Spotlight Exclusives

Community Action Agencies Turn Their Attention to COVID-19 Relief

Denise Harlow, Community Action Partnership. Denise Harlow, Community Action Partnership., posted on

The COVID-19 pandemic poses significant hurdles in that services for low-income communities are difficult to provide yet more needed than ever. Such is the challenge facing the National Community Action Partnership, the national hub that connects over a thousand Community Action Agencies and federal, state, and local leaders to help fight poverty. Spotlight spoke with the National Community Action Partnership’s Chief Executive Officer, Denise Harlow, to discuss the implications of COVID-19 and how Community Action Agencies around the country are responding.  For more information about the National Community Action Partnership, you can visit their website here. This conversation has been lightly edited for content and length.

Can you give a brief overview of Community Action Partnership and the agencies?

National Community Action Partnership is the hub for the nation’s 1,000-plus local community action agencies. Local community action agencies strengthen communities and work to provide opportunities to families to achieve success. We’ve been around for more than 55 years as a national network and I think that now, certainly in the midst of COVID-19, is a time when a national infrastructure that has been in place for decades to support families and communities’ wellbeing becomes critically important. Our agencies have stepped up in the face of crisis in rural, urban, and suburban communities, and while the doors technically might be closed because people need to be physically distanced from one another, they’re still staying both socially connected as well as programmatically connected to families, whether it’s through home-delivered meals, drive-thru food pantries, or remote case management. We touch the lives in a typical year of about 15 million people. We serve 99% of America’s counties and we are in all states, the District of Columbia, and the territories.

It’s just an amazing network of organizations; 80% of them are nonprofit and they tend to be larger than the typical nonprofit with budgets between $5 million and $15 million. Some agencies are smaller than that and some are certainly much larger, but our agencies are a key part of the infrastructure in communities that support the health and well-being of its members. Agencies often start new projects and new programs are an incubator for innovative practices to address poverty. That agencies also serve as substantial hubs right now is critical, especially when they need to pivot to emergency service provision as our country is facing this crisis.

Can you share specific examples of what the agencies are doing?

I think of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo, California. They are a very large Community Action Agency and provide a myriad of services, as do most of our agencies, and they have a connection with the local hospital system where they take discharged homeless veterans.  They have had a homeless shelter for a long time and now in the COVID-19 moment, they remain open. They have set up their shelter in a way that folks who need to be more isolated can be more isolated. They’re cleaning the space in such a way that it’s acceptable and available to folks who need it and are keeping folks safe and healthy. They have a plan for what they will do if a resident does test positive for COVID-19. This is a case of keeping the doors open and really thinking strategically about how they need to deal with the COVID-19 response.

I think of the state of Maine, where our local agencies have been turned to by Maine Housing to deploy rental assistance statewide to make sure families are able to stay in their own homes, their own apartments, to maintain stability during this time. Assistance like this is even more important now as unemployment claims have overwhelmed systems and many people are still waiting for their first unemployment payment.  Community Action Agencies all across the country are providing critical supports that are helping to keep families safe and healthy.

I think of the food bank that’s part of Community Action Partnership in Orange County, California that has kept its doors open. You see images on the news of long lines at food banks in major cities and Community Action is there. Community Action agencies in smaller communities are facing similar needs and responding. For instance, the Northern Kentucky Community Action Committee is trying to raise funds and simultaneously figure out how to distribute resources without physical contact.

About half of the agencies in our network operate Head Start and certainly maintaining contact with the young children as well as their parents or their caregivers is critical right now. That may mean delivering meals that the kids normally would have obtained while they were in the program as well as making sure that we’re staying connected to parents and grandparents around social and emotional needs as well. Many agencies are determined to provide food to the whole family and not just the young children. We are certainly concerned about the long-term impact of the isolation on this country generally, but we also know that people living with low incomes are especially isolated and we’re doing our best to make sure everyone is staying socially connected during this time.

And there is also work around energy assistance and weatherization, correct?

A large number of community action agencies provide energy assistance, whether it’s emergency energy assistance or using state utility dollars to help keep the lights on and keep homes heated in the winter and cool in the summer. All of those are important when it comes to keeping families safe and healthy. As the weather heats up and many seniors and disabled individuals stay indoors, it will be critical that we make sure their homes are sufficiently cooled.

Many agencies also provide Weatherization services which have a double benefit of helping reduce families energy costs and reduces energy consumption for the community. The dollars families save are redeployed to food, school supplies, clothing, medical care, transportation, and other needs. We know that weatherization has an impact on folks who have asthma or other respiratory issues, and right now, we certainly know the challenges for people who have respiratory issues are ramped up during COVID-19. Now, is it a challenge to get into people’s homes to install weatherization measures? Yes, that’s a real issue. But we’re trying to pivot our programs and services in a way where they can still be deployed but will be safe and secure. We’ve been strategizing on how we can do that in a safe way that protects everybody, the installers as well as the family members. So, we have some places in the country that are still offering those services and others that are still trying to figure it out.

Are your agencies receiving additional funding through the CARES act or other COVID relief?

