At the Epicenter of the Epicenter of the Pandemic, Kids Are Going Hungry
Undocumented residents in Corona and East Elmhurst, in the New York borough of Queens, face the consequences of a crisis that leaves many families without income to pay rent or buy food. For those who have lost loved ones, the costly task of burying them is an added burden. Meanwhile, suicides soar.
(Some names in this article have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the interviewees)
On Saturday, April 18, Delmy Garcia and her two children filled a van with groceries at Costco and parked in front of Our Lady of Sorrows Church on 104th Street and 37th Avenue in the neighborhood of Corona, in the New York borough of Queens, one of the areas—along with the neighboring East Elmhurst—with the highest number of coronavirus infections and deaths in the world.
Garcia and her children began distributing around three dozen bags of food, which were snatched up in less than 15 minutes. Garcia originally decided to help after watching a Univision newscast, which that same week showed a twenty-block line of people waiting to collect food that Catholic Charities offered in front of the same church. “They said they delivered a thousand tickets, but many people left without nothing and we were very sorry," says Garcia. "I experienced a similar situation four years ago when I divorced, and I know what it is not to have anything to eat," she adds.
She spent $900 dollars in food for the community. That was money from her $1,200 dollar check she received, part of the aid that the federal government sent to citizens and residents as a $2.7 billion stimulus package. Undocumented immigrants were excluded from this aid, even though they contribute $20 billion in income at the federal level, $13 billion at the state and local levels, including approximantely $1.1 billion for New York State. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, in partnership with the Open Society Foundation, has announced an aid package for immigrants regardless of immigration status. At the moment it is not known how this aid will be distributed.
Garcia was born in El Salvador and came to the United States after an earthquake devastated her country in 2001. In the United States, she was able to obtain Temporary Protected Status. Currently, she works as a telemetry technician at Flushing hospital, monitoring the heart of ICU patients. She came to deliver food with her 18 year-old daughter and her 16 year-old son. Garcia struggled to get the food out of the end of the trunk while a line kept backing up. Despite her short stature, she moved nimbly, her bright eyes revealing a smile under her mask.
Queens is the most multicultural county in the United States. It is also where the pandemic has hit hardest in the entire country, with 3,608 deaths and 48,847 infections, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Many of the residents of Corona and East Elmhurst are undocumented immigrants, and while many have lost their jobs, others are considered essential workers, and are working despite fears of contracting the virus or taking it home. According to a report by the Center for Migration Studies in New York, seven out of ten immigrant workers in the state have gone to work during the pandemic. While more than 450,000 of that estimate have a work permit, 350,000 are undocumented.
Among the people who lined up to get supplies is Antonio, a boy in his early twenties from Veracruz, Mexico. "I have lost my job and my house," he explains, a sad look on his face. Antonio worked at a restaurant in Manhattan but lost his job on March 22 when Governor Cuomo ordered the suspension of all non-essential businesses. "Since I lost my job I couldn't pay the rent and the owner already started looking for other people for the room, and I had to leave," he explains.
Despite the three-month moratorium on evictions, Antonio slept fifteen days on the street, where he was assaulted once. A neighbor eventually gave him, along with another person from Guatemala, a temporary place to stay in her garage. Concerned because of his undocumented status, Antonio has not been able to access any other assistance. Besides not being able to pay rent, he couldn’t pay the phone bill either. His mother is ill in Veracruz, and Antonio normally sends her money, but since the pandemic began, he has not been able to send remittances. The World Bank predicts a drop in remittances worldwide of around 20 percent by 2020 due to the coronavirus, the largest collapse in recent history.
Karla is another neighbor who came to stand in line to grab supplies. Until recently, Karla worked at a neighborhood laundry where she was paid off the books, while her husband worked at a restaurant in Manhattan. Because of the pandemic, she and her husband both lost their jobs; they have two children to feed, in addition to having to send money to their family in Puebla, Mexico. The coronavirus has not only left them unemployed, but her husband, possibly infected with the coronavirus—he was never tested—had to be hospitalized for a few days, though eventually recovered at home.
These days, Karla goes to different food banks and charities that distribute food to feed her family. She couldn't afford rent for April or May, and she hasn’t paid her phone bill since March. According to the director of the Food Bank of New York, Leslie Gordon, the number of people who have requested help from the city food bank has increased 50 percent since the pandemic.
