Spotlight Exclusives

Coronavirus Takes Heavy Toll on the Homeless

Rev. June Cooper, City Mission Rev. June Cooper, City Mission, posted on

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, it continues to expose discrepancies in the American healthcare and social systems. The crises is taking a particular toll on homeless Americans–a reality that has become clear to the Boston-based homeless services organization City Mission  (the oldest multi-service agency in New England). Spotlight spoke with City Mission Executive Director Rev. June Cooper to discuss the unique challenges COVID-19 presents and what congressional measures are needed in order to improve the response. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Can you give us an overview of what City Mission does?

We are the oldest nonprofit in New England and second oldest in the country. We are a faith-based organization and we have been around for so much: pandemics, the Great Boston Fire, and all of that. We are responding to the crisis of family homelessness and trying to prevent it and we work in that space on a couple of levels. One level is the direct service program, which is called Lift Up. We work with single moms who are heads of households and we want to help them by keeping them from being homeless. We have experience in this field and know what methods work best, so we created this Lift Up model. We also have an empowerment program called Public Voice. So once people graduate from the Lift Up program, we invite people to speak up about their experiences. This is another mechanism or tool for individuals to share their story at public settings, so they’re gaining great empowerment skills, speaking skills, and these other important skills. The other side of our house has been evolving as we have moved into one of the most challenging neighborhoods of Boston and it’s become our community engagement side. So, we work to expose oppression and racism, and provide educational programs for seminaries, faith leaders, and other community leaders. We also have put together a program for a green book tour of the safe places African-American people traveled through in the ‘30s and ‘40s and even up into the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. This is to expose and explore how we think about these issues, such as family homelessness. We can keep giving out meals, we can keep giving out socks, but unless we get into the heart of these issues, and look at historical factors, we aren’t going to make any progress.

What are you seeing with your clients on the frontlines?

Let me share what I walk through every day. There’s a constant line for the food pantry starting at 10:00 that goes around the block. We are starting social distancing, but people are here to collect bags of foods and they are very hungry. These are really poor folks, a lot of Haitian immigrants, who really need this help. This has ramped up in the past couple of weeks, so we have basically doubled the amount of people we are serving in the past week.

We have a caseload of about 35 women and about half of them lost their jobs. And then to add on top of that, the kids are home from school now. We have 3 families who called about feeding their children. Children get free breakfast and lunch from Boston Public schools, but they aren’t accommodating to dietary restrictions, such as celiac. So, we have tried to accommodate that by giving them gift cards.

A really sad story I heard the other day from one of our case managers was about an estranged dad who was visiting his kids and he got sick and was diagnosed with COVID. Instead of going back to his original house, the hospital told him to go back to the house where he was staying with this family. Now the mom, who’s our client, just got diagnosed and is very sick. There are 3 kids in the house -10 years old, 18 years old, and a baby. We are talking to someone at Mass General Hospital and we said this doesn’t seem like a good idea to advise him to go back to a house where the mom is at risk (had two strokes and under 40) instead of isolating himself. Along with another housing agency that has been working with the family, we sent a letter on how we can get them more serious help. The fact of the matter is the testing just isn’t getting to the communities of color in Boston.

We got $20,000 in the past week from Liberty Mutual and the Harvard Community Health Plant, and it’s going toward helping our clients with rent, utilities, getting hooked up to Comcast, and food of course. We did the applications last Monday with Harvard and the money is already in the bank, so we are really grateful for that quick process.

How does your organization allocate aid to those in need?

We have an application process and it’s called “emergency need assistance.” Once we receive the application, we call them and try to tease out the most pressing need they have. Once we have the interview on the phone, we make the payment directly to the landlord or the utility company or whatever their need is. We’ve been a crisis intervention and emergency need organization for the past 50 years. In this particular crisis, we are getting really good responses from our grant makers and are able to provide targeted help.

Does the CARES Act that was recently passed by Congress provide funds to you or your clients?

We are not a small business as they define it, so we do not receive any help. Hopefully our families will be able to take advantage of the cash assistance that’s being offered. One of the unfortunate things, though, undocumented people won’t be able to access these funds. Also, if you haven’t filed a tax return, which a lot of poor folks don’t do, you will need to file separately to receive funds.

How is this affecting case managers who can’t meet with their clients face to face?

Our case managers make calls every week to check in with people and see what kinds of needs they have. That is done by phone or Facetime, if people have that technology. We meet as a team every week and last week’s task was to find out what kind of technology people have or don’t have. So, when our managers are calling their clients, they are asking about their broadband and technology access.

What do you think the impact is going to be on families and the kids you’re trying to help?

It requires some motivation for kids to get to the site where meals are being offered, and that might be an issue. Boston has a very dispersed public education system; we have kids who live upward of 5-6 miles from their school. One of the things that the public-school system has done which might turn out to be a silver lining is made the food available at all school sites. This might help people to know their neighbors a little better and help people come together during this time.

What’s the message you would have for policy makers in Washington? What would help you if there is additional legislation?

These direct funds, if we could really figure out how to get them in the hands of people that really need the money. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Even if there is another package coming down, it shouldn’t be the last one. Policymakers need to look at and understand how broke the system is. The health care system is being totally exposed in this crisis. We’ve talked about national healthcare for a long time, but really, at this point we need to know how we can provide better healthcare for all people. My friend at Mass General is telling me the directions and precautions they give are really targeted at middle-class people. It’s like telling homeless people to go home and put their feet up. They don’t have a home. We are really seeing the homeless people exposed and they have nowhere to go. The family homeless problem is huge. We have families that are stacked on top of each other – we have 15 people stacked on each other in a 2-bedroom apartment. The third world is coming to the first world right in front of us.

The Rev. June Cooper is executive director of City Mission in Boston.

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