COVID Call to Action: Combat Hunger and Homelessness in Sunnyvale

By: Abby Cunningham

Before the COVID-19 pandemic officially hit the Bay Area, another crisis loomed in the region. Rising income inequality crescendoed into a soaring divide, with people in the 90th percentile earning $384,000 per year while folks at the bottom 10% earned just $32,000. Basic needs like food and housing were already out of reach for cash-strapped working families. The pandemic made things tragically worse.

“A lot of people say ‘We’re all in the same boat,'” explained Marie Bernard, Executive Director for Sunnyvale Community Services. “But someone pointed out to me that many of our neighbors don’t have a boat. We’re all in the same storm, but we have to help those of us who don’t have any shelter from the economic crisis.”

Bay Area residents without food, housing or access to adequate medical care have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, often turning to organizations like Sunnyvale Community Services as their sole means of support. But organizations like CSC operate on razor-thin budgets that don’t allow for historic surges in demand. UWBA recognized the staggering need early on and swept into action with the COVID-19 Community Relief Fund.

“We’ve now received $225,000,” said Bernard. “We’re so grateful because it was early funding at the start of the shutdowns. We signed up to do this work, and if we have funding, there’s fuel in the tank for us to do our work as the community safety net.”

Founded in 1970, SCS is designated as one of seven Emergency Assistance Network (EAN) agencies who together provide services for all zip codes in Santa Clara County. The agency assists residents in all Sunnyvale zip codes and the neighboring Alviso community in San Jose, as well as homeless individuals throughout Santa Clara County.

For SCS, COVID-19 has meant overhauling their entire operation, from triaging rental assistance to providing groceries. Re-engineering their food-distribution system with social-distancing measures has meant scaling back their volunteer staff even as demand surges for emergency assistance. Everything now must be pre-bagged and carefully distributed by a skeleton crew of volunteers who don face masks and gloves to reach people in need. 

“Food is not virtual. You can do financial assistance, and you can do a lot of that work virtually or over the phone, but food needs to be physically handled and distributed in a very safe way,” said Bernard.

Meanwhile, phones are ringing off the hook. To help field the calls, the city of Sunnyvale has recruited a team of its bi-lingual staff members to cover the phones and answer questions about housing, evictions, rental assistance and options. This is particularly important in a city like Sunnyvale where an estimated 57% of its residents speak any one of over 100 languages other than English.

“We’re into something that’s on a totally different level than what we’ve ever faced as one of the essential service agencies open during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Bernard.

All told, Sunnyvale Community Services has seen a six-fold increase in the number of people needing assistance–people who, according to Bernard, have never had to ask for it.

The demand is only expected to increase in the coming months. Please join us today and make a contribution to the United Way Bay Area COVID-19 Community Relief Fund to support individuals in this time of need.

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