For nearly 50 years, Community Human Services (CHS) has provided low-income individuals and those experiencing homelessness in our region access to stable housing, quality food and community resources. The agency has operated under the belief that all people should be able to live as vibrant and integral members of their community.
When the threat of COVID-19 emerged, CHS quickly put its decades of experience to work, partnering with the County’s Department of Human Services to operate Safe Haven, a hotel turned temporary isolation and quarantine facility for those at-risk of or impacted by the disease. While many of us are able to safely isolate in the comfort of our homes, individuals experiencing homelessness and those living in group (congregate) housing have a harder time separating themselves from possible contagion.
Since opening its doors, Safe Haven has accepted referrals from a number of partners, including homeless shelters, street outreach providers, and organizations serving refugees and immigrants. It has also housed frontline staff who were exposed to COVID-19 and needed a place to stay until they could safely return to their families. While COVID-positive and at-risk individuals have come through the facility, no one currently staying at Safe Haven has tested positive.
South Oakland Food Pantry
In addition to operating emergency shelters and other residential facilities, CHS operates a number of programs and facilities focused on access to quality food. Many of these facilities have been greatly impacted by COVID-19, as needs have increased and changes have been made to keep everyone safe. Of all its facilities, COVID-19 has had the greatest operational impact on CHS’s food pantry in South Oakland.
Before the pandemic, this small, community-centered space provided an intimate environment for clients as they shopped the pantry’s weekly selection of fresh food. Volunteers would assist seniors and clients with physical disabilities in carrying food to their cars. But in February, social distancing precautions changed all of that. Nearly overnight, the pantry transitioned to providing food box pickups at its front door. While staff and families missed the ways they were able to connect with one another while shopping at the pantry, the changes were important to keep everyone safe.
More broadly, CHS has used the pandemic as an opportunity to reevaluate how it serves communities and clients. COVID-19 has made it more difficult for low-income households to achieve stability; limitations on public transportation, along with lost jobs and closed schools, have made accessing and affording quality food a real challenge.
To combat rising food insecurity, the pantry began distributing three different types of food boxes: street boxes, which contain ready and easy-to-eat foods for unhoused individuals living in camps or on the street; shelf-stable boxes, which provide non-perishable foods for individuals and families living with limited refrigeration or cooking equipment; and produce boxes that contain dairy, meat and produce. “Giving food that best fits a client’s current situation allows us to make best use of the pantry’s resources,” said CHS.
Since February, the pantry has gone from serving over 150 households each week to over 250. Altogether, this represents more than 10,000 pounds of food each week. But additional food distributed means additional costs; the pantry is currently in need of funding to meet this new demand. For many of the 1,000 families that visit each month, the pantry is their only reliable source of fresh food.
Some help has arrived to meet the growing need, for which CHS is deeply grateful. Two Men and a Truck and Miller’s Ace Hardware have both donated boxes, Operation Safety net helps sort food and distribute boxes for street outreach, Pamela’s Diner in Oakland has donated eggs, and the University of Pittsburgh’s food pantry has donated $1,000 worth of food.