By Maha Freij, ACCESS Executive Director
For 49 years, ACCESS has provided support, in the form of direct services, to vulnerable communities. Today, 60% of the families served by ACCESS have a household income of less than $20,000. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic served to exacerbate their already vulnerable situation, leaving many without access to food and essential household goods. Basic needs were left unfulfilled in the face of a global crisis that set the structures of society reeling in their unpreparedness.
Our passion and dedication for equity drives everything we do, and this crisis was no different. ACCESS began quickly formulating a plan that allowed us to provide remote support to our communities, while balancing the need to protect our staff and clients. With considerable support from the United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund, along with several fundraising campaigns that we launched, we were able to raise funds to provide much needed support to these communities. To date, we’ve been able to provide 1,000 families with emergency support services, including food assistance, housing and utility support, completing rent and auto payments, unemployment applications and filing for MI Bridges benefits.
At the onset of the pandemic, the majority of school districts continued to provide breakfast and lunch, so we focused on supplementing what the schools were doing by providing dinner. We set up drive-thru stations at three of our sites: our headquarters in South Dearborn, our Arab American National Museum in East Dearborn, and our new Detroit facility in the Cody Rouge neighborhood. Normally, we serve over 1,800 low-income students daily, through our afterschool, weekend and summer programs. In this case, we focused on feeding whole families and have served more than 22,000 meals, to date, among these 3 locations.
We know that COVID-19’s impacts will be long-term and that these solutions only help provide emergency support when it is most needed. Our clients – especially the immigrant and refugee populations we primarily serve – will feel its impacts for years to come. We’ve had to be creative in finding ways to serve those populations that face the greatest barriers, such as those who struggle with English language proficiency, access to technology and disabilities.
Our Domestic Violence Prevention Program, in particular, witnessed a tremendous influx of clients, many of whom were reporting cases of domestic violence or sexual assault for the first time. With many survivors stuck at home with their abusers, due to the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” mandate, our staff worked closely with the survivors and their families to ensure they received tailored care, in particular support with transitional housing, providing household essentials and immediate response to our emergency hotline.
When we first moved toward shifting most of our operations to remote work, we were challenged with major staffing and technology capacity, as 500 staff needed to be outfitted in a matter of weeks. Our ability to complete this tremendous task efficiently – with the leadership of our incredible IT team, who worked nonstop to get us there – did not solve all our challenges. Instead, the pandemic brought with it an exponential and sudden increased demand on our services, and systems weren’t able to accommodate the surge in need. Many of our clients found themselves suddenly needing to navigate electronic state services, remote educational resources and online shopping, with no training or previous experience and heightened levels of anxiety and fear. Imagine the struggle to complete even the simplest form. Clients were accustomed to face-to-face services, during which they were able to bring with them their documents for interpretation. This also allowed us to explain processes and assess next steps. What was usually completed in a brief visit to ACCESS, was now taking days, as clients attempted navigation of an online world that couldn’t handle the heavy demand. We’ve even shifted operations at our Detroit career center from helping clients seek employment to, instead, helping them file for unemployment and state benefits. Staff have received training from the State of Michigan’s unemployment office to be better equipped at troubleshooting and navigating the system.
In the midst of our transition to remote service delivery, the generous support of United Way also allowed for the purchase of additional laptops, so that our staff could continue serving the community virtually and help clients access the resources they needed to navigate these challenging times.
Our number one priority continues to be our two-generational approach to serving families, ensuring that the integrative needs of all are being assessed and met. We continue to do our utmost to center the human element of our work in all of our efforts. Our staff has been working around the clock, because basic needs don’t run on a 9-5 schedule and state systems are often more accessible at irregular times. This means staff members are filing claims at five in the morning or late into the evening, while others are taking calls from parents, after children have gone to bed, so as to best accommodate the needs of these clients.
Often, staff find themselves speaking with the teenage children of clients to help translate documents. Other times, communicating through video chat works best so that clients can hold documents up to their cameras. And still, we find staff who are driving to the homes of clients to pick up paperwork from front porches and scanning and uploading them so they can meet requirements. This has been particularly difficult when assisting families living in shelters and motels. Our work has always been a community effort, and we’re seeing, more and more, how important that is now that we’re all socially distancing.
The reality is, though this pandemic has affected everyone, it has disproportionately impacted vulnerable populations – those populations that ACCESS has worked with for nearly 50 years. While fulfilling the immediate basic needs of our community is a priority, we remain committed to long-term solutions that help entire families thrive well into the future.