In Queens, residents become the coronavirus safety net

Why We Wrote This

The virus has created new desperation for some, and deepened existing inequality for others. In Queens, the COVID Care Neighbor Network aims to restore dignity block by block.

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Nuala O'Doherty-Naranjo and her daughter strategize COVID Care Neighbor Network food deliveries outside their Jackson Heights garage on May 1, 2020, in Queens, New York.

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When Sharmila Moonga received a bag brimming with groceries last month, she says it felt like Christmas.

She’s spent the pandemic alone in her apartment in the Queens borough of New York City. Without a social safety net or access to New York City services, she says two weeks passed without a meal. Hunger forced her to try to eat blank pages from her diary.

The donations came from COVID Care Neighbor Network, a mutual aid group in central Queens – once the “epicenter of the epicenter.” The effort has been headquartered out of the garage of Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, a community organizer running for New York state legislature, as a stopgap for New Yorkers when city services aren’t enough. 

The crisis has thrown the city’s inequality into sharp relief, she says. Over a third of the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens shuttered at the height of the outbreak.

For Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo and fellow candidates committed to community service, the public health crisis trumped politics. 

“Normally in a campaign you go to political events, you go to parades – I think my time feeding my neighbors was very well spent,” she says. “How could we not do it?”

When her hunger grew too great, Sharmila Moonga began to eat blank pages from her diary. Alone in her apartment this spring, she says two weeks passed without a meal. 

At first she welcomed the challenge of life under lockdown, enjoying her private independence. Then her leftover rice and lentils dwindled.

The aides who oversaw her cancer treatment – and often brought her food – discontinued visits. Neighbors in her apartment building in the Queens borough of New York City became ill. Living with a disability, she found solo trips to the grocery store were practically impossible. The Sikh temple that greeted her with the occasional meal closed its doors. 

“It was a combination of fear and ... well, I’m not doing so bad, because I have a roof over my head,” she says. “I don’t really have much to complain about.” 

There was also the embarrassment, says Ms. Moonga, of being unable to fend for herself. She attempted to ask for free meal delivery through the city’s hotline, but the automated system failed her. Frustrated and faint, she spent days taking medicine on an empty stomach. 

She found COVID Care Neighbor Network on Facebook, a mutual aid group in Queens. On May 1, a bag brimming with rice, fruit, pasta, and canned food was delivered to her building. 

“It’s like Christmas – the joy of you receiving something that you so desperately need,” she says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

COVID Care has fed over a thousand families in Queens, the diverse borough once home to the pandemic’s epicenter and over a fifth of the city’s “essential” workforce. The effort has been headquartered out of the garage of Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo – a community organizer running for New York state legislature – as a stopgap for New Yorkers when city services aren’t enough.

A patchwork of collaborators have joined in, including displaced immigrant workers and repurposed campaign volunteers. For Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo and fellow candidates committed to community service, the public health crisis trumped politics. 

“I’m exhausted,” she said with a laugh Friday, four days from the June 23 primary. “Normally in a campaign you go to political events, you go to parades – I think my time feeding my neighbors was very well spent. How could we not do it?”

The crisis has thrown the city’s inequality into sharp relief, she says. As the city reels from the virus and inches toward reopening, mutual aid efforts like COVID Care help restore dignity block by block. In Ms. Moonga’s words, “They don’t pass judgment.”

“Epicenter of the epicenter”

It’s all hands on deck outside the garage. Over the next few hours, some 120 families in central Queens will receive a bag with a day’s worth of food. Hair swept back into a low ponytail, Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo directs more than a dozen masked volunteers on a May afternoon to put this bag in that car, guided by a rainbow-rowed spreadsheet. Another car stops and pops its trunk.

“Oh great! Another donation!” 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
COVID Care Neighbor Network volunteers prepare bags of donated groceries in Queens, New York, May 1, 2020. The mutual aid group has fed over a thousand of the borough's families in need during the pandemic.

With a platform pressing education, health care, and transportation, Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo paused her campaign for New York State Assembly on March 13 to focus on neighbors’ needs. Her outreach began with sticky notes on doors. A Facebook group emerged, as did nearly 800 volunteers.

“I have to be part of the solution,” says volunteer Cordelia Persen. “I can’t just sit at home and watch the pain of my own neighbors.” 

