Stephany Escobar recalled dividing up what little food her family of 10 could afford last month in Chelsea: First the children were fed, then the two men who still had jobs, she said. Those who weren’t working — four had lost their jobs due to the virus — split whatever was left.
On Saturday, Escobar, a 26-year-old journalist who said she fled El Salvador three years ago after receiving death threats for her political coverage, was a volunteer helping serve desperate Chelsea residents as the community is pummeled by COVID-19 infections, job losses, and fear.
Outside the Chelsea Collaborative, which was giving out diapers, formula, and baby food, a line formed down the block and around the corner. Attorney General Maura Healey, in her first in-person event in more than six weeks, walked around to distribute fliers and give legal advice.
After serving 540 people in the line, the collaborative’s director, Gladys Vega, said in a phone interview that the small organization is in its eighth week of operating on all cylinders, expanding its services to offer food, toiletries — and, eventually, a place to stay.
“No one going to sleep under a bridge if they cannot pay rent,” she said, referencing a store of air mattresses she has ready to set up in collaborative’s office, even though it is not an official shelter.
Vega said she is one of the few trusted sources for many in this city of immigrants, which includes the undocumented.
“We’re the pulse of the community,” she said, crediting her 32 years with the organization, working her way up from secretary. “It comes with a lot of responsibility."
Vega said her staff of 25, along with about 30 regular volunteers, uses the waits in line for goods as an opportunity to perform “wellness checks,” distribute rental assistant applications, and find out what’s happening.
For instance, landlords are defying state rules and evicting people anyway, Vega said. She knows at least five people who returned home from COVID-19 hospitalizations to find themselves locked out, their possessions thrown out by landlords who feared catching the virus from them.
And that’s why Healey had come, to help explain that evictions are stopped, utilities cannot cut off services for nonpayment, and debt collection is halted, according to her office. Healey and her team handed out about 2,000 fliers Saturday, a spokeswoman said.
But Healey, who has been working from home, said she had come in person to better understand what is really happening in hard-hit Chelsea.
“It’s really poignant and heartbreaking to see someone just come from the front lines working, to stand in line at a food pantry to get baby formula and diapers and food for their household," the attorney general said in a phone interview.
“I think people are really desperate,” Healey said. “You see that people are stoic and resilient but desperate. They’re hurting.”
Healey, wearing a face shield, mask, and gloves, said a man in line told her his landlord was evicting him, which is currently prohibited by state law. “It was just like, at least we helped that person right now.”
Others came out to help, too, like Medardo, 62, a retired Vietnam veteran who declined to use his last name and waited in line to get diapers for his neighbor’s children. “I just cannot stand by and do nothing."
And Patricia Guglietta, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Chelsea branch, orders the bulk of the collaborative’s diaper supply through a “diaper registry” she started a month ago. She had already made two trips Saturday to her home in Milton, where the packages are delivered, she said.
“Even if you have food stamps but don’t have any money how are you going to get diapers?” she said in a phone interview. “You can’t.”
And Escobar, the journalist who fled El Salvador and recently lost her restaurant job, said she was in line for food at the collaborative for the second time when she asked Vega if she could begin volunteering. Though she still worries about retaliation from her work as a journalist and is anxious about an upcoming political asylum case with immigration authorities in November, her therapist told her to “live without fear.”
Now Escobar is there whenever the office is running, according to Vega, who translated for her from Spanish.
As Escobar described the family’s rationing system — though it has since been helped by food services like the collaborative — she looked down at a text on her phone.
Her cousin, an athletic 35-year-old with two children who lives in Chelsea and had been battling COVID-19 in an intensive care unit, was dead.
“She is very fearful of [the] outcome of all this,” Vega said.
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.