Hungry Children in the Richest City in the World
La Jornada food pantry director Pedro Rodriguez has seen the number of people who come for food quadruple—according to his own estimates— this past month. "There is a lot of suffering on the streets right now. There are hungry children in the richest city in the world. There is despair, there is fear," says Rodriguez. Rodriguez has been in charge of the food pantry for 12 years, and has never seen anything like it before. “It is the most extraordinary change I have seen since we started here,” he says. “It somehow reminds me of 9/11.” The kind of people who visit the food pantry has also changed. Before, they were single mothers with children and some immigrant families, but now they are young Latino men, between 20 and 30 years old, who have lost their jobs. The morning of Saturday April 25th, about 2,000 people were waiting for food in front of La Jornada, but there was not enough to feed everybody, and about two hundred people had to leave empty-handed. The food they serve comes from the Food Bank NYC, City Harvest, and United Way. "We already knew in January and February that a tsunami was coming," Rodriguez says, who has been working twelve hours a day to provide the community. "It took too long for the city, the state and the president to react."
Yael is a young Mexican from Veracruz who has been living in Corona for eight years. Concerned with the plight of his neighbors going hungry, he put out a call on Facebook to start distributing sandwiches. His apartment in Corona now looks like a warehouse. His dining room and kitchen have been filled with groceries that he has bought with the economic contributions of the community or with food donations from friends and neighbors. “People responded to the call, we increased donations, and now we’re distributing food to those who need it,” he explains. "We have distributed about 150 market baskets and we have given about 800 breakfasts.” Like many of his neighbors, he lost his job in a restaurant and says he knows "there’s a great need because many people live day by day with the weekly paycheck.”
Both New York City and the state approved $25 million each to provide food banks with food and staff. The city also established a phone line and an online form where food delivery can be ordered, especially for the elderly and vulnerable. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio allocated an additional $170 million to coordinate food delivery efforts with the Department of Education and the Department for The Aging. The mayor also enabled 400 schools as canteens where three meals a day are distributed for both adults and children. Still, the demand for food is so huge that different individuals, like Yael, have had to step up.
Putting Food on the Table or Paying Rent
Although it is illegal to evict tenants during the pandemic, according to an executive order by governor Andrew Cuomo, people have reported being evicted from their homes. Don Tomas, a Guatemalan man who was assaulted in mid-March after leaving his job, was hospitalized for a few weeks. Discharged in early April, when the pandemic was already raging in New York, the owners of his apartment did not let him return for fear that he had contracted the disease in the hospital. He slept on the street until a neighbor from Corona found him a place to stay with a Mexican family.
Bianey Garcia works as a Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Organizer for the non-profit Make The Road New York, and also spends much of her personal time caring for those who are harassed by their landlords or have concerns about their rights as tenants. "Unfortunately, because of the fear that exists in our immigrant community, many think that they have no rights, there are many people living in fear for not having documents," says Bianey Garcia. "Harassment of tenants is constant. ‘Pay me rent or I will call ICE,’ ‘I'm going to evict you,’ some landlords tell them.”
Many families have to decide whether to pay the rent or put food on the table. “When they tell me I have the money to pay the rent, but if I pay I will stay without eating, I tell them to buy food first for them and their children and then you will see how you will pay the rent," says Bianey Garcia.
Various organizations in the city asked the governor to cancel rent, and a rent strike was organized for May 1 to pressure the governor. Although an eviction moratorium was approved, some organizations fear that after the 90-day moratorium, many people might be left unprotected and evicted. Bianey Garcia believes that the governor has not done enough to protect the low-income Latino community and that he should have canceled rents. “Governor Cuomo is not the champion of all this because he is doing nothing to support low-income families in our Latino community," she says. The city is working on passing an aid package that would extend the moratorium date for renters, as well as offer financial relief for small businesses and better protections and payment guarantees for workers during the pandemic. Undocumented New Yorkers may be able to benefit from this aid.
Those Who Work and Those Who Stay at Home
Covid-19 kills African Americans and Latinos twice as much as whites, according to New York city data. A survey by Latino Decision firm published that half of Latinos in New York and New Jersey reported meeting a friend or family member with covid-19. Latinos are dying in high numbers: 34 percent of those killed by coronavirus in New York City are Hispanic, though only make up 29 percent of the population, according to data provided by New York City. In a recent antibody test performed on 15,000 New Yorkers, Hispanic people tested positive at a higher rate (25.4 percent) followed by blacks (17.4 percent).
Park Slope, in Brooklyn, and Corona and East Elmhurst, in Queens, are two neighborhoods in the same city, but are facing two very different realities. Park Slope is the New York neighborhood least affected by covid-19 with 7.9 positives per thousand people, while East Elmhurst and Corona are the most affected neighborhoods with almost 50 positives per thousand people. The median household incomes track along a similar disparity: for East Elmhurst and South Corona the median household income is approximately $53,367 a year, while in Park Slope it is $122,646, more than double.