People call into the COVID Care phone line, staffed by volunteers. For help accessing government benefits and other resources, callers pair up with social workers from nonprofit partner Together We Can Community Resource Center, which oversees fundraising. After WNYC profiled Ms. Moonga in May, COVID Care received $1,800 in donations within 24 hours.

“I want to go out of business,” said Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo last month. Yet the effort continued through last week, with at least 1,864 donated bags of groceries, 4,015 calls, and $45,000 raised. The new focus is a just-launched food pantry that will expand outreach in the high-need neighborhood of Corona.

The first American-born of her Irish family, she and her Ecuadorian husband have lived in Jackson Heights since 2001, where her activism has ranged from education and safer streets to community gardening. She also spent over 20 years as a Manhattan prosecutor. Over Easter weekend, she helped a Nepalese Tibetan couple assign power of attorney over their children to a friend. The couple was gravely ill with COVID-19, and worried for their toddler and 18-month-old. 

“Her help was really meaningful,” says Pratima Maharjan, who recovered along with her husband. “I really trust her and love her.”

The majority of District 34’s residents are foreign-born, and 6 out of 10 are Hispanic. The district overlaps with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s territory.

Ahead of Tuesday’s crowded primary, Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo isn’t the only Democratic state assembly hopeful who pivoted to community service. Candidate Jessica González-Rojas temporarily halted her campaign March 12. 

“I’m a public health person. I wouldn’t dare put my community at risk because I’m trying to win a political seat,” says Ms. González-Rojas, former executive director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. 

Her team put down their clipboards and set up a phone bank to track residents’ needs. She says thousands received deliveries of groceries, medicine, and other essentials, as well as help applying to government aid. She also hosted a virtual town hall for English and Spanish speakers on public benefits.

Born to Paraguayan and Puerto Rican parents, the Latina candidate prioritizes high-quality health care for all, along with immigrant and LGBTQ rights and criminal justice reform.

Candidate Joy Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi American immigrant taxi driver and labor organizer, seeks to bolster the working class through a “Gig Worker’s New Deal.” Health care and affordable housing are also on his agenda.

“I represent a community of laborers who have been underrepresented, who have kind of no voice, no guaranteed income, no health care – I don’t have health care,” says Mr. Chowdhury, also a member of the U.S. National Guard. With family back in Bangladesh to support, he’s spent the pandemic juggling community service, the need to earn a living, and his campaign, which was “minimized to a near pause for many weeks in late March to much of April.”

Mr. Chowdhury is part of the women-led Queens Mutual Aid Network, a borough-wide initiative he says has organized grocery deliveries to over 1,000 families since late March. As a volunteer dispatcher and delivery driver, he organized special deliveries during Ramadan. The immigrant advocate also donated 10 masks to COVID Care volunteers.

According to his campaign website, white incumbent Assembly Member Michael DenDekker suspended campaigning on March 12 (the governor ultimately reduced petitioning requirements due to the pandemic). The six-term Democrat’s outreach has included distributing food and personal protective equipment, as well as helping constituents with unemployment insurance claims, a spokesman for Mr. DenDekker wrote the Monitor over email. 

Hunger emergency

In a city of over 8 million people, typically 1.2 million are food insecure. Over the course of the pandemic, the city’s estimate has grown to 2.2 million. 

New York City disperses some 1.5 million free meals a day via pickup sites and home deliveries – a network overseen by mayor-appointed “Food Czar” Kathryn Garcia, Department of Sanitation commissioner. While the city’s estimated 360,000 unauthorized workers are ineligible for benefits like federal stimulus checks, food stamps, or unemployment insurance, the city’s emergency food resources are offered regardless of immigration status. 

“We have a commitment in this city that no New Yorker will go hungry because of this crisis,” the department’s assistant commissioner for public affairs, Joshua Goodman, told the Monitor in May. “Anyone in need should not be afraid to reach out for help.”

Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo has called the city’s meal handouts inefficient, and favors more temporary aid that would allow unauthorized families to shop for themselves. She says the majority of COVID Care callers for weeks have been food-insecure immigrants.

“The best step is food stamps, so families can go on their own to the grocery store with dignity, buy the culturally appropriate food they want ... and cook in their own home,” she says. Due to federal coronavirus relief, every New York public school student – no matter immigration status – will receive up to $420 for food benefits.

