Many of the offices are closed to the public and most of the staff is working from home, but that doesn't mean that local non-profits like Action, Inc., SeniorCare and the Open Door have cut back on services for Manchester, Essex and the rest of Cape Ann. In fact, these services are more crucial than ever in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic and how it has affected the health, employment and day-to-day lives of those who live in the area.
“We are serving between 1,100-1,300 households a week across the entire organization each week which is up from about 800 per week,” explains Julie LaFontaine, executive director of The Open Door. “We are pushing out about 36,000 pounds of food - or 30,000 meals a week - through our two pantries, as compared to 25,000 pounds of food - or 21,800 meals a week - through our two pantries.”
For SeniorCare, the number of clients enrolled in home care services has risen from 1258 at the start of the year to 1,270 at the start of the week, with the Meals on Wheels – a meal delivery program that now serves over 600 seniors -- seeing an uptick in interest.
“In speaking to the intake CM and the CM scheduler, meals is the number one request,” explains Scott Trenti, Chief Executive Officer for SeniorCare. “Laundry, shopping are also big requests, as is personal care assistance. We are still receiving requests for homemaking, for in-home cleaning as well. We are still able to fill requests. We have, however, had many of our consumers temporarily suspend in-home services. They do not want anyone in their homes, and for some, their family members have been laid off, so they are able to assist.”
For Action, Inc., an organization that provides a number of housing-related services, there has been a bump in requests for rental assistance.
“The number of calls we are receiving for our Client Services program has increased from what we would normally expect to see at this time of year, but we know that our data does not yet show the full picture of need among our clients,” explains Peggy Hegarty-Steck, president and executive director for Action. “Typically, we see a large number of clients who need assistance with evictions and utility shut offs in our Client Services and Fuel Assistance programs; however, due to COVID-19, evictions and utility terminations are on hold. This means
that many families are not contacting us right now with these concerns and are instead focused on their more immediate needs – keeping their families safe, applying for unemployment, and so on. We expect to see a significant influx of clients seeking assistance when life begins to return to normal and evictions, terminations, etc. are allowed again.”
Like other nonprofits in the area, management and staff at Action have had to get creative to meet the needs of their clients during this time. This means going beyond Action’s already broad number of services such as utility and housing assistance, and running Cape Ann’s only emergency shelter and instituting a new program in response to the pandemic, the Cape Ann Emergency Relief Fund. Action staff has been redirected to get the CAERF up and running, providing financial relief – the expectation is that more than 500 households will receive $500 in assistance -- for Cape Ann residents paid who are paid an hourly wage and have experienced layoffs or reduced hours and a drastic loss of income. Since the program launched on April 6, Action has received over 200 applications and looks to start sending out the first checks this week.
As expected in these trying times, the demand for this type of program is high. Hegarty-Steck and her staff are asking for patience as they try to meet the needs of the community with this new program.
“Demand is high, and applications are taken on a first come, first served basis,” says Hegarty-Steck. “We are answering calls in the order that they are received. Once people have filled out an application, they can expect a call back within 72 hours. Please be patient.”
Another key change has been the temporary relocation of the Action Emergency Shelter from Main Street in Gloucester to the Cape Ann YMCA, a change that occurred at the end of March. Action combined with the day shelter and services provided by the Grace Center to provide a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week shelter service for clients, while also providing much of the daytime programming Grace Center guests benefit from during the week.
“The larger site reduces the risk of exposure for both staff and guests, as well as for the community,” says Hegarty-Steck. “By temporarily joining our operations with the Grace Center, weare able to offer 24/7 staffing so that shelter guests are able to ‘stay at home.’”
Action management and staff aren’t alone in coming up with unique answers to the challenges provided by current social distancing and stay-at-home advisory guidelines. Open Door has adjusted its programming as well, offering curbside pickup for groceries and deliveries for those in quarantine.
“From the outset, The Open Door doubled down on core food programs which include our two food pantries and our community meals,” says LaFontaine. “We quickly mobilized to convert our full-choice, self-shop pantry to prepacked bags distributed curbside from the front of the building. This allowed us to close our building to the public and secure our food distribution facility. Bags included dry and canned goods, produce, milk, eggs, meat and cheese. The number of bags received are based on household size reported.”
