Written by: Diana Hembree

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Interfaith Community Services of San Diego saw a tsunami of people seeking emergency food and shelter. “We’re seeing people we’ve never seen before,” said Fiona King, the organization’s communication and development manager, who says the nonprofit is now helping four times as many families as it usually does.

“Lots of people here worked for the hospitality industry here, and all those people are losing their jobs,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot more people who are hungry and in danger of eviction.”

This isn’t unique to San Diego: With 51 million Americans unemployed and the loss of federal unemployment checks of $600 a week on July 31, more than 40% of all renters in the United States are at risk of eviction.

One of the first new applicants at Interfaith was Grace, a 71-year-old cashier with asthma who was “totally independent” before the pandemic, according to King. At high risk for the virus, she was unable to work after the shelter-in-place order in March. Despite that, “she was very nervous about coming to us for help,” King recalls. “She didn’t have enough for rent after she bought groceries, and even though there was a temporary stay on evictions, she was terrified of it piling up and not being able to pay later.”

The Interfaith case manager was unable to reach Grace afterward via computer for a virtual meeting, so she delivered a rental assistance application documents to her doorstep and walked her through the process from outside. The outcome? Her rent was covered. “We’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that people don’t end up on the street,” King said.

Interfaith is part of a trend among nonprofits really stepping up during the pandemic. It is also a participant in two CCI programs: Catalyst and Addiction Treatment Starts Here. Created in 1979 by a group of faith-based organizations, Interfaith’s goal is helping people to help themselves. With more than 300 faith centers and more than 150 dedicated staff, the nonprofit offered support to more than 17,000 people in North San Diego County last year alone. “If someone is coming in off the street, a case manager will see how we can help them move forward, whether it’s with recovery and detox or help with jobs and housing,” King said.

This could be seen in the case of another reluctant applicant, a farm laborer with three children who, King explained, had never been without a job in his life, but now he needed help. The farm he worked for provided restaurants with food; once that supply chain was disrupted by the pandemic, he was laid off overnight. “They had run out of food, so we were able to get the family groceries and get him signed up for unemployment,” she said.

But Interfaith doesn’t stop at providing emergency relief: Its goal is to provide a safe haven for vulnerable community members and help them find permanent housing and employment.

Since people’s needs overlap, Interfaith offers a wealth of resources, focusing on supportive services such as food and referrals, housing, clinical and behavioral health, recovery and wellness, and employment and economic development. It also offers full immigration and legal services to undocumented workers..

The benefits of a healthcare partnership

Last year, to better reach homeless populations, Neighborhood Healthcare of San Diego and Riverside counties opened a new integrated satellite clinic in the main campus of Interfaith. This partnership was key to meeting patients’ needs outside the clinic walls, according to Wendi Vierra, who directs Neighborhood’s behavioral health operations and is participating in Addiction Treatment Starts Here: Primary Care.  “Our vision is to give people the resources they need to live their best lives,” Vierra told CCI in a recent interview. “We understand we cannot do that alone. We need the expertise of our community-based partners to provide whole person care and provide a solid foundation for wellness.”

Neighborhood’s relationships with Interfaith dates back 15 years, when the faith-based nonprofit asked the clinic whether it could take over its behavioral health program. As an in-kind contribution, Neighborhood encouraged Interfaith to stay in its original clinic rent-free. The nonprofit sends clients to the clinic for behavioral health care, while the clinic gives “warm handoffs” to Interfaith for patients seeking food, childcare, housing and other services. The satellite clinic in Interfaith’s primary campus has a 50-bed homeless shelter (although Interfaith has moved 30 of the residents to hotels during the pandemic to improve social distancing) and a Recovery & Wellness Substance Abuse Program that provides detox, on-site residential treatment and intensive outpatient care.

“Removing barriers to accessing health care was our main goal,” Vierra told CCI, noting that the clinic has since served more than 600 patients. What’s most important, she said, “is building a credible, reliable safety net that wraps around our patient and is non-judgmental, has cultural humility, and is trauma-informed.”

An urgent need for donations and self-care

The surge in need has led Interfaith to quickly increase its outreach. “We have had an amazing response from the community, with some people creating hundreds of masks, dropping off carloads of perishable foods, signing over their entire stimulus check to us, and other incredibly generous acts,” King recalls. “But there is still a huge need for more.”

The COVID-19 crisis has led Interfaith to relax some of its guidelines. “We used to have a rule that after getting a food box, you’d need to wait 30 days before you applied again,” she said. “In light of the pandemic, we’ve lifted that rule completely.”

Interfaith discontinued its soup kitchen for safety reasons during COVID-19, but it gives out a warm breakfast burrito and two sack lunches per person and continues to offer laundry and shower services (although people have to go in one at a time).

The nonprofit is also expanding self-care during the pandemic. “We’ve all been working basically 24/7,” said King. We do want to recognize how hard people are working and that they are putting themselves at risk.”  Among other things, the nonprofit has offered a webinar on self-care and $500 in hazard pay per pay period.

If nothing else, King said, “the pandemic has shown us the inequities in our society. If any good comes of it, it will be by showing us how much we need to shine a light on that and right these wrongs.”



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