We’re very thankful for the CARES Act and the way in which Congress and the administration have moved to get that legislation signed and at the ready. Traditionally, what gives a Community Action Agency its designation is receipt of funding through the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG). That’s typically about a $740 million appropriation. In the CARES Act, there was $1 billion of CSBG funds to be deployed through states – it is a block grant – funded through the existing formula, which has been used for years. That will allow every local CAP agency in the country to receive additional dollars that will be put to expedited use. These dollars are meant to be flexible to local needs; what happens in Chattanooga, Tennessee is different than what happens in Chicago, which is different than what happens in rural Iowa.

Because CSBG is meant to be locally driven, even if it is a block grant, it allows it to be very nimble given local concerns. Community Action leverages those CSBG dollars and about $14 billion of other private, state and federal dollars. So, we’re hopeful that in addition to the CARES Act funds there may be other dollars, such as for Head Start activities, possibly providing summer supports to rising kindergarten children. We know that CDBG, the Community Development Block Grant, is a significant investment into cities and municipalities and some of those dollars flow back into community-based organizations to stabilize families, prevent homelessness, and support families as they work toward success. There’s a myriad of things that were in the CARES Act that community action agencies will benefit from, and I say benefit because they are then able to leverage those dollars to target local needs. These aren’t dollars that are cookie cutter. And if we think ahead, to contact tracing and needing to help families stabilize and quarantine in place for a while as we try to get our economy back working again, that need, to be able to be nimble and specific to each family’s needs… you can’t stress that enough. And we’ve been doing that for 55 years.

From a non-fiscal standpoint this must be a challenge as well. What are some of the strategies you are using to keep your staff up to date with a situation that’s changing constantly?

 We are a relatively small staff for a national organization, as there are about 17 of us. We are hosting weekly town hall meetings for the network – we have several sister organizations, CAPLAW (Community Action Program Legal Services Inc.), the National Community Action Foundation, and the National Association of State and Community Service Programs. The four national partner organizations have provided infrastructure support over the decades for Community Action. And right now, that infrastructure and support is so important, so we’re thankful that we’re able to convene the network weekly to share information, dialogue, hear concerns, hear the challenges on the ground.

We also convene our state association network, as we have about 50 or so state associations around the country, on Fridays. It’s the same kind of thing; what’s going on, here’s what we know. And we’re doing regular webinars and trainings for the network. We’re collecting stories, we’re collecting data. We know our agencies report their efforts every year on a variety of national performance indicators and are highly accountable through organizational standards, but right now we have to tell the story in real time. And so, what can we do to deploy our team to collect stories, to frame them up in a way that resonates with different audiences.

In your most recent town hall meetings, for example, what are some of the issues that came up?

I’ve been having calls with community action agency directors to pick their brains because it’s hard to know what’s going on in the field when you’re inside the Beltway. In those first few weeks, our agencies were focused on the immediate needs; how do we make sure families can eat tomorrow? How do we make sure the food boxes are deployed in a way that is safe for everybody? How do we stay connected to our families while we are working remotely?  But now our community action agency directors are moving to the next set of issues, like how do I bring back all of my staff physically? How do I stagger shifts? What are the structural changes that need to happen to my case management space? What new technology do I want to use? How do I safeguard my transportation vehicles? How do I get my programs back to where they need to be? We’re managing this crisis but it’s going to be with us for a while. Our eyes need to go to the horizon.

You’ve got to be an optimist to work in this field every day. And our staff and our agency folks around the country are just amazing.

The agencies have always had a focus on minority communities, but are there any particular tools or practices that you’re seeing given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on these families and communities?

One of our core value statements is that we believe that all people need to be treated with dignity and respect and we clearly recognize that structural racial, gender and other inequities remain barriers. We understand that communities of color are significantly, disproportionately impacted. And while we know those structural barriers and biases are built in the system, it’s our job to fight that and to call them out. We have had racial equity mixed into our sauce since our founding in the civil rights era. A line in our Promise says that we care about the entire community and we are consistent with that. We need to make sure that our health systems, our social services systems, our education and housing systems, all work to support all families. During this period, we plan to support our agencies as they work to make sure testing, tracing and supports are delivered to communities with significant needs.

How are agencies connected to local communities? Through the board structure?

Community action agencies are required to maintain what is called a tripartite structure, which means a third of their board of directors are elected officials, at least one third are democratically selected individuals from low-income communities, and the remaining directors are from the private sector, So we think it shows that it’s the entire community’s responsibility to fight poverty and increase family well-being. One other aspect of our statute is agencies are required to do complete a community assessment every three years and those results get fed into agency decisions on how to use their dollars and what work to pursue.

Community action agencies also have extensive partnerships with a wide range of folks in their communities. But we can always benefit from deepening or creating new partnerships. If folks are out there looking for ways to contribute and connect during this unprecedented time, please reach out to your local Community Action Agency. Our National Community Action Partnership website includes a map that can connect you to your local CAA if you are not already familiar with them.

Our national network of agencies, decades of local experience, board structure, regular assessment of local conditions help us stay tuned in to the needs of people all across the nation and uniquely positioned to respond rapidly and creatively.

Denise Harlow is the Chief Executive Officer at Community Action Partnership.

This interview was conducted before the recent national protests about police misconduct and the death of George Floyd. You can read the Partnership’s statement here.

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