In the Eye of the Storm: I Battle The Pandemic’s Impacts

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With triple Boston’s rate of COVID-19 infection and six times the rate of Massachusetts as a whole, Chelsea’s 40,000 residents have experienced far more than their fair share of the pandemic.

Chelsea is a close-knit community, so everyone knows someone who has gotten sick, and many know someone who has died.

I'm a Jamaica Plain resident Stefanie Shull, and I run the CONNECT economic mobility partnership based at The Neighborhood Developers.  CONNECT serves 3,500 people/year, most of whom live in Chelsea, Revere, Everett, Malden, and East Boston.

Before the pandemic hit, I was focused on building more robust training and job placement services in the area, to take advantage of the strong economy.  As the U.S. outbreak took hold in early March, it was clear that would need to be set aside.

Having worked on post-Katrina recovery in Louisiana for three years, I felt like I had some idea of what was coming. I cried off and on for a week thinking about all the gains that will be reversed, the financial hardships people will go through, the recovery period that will take far longer and be far more painful than anyone can imagine... because it’s always the less fortunate among us who are hit the hardest.

And Chelsea has indeed been hit hard. An estimated 80% of its population were engaged in “essential” but low-paid jobs, many of which involve a high degree of contact with other people. Most folks don’t have a financial cushion, so anyone whose job didn’t disappear overnight had to accept the risk of exposure in order continue paying the bills. With a population that relies heavily on public transit and often lives in overcrowded conditions, Chelsea quickly became the epicenter of the Massachusetts outbreak.

At the same time, all the normal challenges and indignities of low-income life rapidly compounded: lengthy and complicated processes to get assistance, slow or non-existent internet service, application backlogs, landlord harassment, scams, and a lack of stop-gap emergency cash. During the past two months, myself and my team built a hotline that offers area residents assistance with some of these problems in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic, and works with an interpreter service based in Somerville to assist in over a dozen other languages. At first around 75% of our calls were about unemployment benefits, but now it’s increasingly about getting help to pay rent. Depending on what callers need and what language they prefer, their calls are routed to one of about 35 staff and trained bilingual volunteers operating out of their homes around the Boston region.

TND is also one of several organizations raising money for direct aid to needy families in the area. We don’t have much of a safety net in this country, and it’s hard to figure out what you’re eligible for, much less actually get it. And then there’s a whole lot of people who for various reasons don’t qualify for much. Do we let them and their kids starve or go live under a bridge? I think we can do better than that.

The Boston Public Schools alerted families that they will be receiving federal food benefits—several hundred dollars per enrolled child—even if they’re not low-income. It’s because our district has universal free breakfast and lunch. There are definitely some BPS families who don’t need that benefit, but they could accept it anyway and then donate an equivalent amount to needy families. It would go a long way to filling some holes in the safety net, at no cost to the donor, and might even be tax-deductible.

Please consider helping by going to  theneighborhooddevelopers.org/support-us or unitedwaymassbay.org/covid-19/local-funds/chelsea.

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