Some New Yorkers have reported kinks in the emergency food system. Ms. Moonga says she called New York City’s 311 hotline three or four times to inquire about free meal delivery. The automated system couldn’t discern her accent as a British Indian woman, she says, so it directed her to the wrong department each time (once to “noise complaints”). 

Citywide closures of food pantries and soup kitchens peaked at 39% by mid-April, according to a report published this month. Economic and social distancing constraints forced these sites to shutter, according to the findings of the city’s largest hunger-relief organization, Food Bank for New York City. The Bronx – the city’s poorest borough and current center of the outbreak – had half its emergency food programs close, followed by Queens at 38%. 

Hourslong lines at food pantries also made headlines. (Mr. Goodman, the city spokesman, notes that proper social distancing leads to longer lines.) When Dudley Stewart saw lines of locals waiting for handouts at churches and schools, it spurred him to partner with COVID Care. The co-owner of Queensboro restaurant in Jackson Heights had already been donating meals to frontline heroes at an overwhelmed city-run hospital. 

“We realized that as much as it was great to be able to provide meals to health care workers, it seems like there’s a lot of people whose need is far, far greater in this moment,” he says. COVID Care used Queensboro’s walk-in refrigerators and kitchen space to assemble food donations for weeks. Mr. Stewart says the eatery will soon open for sidewalk seating under the city’s “Phase 2.”

Felipe Idrovo, an Ecuadorian immigrant who supports Ms. O’Doherty-Naranjo’s campaign, started delivering for COVID Care in March. The next month, the candidate’s family and his fellow church members helped him move as he was forced to find a new apartment – while battling COVID-19.

Mr. Idrovo had a rough spring. He lost his factory job in March (by April, the city’s unemployment rate tripled). The virus canceled church and his volunteer work on the board of immigrant-rights group Make the Road New York. His brother died of COVID-19 after nine years in a nursing home.

Now recovered, Mr. Idrovo says volunteering has been a personal boon.

“I’m staying active doing what I can,” he says. “It really helps unload my pain.”

“Poverty is the real enemy”

On a bright May day at the edge of a Queens neighborhood, dozens of men stand with their backs to a fence. One steps to the curb with arm extended, a plea to drivers exiting the highway. But there are no moving jobs, no construction, no gardening gigs. 

An hour passes and no one stops. The day laborers wait, as they do every day.

“There’s been no work for two months,” says Jonathan, an unauthorized immigrant from Guatemala who preferred not to print his last name.

“Many of our friends live on the street now. They could no longer pay rent,” says another, who declined to give his name for security.

COVID Care has handed out 470 bagged lunches to day laborers. Today Jonathan is one of the lucky ones. He thanks the volunteers. Clutching the brown paper bag with a sandwich inside, he’s happy, he says.

While manufacturing and construction revived June 8 under the city’s “Phase 1” reopening, Pedro Rodriguez says unauthorized workers’ families are still three months behind on rent and other utilities, which take priority over food. “Poverty is the real enemy,” he says.

Mr. Rodriguez is the executive director of La Jornada, a food pantry that has relied on mutual-aid volunteers to help deliver groceries to residents of the Corona neighborhood. 

Need has exploded. In January, La Jornada served some 1,000 families a week. Now up to 6,000 families are served weekly; Mr. Rodriguez estimates a third are unauthorized. Partnered with COVID Care and Together We Can, last week it launched a new food pantry at the Queens Museum, with the goal of feeding 1,000 families a week as COVID Care ceases regular deliveries. 

“Now millions of people have felt poverty and they’ve never felt that before,” he says. As those who lost jobs begin to return to work, he wonders if the past months’ economic ruin will inspire a new empathy for others.

“What will happen to their views on the poor, on the needy, on the widow, on the orphan, on immigrants ... since they were part of that group?”

Ms. Moonga says she offers her food to struggling neighbors in her building. She continued to receive COVID Care groceries every few weeks, along with weekly check-in calls. She recently asked the group if it were possible to find some yarn. 

Thanks to a stranger’s donation, the yarn has become one more pandemic blessing. She hadn’t touched knitting since the summer of 2018, when she was diagnosed with cancer. 

“It’s like heaven,” says Ms. Moonga. She gifted one volunteer a rose-colored crochet heart.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the primary candidates’ political affiliations as Democrats. As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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