported their fundraising or revenue increased "somewhat." When it came to expenses, nearly 45% said the coronavirus increased their operational costs "somewhat" and 20% said their operational costs increased "significantly," according to the assessment.
Some organizations need substantial amounts of money to survive and are currently operating off of limited reserves. Many organizations rely on individual donations and many donors are no longer able to support organizations or have reduced their contributions.
"Even if they can increase their client base again, it will take many years to rebuild what was lost and they will not be able to withstand another crisis of this kind," staff noted.
Some organizations have needed to totally rethink their business models. Others, such as food providers, have found these changes more challenging due to COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings and food service operations. The state and county directives on limiting the number of people in a venue has significantly reduced the number of clients served, which also affects grants and donations.
"Even when the number of clients served can be increased, it is uncertain how quickly they will return in the numbers previously served. This is expected to cause a financial impact that will last for years," staff noted.
COVID-19 might also lead to permanent changes after the pandemic ends. Many organizations said they will keep some virtual services after the pandemic ends. Some online programs work better for clients, particularly for those with long commutes to access in-person services or who are parents with child care needs, they noted. Agencies serving populations at high risk for COVID-19 also anticipate their clients will be slow to return to in-person services and plan to offer virtual services for an extended period, staff wrote.
COVID 19 has also had a huge impact on staff members of many organizations.
"The physical and emotional toll COVID-19 has taken on our staff and clients is overwhelming. The possibility of burnout is ever-present and we have never seen stress levels this high. I'm worried about the long-term mental health effects on our staff and clients," a provider unidentified in the staff report said.
Most of the priority needs covered by HSRAP grants won't change, such as food, emergency financial assistance, housing, mental health, transportation, gender identity, homelessness, seniors, special needs residents, early education and youth well-being. But staff noted that the lack of technology, particularly as it is needed during the COVID-19 crisis, is the most pressing, unaddressed need.
The impact of COVID-19 on the human services community and residents "is beyond the capacity of what HSRAP can address," Minka van der Zwaag, manager of the Human Services office, said in the staff report.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.