A few weeks ago, after taking my turn stocking up our church’s Little Free Pantry – a simple, standalone outdoor cupboard with giveaway groceries for anyone in need – a driver stopped by and added a large pack of toilet paper.
I shouted thanks and thought nothing more of it until this week, when Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director of the Daystar Life Center, recalled a woman’s touching gratitude for the toilet paper she had been offered with a bag of food.
That was before the pandemic. Before those of us who could afford to, frantically cleared supermarket shelves of the bathroom necessity. And before the nation racked up more than 14 million coronavirus infections, 1 million-plus right here in the Sunshine State.
Daystar, which relocated a little more than a year ago from St. Petersburg’s prosperous downtown to one of the city’s more modest African-American neighborhoods, has responded to the economic turmoil created by the seemingly unending health crisis. Needs have soared far beyond toilet paper. In fact, those seeking help have increased by as much as 38 percent. But statistics don’t quite convey the anguish of those in need, “the constant fear, the constant worry,” that Walker sees. “Fear of being sick, fear of being out on the street, fear of having your utility cut off.”
Between July and October, Daystar saw a 52 percent increase in requests for help to pay rent and a 33 percent jump in people asking for assistance with water, gas and electric bills. The small agency across from the Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center in the Wildwood neighborhood also recorded a 104 percent increase in the bags of groceries given away. There was also higher demand for help with ID’s, needed for jobs, housing and even for many homeless shelters.
It’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic has left scarcely a person untouched, or few unmoved, except, perhaps, for the most callous and self-absorbed. Earlier this year, I was horrified when a sister-in-law mentioned that she knew several people, including relatives, who had died of the coronavirus. Sadly, since then, I’ve also known of those who have succumbed to the virus and left behind grieving families.
Besides the loss of lives, there’s evidence everywhere that this pandemic is affecting everyday life. It’s forced some who had never asked for help into the humiliating position of having to do so now, as Walker can attest.
“A lot of people who are coming in vehicles, when they get out, you’re not sure if they’re a volunteer or a donor, and much like during the recession we had, they are in a crisis themselves,” she said.
“It’s not that poor people look different, but because they have had to survive by seeking help, they, unfortunately, have learned that they need to do what they need to do … People who are doing this for the first time are very quick to tell you that they’ve never had to do this before. It’s almost apologetic. But that’s why we’re here. And that’s why we are flexible in making our decisions.”
As we continue to learn, certain segments of society, already at a disadvantage, have been more hard-hit than others. A national study, “The Impact of Coronavirus on Households, By Race/Ethnicity,” conducted for NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, addresses this issue.
Conducted in July and August “to examine the most serious health and financial problems facing households” before the expiration of federal coronavirus support programs, the study aimed “to identify vulnerable populations in urgent need of government help or charitable aid.”
The findings highlight the struggles of Latino, Black, and Native American communities, each of which has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. The poll revealed that 72 percent of Latino households, 60 percent of Black households and 55 percent of Native American households reported serious financial problems. In comparison, only 37 percent of Asian and 36 percent of white households had such struggles.
Of course, financial challenges make it a hardship to put food on the table. As well, the pandemic has affected access to government safety net programs, Walker said. Daystar – where 52 percent of the clients it served between July and October were Black and 45 percent were white – has set up phones and laptops under a portico at the back of its building to help. Walker said such access is vital for people who need to sign up for SNAP and other government benefits. “Technology is great if you have it and it’s a real barrier if you don’t,” she said.
But SNAP benefits don’t cover necessities such as toilet paper, basic hygiene items, including toothpaste, and in this time of a pandemic, cleaning supplies. Daystar tries to have those on hand, especially for vulnerable households. It also distributes produce from its volunteer-run Edible Garden. Over the past year, the agency has given away 1,000 pounds of fresh produce. It goes as quickly as it’s harvested.
As we contemplate this year of catastrophic human loss, it’s imperative that we support agencies like Daystar that assist the poor and those unexpectedly so. Politicians in Washington, after all, are dragging their feet.