Community Service Agency volunteer Steve Loo places food on a table for a client to grab in the nonprofit's parking lot on Nov. 19. Photo by Magali Gauthier.Posted November 25, 2020
In a time of crisis, CSA steps up to the plate
Community Services Agency offers a safety net for Mountain View's hungry, unemployed and homeless residents
by Kevin Forestieri
For the last eight months, Mountain View's social safety net has been stretched to its absolute limit.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Community Services Agency (CSA), the nonprofit charged with helping the city's neediest residents, suddenly faced an unprecedented challenge. Thousands of families were out of work and struggling to pay rent, seniors were isolated at home and the city's homeless population -- already in poor health -- were at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
That demand has been relentless and shows no sign of slowing any time soon, with a huge spike in new cases going into the holiday season. And with federal aid locked up by the Senate's inaction and regional assistance stretched thin, it has largely fallen to local cities and nonprofits to help needy residents weather the storm.
CSA and the city have done a commendable job so far in trying to keep people housed and fed during the pandemic, said Tom Myers, the nonprofit's executive director. But he worries that many families that have lost work will be facing eviction next year, and by then donors and volunteers alike will be too exhausted to keep up the pace.
"We live in a very generous community, but I am fearful that people will become fatigued by all the need that is surrounding us," Myers said. "And as we navigate into 2021, we need to be mindful that the needs will only increase."
CSA is one of seven nonprofit organizations serving Mountain View residents that benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund . Donations to the fund are divided equally among the nonprofits and are administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at no cost, so 100% of contributions go to the recipients.
CSA's role in the community changed virtually overnight, when the county's stay-at-home orders caused the service sector and the gig economy to collapse and unemployment to skyrocket, Myers said. Priorities quickly shifted towards rent relief for those at risk of displacement, which meant rapid new hires and a new system to handle a crush of requests. CSA has since issued more than 1,500 checks to needy families, each one averaging $2,046 in assistance.
Though the city of Mountain View has poured huge sums of cash into the program and has leaned on CSA to help residents stay housed during the pandemic, individual donors still play a huge role, Myers said. The biggest part of CSA's annual budget is support from private donors, which can be spent with far more flexibility. CSA dumped $1.2 million of its own money into the rent relief program and started cutting checks well before the city contributed, he said.
More recently, CSA has helped families with so-called "rapid response" assistance, providing money to those who couldn't normally afford to isolate and quarantine for 14 days when required under public health orders. Unlike rent relief, the rapid response does not have a robust, dedicated funding source just yet.
"Two weeks without any income coming in can devastate a family, and frankly that program is going to require some funding as well," Myers said.
Meanwhile, CSA's food pantry services are more popular than ever, with lines around the block for each week, and the senior nutrition program at the Mountain View Senior Center is feeding more residents than ever before. Even though dine-in services at the senior center are gone and replaced by take-away meals, Myers said participation has skyrocketed to nearly 200 meals per day. Funding for the program comes from Santa Clara County, but there are signs that money may be scaled back .
It hasn't been an easy transition helping clients during a pandemic, Myers said. The face-to-face interactions with clients, the welcoming lobby of CSA's headquarters and the hand selection of free groceries are all off-limits or severely curtailed in order to keep people safe. Newcomers who never thought they'd need to rely on a food pantry or ask for rental assistance are either getting help over the phone, Myers said, or talking to someone outside where it's neither warm nor friendly.
"It's not in an office, it's not quiet, it's not safe like that," he said. "And that kills me."
CSA has typically stayed out of politics and lobbying for public policies, even when the outcome is sure to have an impact on the nonprofit. It stayed out of the city's debate over RV parking prohibitions , and does not touch controversial issues like rent control. Yet Myers parted ways with that philosophy earlier this year in calling on the city to extend its moratorium on evictions earlier this year.
Even after handing out all those checks, Myers said he still believes Mountain View could still headed towards an eviction time bomb once statewide eviction protections run out and past unpaid rent becomes due. Many families were struggling to pay the bills even before COVID-19, and it's difficult to discern if all of the city's efforts have made the difference.
"The effort that has been done so far has been fantastic, and it's an effort that we can all be very proud of," Myers said. "But is it going to be enough? That's a giant question mark, and to be honest with you, I am as scared as anyone about the looming eviction crisis."
Another casualty of the pandemic will be this year's toy drive. Instead of accepting donated toys for the holiday season and having families visit to pick out gifts, CSA will be doling out gift cards instead. Hosting a toy store and having people shop in-person was seen as too dangerous, whereas gift cards can empower families to buy gifts that best suit them and their children.
Thanksgiving will still have special holiday food, but it will all be bagged for clients ahead of time.
If COVID-19 proved anything, Myers said, it's that CSA is the reliable social safety net for Mountain View that can be leveraged in a time of crisis, and that cities without a nonprofit like CSA are currently at a huge disadvantage. But it's going to take more help to keep up the pace, and no letting up as the pandemic progresses into 2021.
"We want to make sure we're in a place where we can continue to step up to the plate, because there are too many people who need our assistance," Myers said.