After negotiating with various churches and nonprofits, La Comida moved its program to Stevenson House in south Palo Alto, where it has been providing lunches to seniors for a suggested donation of $3 ever since.
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic creating new demand for food, the nonprofit is experiencing a growth spurt. La Comida began providing about 50 meals twice a week to low-income residents in Palo Alto Housing apartments starting in late March. And last week, the nonprofit signed an agreement with Lytton Gardens, a downtown senior community, where the nonprofit will be providing lunches Monday through Friday, said Bill Blodgett, chair 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. 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.
Part of the funding is more than $1 million from the federal government that Palo Alto is preparing to disperse in the coming months. That 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 Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in late March.
The City Council's Finance Committee approved on May 5 granting $48,181 to La Comida as part of the city's allocations of CDBG funding. The nonprofit has also benefited from county money and from the Palo Alto Community Fund's COVID-19 Relief Fund, which was set up during the pandemic.
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, disrupting people's income. La Comida is now serving people it hadn't seen before the crisis — about 15% of the clientele, Blodgett said.
Between its programs at Stevenson House and Lytton Gardens, as well as the lunches it distributes at the Masonic Center in downtown, 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 stay 6 feet apart, 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.
The city of Palo Alto is also directing more funding to organizations providing 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 through the federal block-grant program.
The funding couldn't come quickly enough for the nonprofit, which saw its rent relief fund shrink to about $25,000 in the first week of April, according to city staff. Philip Dah, senior director at the nonprofit's Opportunity Services Center, told the Finance Committee on May 5 that the facility continues to see new requests for help.
"These are folks who under normal circumstances, we've never seen before," Dah said. "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 23 of its shelter and service sites. Its shelters have been operating at capacity and its rotating shelter program in Palo Alto has extended its hours to better serve the clients.
Other nonprofits receiving city grants made possible by the CARES Act include the YWCA Silicon Valley, which supports victims of domestic violence and is receiving $10,000 for rental relief, and the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, which is receiving $75,000.
Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the Finance Committee on May 5 that the rental assistance from agencies 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 also deferring rent payments from its tenants with the help of federal funding. The agency received close to $800,000 through the "Payment Protection Plan" program in the federal bill, said Randy Tsuda, CEO of Palo Alto Housing. The funding has helped the nonprofit offset some of the losses that it would otherwise experience and make it easier to postpone rent for those who are feeling the financial pain.
Tsuda said the nonprofit has been regularly checking in with residents. In the first month of the shutdown, about 17% of the tenants reported that they were experiencing income interruptions to the point where they struggled to pay rent, Tsuda said. He said the agency expects the numbers to climb as the economic shutdown progresses.
"Many of our residents are those who are most affected by the COVID-19 shutdown. ... They are very susceptible to disruptions in income," he said.
Tsuda said the nonprofit has no plans to evict anyone but rather will eventually put residents on payment plans.
"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."
Palo Alto Housing is also 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.
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.
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