Getting Food Onto Nearly 200 Tables

Ulster County’s immigrant community was hit harder than most of us by the pandemic. Immigrants’ wages in normal times are already low. There is no cushion for basic needs when work disappears, and most workers in this community have no access to unemployment compensation, welfare, or emergency federal allocations of cash to laid-off workers.

From the earliest Covid 19 disruptions, UIDN expanded our food assistance. Now, in early June, over 200 volunteers are shopping and/or delivering food to 174 families who can’t shop for themselves due to lack of money, transportation, and/or childcare.

Volunteers are matched with an immigrant family then shop and deliver basic foods every two weeks. Shoppers are offered reimbursement by UIDN, though many decline. (Thank you!) Some supplies, e.g., fresh fruits and vegetables, are donated by area food pantries and delivered by our Wednesday volunteers. Together, all these volunteers and donors provide essential nutrition to recipient families six times each month.

Volunteers also have assisted eligible families to apply for help from area agencies. Currently, the 2020 census is underway, and it is critically important for members of the immigrant community to be part of the count. We’ve texted reminders and info to 150 households, and we include an informational flyer in our food deliveries. (Learn more.)

To volunteer for this or other work with UIDN, apply here.

Keeping a Roof Overhead

Housing security is another critical need. Unpaid rent and utility charges have mounted throughout the economic slowdown. This is especially so for those laid off, given reduced hours, or needing to stay home with children after schools and daycare centers closed. Even though immigrants’ housing is often substandard, many rents were already “unaffordable” by federal standards. Sometimes families double up.

The governor declared a moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures but may continue when it expires August 20. Regardless, all past due rent and utility bills will still be owed.

To address the immediate crisis, UIDN tapped sources beyond individual donors, including United Way of Ulster County, Catholic Charities, and especially, Episcopal Charities. We then negotiated with many landlords on behalf of their tenants to win reductions of current rent, typically $1000-$1200 monthly. Some landlords were happy to help, at least in the first month, but as we move through month three, some landlords are themselves hard pressed to cover costs and avoid foreclosure by banks holding their mortgages.

All told close to 100 families have received rental and/or utility assistance since March with payments from UIDN totaling over $38,000 for May alone. Grants and individual donations to UIDN made this possible. Meanwhile, our friends’ incomes are not yet restored, and back rents and utilities bills are mounting. New families are reaching out to us, and many helped earlier need additional aid in June.

Working with Children and Schools

U.S. education, both public and private, has been severely challenged by the coronavirus and economic dislocation. For immigrant children this has been especially costly: their steady progress in learning English and other disciplines is a major factor in helping them and their parents find their way forward.

We have been especially moved and impressed by the efforts of many teachers, in particular specialists in English language learning, who mobilized themselves to stay in touch with students and their families, above and beyond official expectations and before school districts set goals for this exceptional school year. We salute them.

UIDN’s own schools outreach project has a double goal: to address the unmet educational needs of immigrant children and to support school districts in attending to those needs. When schools closed in March, our pilot after school program at Kingston’s Chambers Elementary School likewise had to close. Over a dozen volunteer tutors were probably as disappointed as the 27 Kindergarten-Grade 4 children who came regularly to their Wednesday “Fun Day.”

We had hoped that online teaching would allow the after school program to continue, but legal concerns prevented Kingston Schools from letting us use their technology to reach students. Meanwhile, immigrant kids were in danger of being left out of online schooling altogether for lack of affordable wifi service. Leaders of the after school program pressed the issue with the district and with Spectrum; immigrant kids got online access, at least through the school year.

AND our volunteer tutors decided to use the teaching and recreational materials we had gathered for the after school program to reach out to “our kids” in their own homes. Tutors met and divided the materials into gift packages for the children and then began delivering them on an appointed day every other week in May and June. Big smiles all around – we even have pictures but can’t publish them here out of respect for the privacy of the children.

Reaching Out to Learn What is Needed

UIDN’s Helpline has from our beginnings provided a phone number (1-888-726-7276) to call when immigrants need help navigating the obstacle course that U.S. immigrant policy has made for them. Helpline operators are fluent in Spanish and skilled in bringing requests for help to someone who can offer a useful response.

As the pandemic and resulting economic dislocation have dramatically intensified the problems confronting immigrant families, the number of Helpline operators has grown from a handful to 18. Operators have recently added to their conversations an informal survey to learn what sorts of problems our callers are confronted with or anticipate.

Photo: Leslie Gallagher.

Photo: RUPCO

Photo: Kim Touchette