For the most part, people living in Corona and East Elmhurst and in other low-income neighborhoods in Queens are so-called essential workers or service industry workers. Some of them have lost their jobs because their businesses have shut down, but others, those making deliveries or working as cleaning staff, continue to go to work. These workers are more likely to contract the disease simply by having to leave their homes and to be in contact with other people or with the public transportation system. According to the Latino Decision survey, 36 percent of Latinos continue to work outside the home during the pandemic, and a third of them felt unsafe in the workplace because they were not given masks or gloves to protect themselves. These are jobs that cannot be done from home, and are essential for the city to function. They are also the lowest paying jobs. According to data from the Kaiser Foundation, almost 25 percent of African Americans and Hispanics are employed in the service industry, compared to 16 percent of whites. Similarly, more than 25 percent of African Americans and Hispanics have low-paying jobs compared to 17 percent of whites. Low-wage service industry workers tend to have the worst access to the health system, with nearly 20 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of African Americans without health insurance, compared to 8 percent of whites.
Ely Abundes is 38 years old and works selling food in a street vendor cart on Long Island City. She is the neighbor who offered her garage to Antonio. She also cooks and distributes food to the community. She believes that this is the main reason why many Latinos have been disproportionately affected by this disease. “we continued working when people in the offices had already locked up in their houses to work from home,” Abundes says. “But because we do the service jobs we have to go out to work.”
The Latino Decisions survey found that two-thirds of Latinos have lost their jobs or are facing financial hardship in the wake of the pandemic. According to the study, half of Latino families said they had less than $500 in savings. But for Ely Abundes the story goes differently. She says she heard this argument about Latinos not having the habit of saving and she gets tears into her eyes explaining that her mother became ill with cancer in January and she had to pay for her mother's treatment in Mexico, which cost up to $1,000 a night in the hospital. "Everything I saved was gone," she says. To make matters worse, her entire family contracted COVID-19, first her husband who became quite ill, then her young son and then she got sick as well. Despite the scare, they have all recovered.
Sixteen Suicides in Six Weeks
A few days after New York State reached nearly 800 dead in 24 hours, Francisco stood in front of the Delicias Puebla business on 90th street and Roosevelt Avenue. There were still few people in the street, the atmosphere was saturated and tense. Still, it seemed like people were starting to go out more besides just those going and coming back from work. Everybody in this community knows someone who has died or become ill with the virus. The days when the pandemic hit hardest, bustling neighborhoods were left in a strange silence, interrupted only by ambulance sirens—a constant on some nights. Roosevelt Avenue, running diagonally across Queens, is usually blasting bachata, trap, or reggaeton, or the sermons of some pastor speaking to God on his speaker in front of the subway stairs. Typically a plethora of smells waft up from the street vendors' cars that sell tacos, gorditas, quesadillas, and all kinds of Latin American food from carts below the exit of the 7 train subway stops. For a while, the pandemic silenced Roosevelt.
Francisco is in his 40s and lives on Roosevelt Avenue near the Elmhurst stop. He also lost his job at an oyster restaurant in Manhattan and couldn't pay the rent or the phone. In order to survive, he helps his friend at the Delicias Puebla juice shop and says he goes to the supermarket every other day, limiting his spending a lot. He knows many neighbors who have passed away. "The man from the bike shop, El Hospital de las Bicicletas, died of the virus," he explains. “Valeriano was a good friend," he adds. The store he refers to is a popular bike shop on 93rd Street and Roosevelt. On the store front door, there are Valeriano’s pictures and a piece of white cloth hanging in the entrance with dedications that people of the community wrote to honor him. The virus also affected Francisco's family: three of his cousins have died. “One of them was only 45 years old,” he explains. “He felt bad and we didn’t know who to call because he had no documents, and then we finally went to the Elmhurst hospital emergency room. They sent him home because it was not so serious. Finally, he had to go back to the hospital where he died.”
Besides so many dead, there is something else that left Francisco disturbed. He witnessed someone commit suicide at the Elmhurst stop on Train 7 on April 8th at half past one in the afternoon, the day that New York State reached its worst death toll. "The body fell to pieces on the floor of the avenue, in front of my friend's store, and we had to close the store because a few people who were there got scared," he explains. "Pieces of the body were left on the ground in front of the store and the firefighters and the police only cleaned it up with a hose," he says, pointing to the places on the ground where the body was shattered. In just one week three people committed suicide along this train line.
Since the start of the pandemic, the number of suicides in the county has doubled with 16 reported suicides between March 15th and April 28th.
Despite the trauma the pandemic has left in this area, residents, in recent days, seem to be going out more, opening up more businesses, and Roosevelt Avenue looks more like itself: a bustling multicultural hub where social distancing is hard to practice. Some families, despite the returning ambience of normalcy, continue struggling to bury their dead, or simply get something to eat. Meanwhile, Delmy Garcia came back on Sunday to Our Lady of Sorrows to distribute food.
Diana Gener is a freelance journalist and writer based in New York City who covers politics, immigration, and economics.
FI name: May 2020