Households in quarantine can request home delivery, with volunteers wearing gloves and masks make a no-contact delivery. SNAP application assistance is provided to clients over the phone instead of in the office now. In place of community meals – a daily occurrence that traditionally provided both nutritional and psychosocial support for clients – Open Door is offering takeout meals between 3-5 p.m. daily.
“We are producing 800+ meals weekly for distribution to our clients and to clients of other community organizations including the YMCA and Wellspring SRO’s, and the new combined Action/Grace Center shelter,” says LaFontaine.
SeniorCare has had to adjust the parameters of Meals on Wheels, leaving food on doorstops or hanging them on doorknobs, stepping away and looking for verbal or visual contact from clients to confirm delivery and also accomplish a safety check. The organization is also utilizing technology to delivery crucial services in-home while protecting those who provide them.
“We have not had to eliminate any services and in fact, in conjunction with the Executive Office of Elder Affairs – EOEA - we will soon be implementing additional COVID-19 interim services including Care.Coach, which is a 24-7 monitoring system which utilizes avatar technology and round the clock health coaches who can interact verbally and through text, while providing medication and other reminders, socialization, emergency response if needed, play games, music, etc.,” says Trenti. “In addition, caregivers are able to monitor their loved ones through this technology. This is a good option for long distance caregivers.”
Even in light of the creative solutions that these nonprofits are utilizing in response to our current health crisis, there are still challenges each must face. Each organization has closed their offices to the public at this point, with minimal staff in house. However, this does not mean that staff are unnecessary at this point; in fact, each staff member is more crucial than ever right now.
SeniorCare has not had to lay off or furlough any staff at this point, and in fact is now fully staffed after recently filling a pair of vacancies. Offices are closed to the public and currently running on a skeleton crew of about five people, with the rest of the more than 100-person staff working remotely. The organization also contracts with a network of individuals who provide in-home care.
“They are true heroes in all of this as well as our drivers, volunteers and other such as protective services,” says Trenti.
Action offices are closed to the public as well, with most of the 70-person staff working remotely, with the exception of shelter staff. Key programming like housing, job training, education and energy services are being provided remotely using email, phone and communication apps like Zoom and Slack.
While moving to the YMCA has resolved some of the space issues that were present in the Emergency Shelter building on Main Street, the switch from overnight to 24-hour-a-day support has been a challenge for Action staff.
“Due to these significant logistical challenges, we are stretched very thin and our staff are working around the clock,” says Hegarty-Steck. “Now, we operate the Shelter with a 24/7 Action Inc. presence. We added a second overnight staff member and are fully staffing both weekend days because the Grace Center day programming is offered Monday through Friday. We are at capacity and unable to accept new guests in order to preserve the health of staff, guests and the community.”
Open Door has split their staff into two teams and is alternating them at different locations during the crisis.
“Green Team is in Gloucester where there is the heaviest demand, when Orange Team is offsite and working in our Ipswich pantry, which has a lower volume,” explains LaFontaine. “Then, the following week, Orange and Green teams switch. This builds in some breathing room for the team, reduces cross-contact in social distancing, and ensures longer sustainability.”
As dire as the Coronavirus pandemic has been for the Cape Ann community, its clear that those organizations who serve many of the most vulnerable in this community have responded utilizing creativity and compassion. In some instances, the community itself has helped in that response.
“Initially, we were challenged by a lack of PPE and - in particular - masks and gloves,” explains Trenti. “This is no longer the case for both SeniorCare and our provider network who continue to go into homes. We have had an admirable donation of cloth masks from community groups and individuals. We have also had an increase in the number of volunteers who have come forward to assist us including for the delivery of meals. This has been very helpful. In general, the community has really stepped up to help in some many ways, which allows us to continue our mission to assist older adults with remaining in their homes.”
For more information on Action, Inc., and services, visit www.actioninc.org
For more information on The Open Door, visit www.foodpantry.org
For more information on SeniorCare, Inc., visit www.seniorcareinc.org