4As unemployment rates across New York State rise due to COVID-19 related layoffs, many Tompkins County charities are adapting to support an increasingly vulnerable population, while community members are finding ways to help one another.
“We are seeing and experiencing a real growth in need,” said Katy Noonan ’81, Community Relations Manager for Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County.
According to its website, Loaves and Fishes provides meals and advocacy to those in need. It is a Christian ministry, but serves all regardless of faith.
To comply with social distancing rules, Loaves and Fishes now provides meal pick-up services outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church — located on 210 N. Cayuga St — and is working with partner organizations to have meals delivered.
In order to accommodate the need for meal delivery and the general increase in demand for food assistance, Loaves and Fishes is now working with Tompkins County Department of Social Services, Tompkins County Health Department, St. John’s Community Services and volunteers.
Loaves and Fishes is also working to protect their volunteers while trying to meet an increased demand for food.
Dining room space will now be used for meal preparation so volunteers can be spaced six feet apart from one another, according to Isaiah Parker ’03, Loaves and Fishes operations manager. Only eight volunteers are allowed in the building at a time, and volunteers who are at higher risk for COVID-19 are encouraged to stay home.
According to Noonan, a rise in unemployment may contribute to changing demographics in the population who Loaves and Fishes provides with food.
“We are seeing a lot of young faces and there is a direct correlation between that and what is happening with the economy and restaurant industry, where people were living paycheck to paycheck or tip to tip, and now they don’t have that income,” Noonan said.
In addition to food assistance from local charities, unemployed people in Tompkins County can also get unemployment benefits, which some charities are helping them apply for.
According to Peter Meyers, Tompkins County Workers Center president, its staff is working hard to help local residents — who have been impacted by layoffs — file for unemployment, as well as petitioning for the creation of a local emergency fund and rent freeze.
Meyers sees the issues of unemployment benefits and a rent freeze as deeply linked to one another.
“Unemployment [benefits] wouldn’t even be enough to cover rent, and workers have a lot of expenses besides rent,” Meyers said.
In addition to government aid, and assistance from local charities, community members are helping one another more informally. One group that Tompkins County residents are using to help one another is the Mutual Aid Tompkins County Facebook page.
“We have learned to take care of each other neighbor to neighbor outside of the systems who historically ignore us,” wrote Veronica Fitzhugh, Mutual Aid organizer, in an email to The Sun. “We don’t need another savior or group drowning in the undertow of their bureaucracy and inertia.”
Participants can post requests for any immediate need, including food and sanitary items, as well as offers to donate different items to the Tompkins County Mutual Aid Immediate Needs group.
Laura Cole, who is homeless, was connected with the page by her case manager. Cole requested groceries delivered to her campsite.
“[I got] everything I asked for plus some,” Cole said. “I actually shared it with a lot of people that needed it.”
On the Mutual Aid Tompkins County Facebook page, members can circulate questions about where to find resources, as well as news of events such as emergency food pantries.
Nikki Sayward, a member of the group, has been laid off from her part-time, non-union job at Cornell Dining until August. She also lost her part-time job as an office coordinator for an eating disorder recovery program at the Sol Stone Center, a partial hospitalization program that is a part of the Upstate New York Eating Disorder Service.
In an effort to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19, Sayward applied for unemployment benefits, is considering applying for food stamps,and is even taking a free online course on science to better support her friends who are anxious about the novel virus.
“Some of my friends are more stressed out than I am, so how can I be supportive to them?” Sayward said.