It’s an unusually hot spring day in East Oakland. Outside Street Level Health Project, a community center in the heart of the Fruitvale that serves many of the neighborhood’s low-wage immigrant workers, paper signs written in Spanish and English encourage people on the sidewalk to “stay six feet apart.” Workers begin to arrive at the organization’s storefront on East 15th Street, and soon, a line wraps around the block. Toward the front, Gabriela Galicia, Street Level Health Project’s director, explains in Spanish that wearing a mask is now mandatory when running essential errands. The workers listen attentively.
Toribio is one of the people standing in line. He soon receives a plastic bag filled with fruits, vegetables and other food. An immigrant from Veracruz state in Mexico, Toribio (who declined to share his last name) has lived in Oakland for the past 16 years, works as a day laborer, and has been using Street Level’s services for a decade. He said the organization’s food giveaways have been a reliable and much-needed source of relief during the pandemic. Since Alameda County ordered residents to shelter-in-place two months ago, he has been unable to land a single job.
“I come by to get food every week, and I really appreciate everything this organization does,” he said. “They are doing humanitarian work to help the community.”
Toribio is one of many immigrant day laborers in Oakland from southern Mexico, Guatemala and other parts of Central America whose livelihoods depend on finding temporary, manual-labor jobs. This workforce, like so many others, has been hard-hit by the pandemic. But day laborers are particularly vulnerable: many undocumented workers are unable to file for unemployment, and undocumented people are barred from receiving benefits under the CARES Act, a $2 trillion federal stimulus meant to soften the pandemic’s economic blow.
In response, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a $125 million disaster relief fund on April 15 for undocumented people excluded from federal relief, a group that accounts for 10% of the state’s workforce. California is allocating $75 million to the fund, with the remaining $50 million being raised by a consortium of philanthropic organizations.
The state plan calls for community-based nonprofit groups to conduct outreach, screen for eligibility and help distribute payments. Individuals who can show they are undocumented, don’t qualify for federal stimulus dollars, and have experienced hardships due to COVID-19 will be eligible to receive a one-time payment of $500. Households with two or more undocumented adults could receive up to $1,000 in assistance.
But it’s been more than three weeks since the governor’s announcement, and there is still no exact timetable for when that money will be disbursed. Complicating matters, conservative groups such as the Center for American Liberty have challenged the plan in state courts, slowing it down even more.
[UPDATE: Shortly after this article was published, the State of California announced that qualifying undocumented residents can begin applying for financial assistance under its plan on Monday, May 18.]
With no immediate government relief in sight, the local emergency assistance provided by Street Level Health Project and other community groups has been a crucial safety net for many day laborers and undocumented residents in Oakland.
Getting ahead of the crisis—and getting creative
Prior to the pandemic, Street Level’s work relied heavily on in-person outreach to ensure that community members had access to medical care, mental health services, and accurate information about their legal rights.
Once the pandemic hit, however, the nonprofit needed to make changes to protect staff and members. “A week or two before the shelter-in-place, we started taking steps to shift our programming,” said Galicia.
The organization started screening members at the door for its Wednesday drop-in clinic, which typically draws up to 100 people. “We started to see community members come in really sick. We didn’t know if they had symptoms or not, but we were taking the precaution of letting them know that they had to go home and isolate themselves,” said Galicia.
Without sufficient medical staff to run a full clinic, the organization temporarily closed the drop-in clinic altogether — but not before delivering two-months of prescription refills to members who are senior citizens.
Street Level is one of over 200 health clinic sites in California that have been temporarily closed due to the pandemic, as of May 1. It’s managed to convert some in-person services to a hotline, leveraging an existing hotline system that was already being used by Street Level’s day labor program. “We have really basic infrastructure and not much funding to build out a whole program,” Galicia said.
By calling a single hotline number, the organization’s members can now access information about COVID-19 as it becomes available, enroll in the CalFresh food stamp program, complete the 2020 Census questionnaire, connect with a mental health counselor, speak with an herbalist or nutrition specialist, get information about food distribution, and learn about workers’ rights and housing. The hotline also provides translation services for indigenous Mam speakers from Guatemala, a growing community in East Oakland.
Street Level had ended their weekly food giveaways along with closing the drop-in clinic, said Galicia. But after hearing from residents on the hotline, they changed course.
“After hearing from the community through those initial calls, of people needing money and food, we decided to restart the weekly distribution program,” Galicia said. Instead of having residents come inside to fill their own carts, the organization now has the bags of food ready at the door for members who line up outside while staying socially-distanced.
Prior to shelter-in-place, Street Level was distributing between 60-80 bags of food every week. Since then, the number has almost doubled to more than 150 bags per week. The organization receives its weekly supply of food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank.
While the hotline has been critical in helping to connect community members to vital services, it hasn’t changed the reality that job opportunities for day laborers have drastically declined during the coronavirus pandemic.
Based on her own community outreach, Galicia estimates that on any given day, there are still over 300 workers out in the streets of Oakland, hoping to find work. Since the shelter-in-place order, Street Level has only been able to place workers in a handful of jobs, and Galicia estimates that up to 80% of the workers in their network have been unemployed for the past two months.
To help fill the void, Street Level launched its own COVID-19 Emergency Fund, which at the time of this report had raised over $69,000 in donations to support day laborers and other low-wage immigrant workers in Oakland with one-time cash assistance payments of $500.
With construction, gardening and landscaping now deemed essential jobs as of May 5, Galicia is hopeful that more day laborers will soon find employment.
Immigrant workers from Guatemala are among the most-impacted groups. Ten years ago, said Galicia, the nonprofit primarily served immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. But the Mam-speaking population has grown over the last five years. Galicia estimates that 70% of day laborers currently in Oakland are from Guatemala. The older the immigrant, she said, the less likely they are to read or write beyond an elementary school level.
“This is why in-person outreach is so important,” said Galicia. Francisco Pablo Matias, one of Street Level’s part-time outreach specialists who speaks Mam, goes out three days a week to help translate information and questions. Galicia added that finding funding to support Mam interpreters has been difficult.
Other community-health organizations in the Fruitvale, including La Clínica de La Raza, have joined in the effort to provide in-language information to the Mam community about resources available during the pandemic.
While Galicia grapples with the disparity and lack of support for day laborers, Toribio, the day laborer who recently picked up food at Street Level, remains optimistic that there are better days ahead.
“Confio en Dios en que todo esto pase, como dicen, después de la tormenta llega la calma,” Toribio said in Spanish. “I have faith in God that this will pass. Like they say, there’s always a calm after the storm.”