Life on the bubble, then a pandemic

Whether we will continue to care about Chelsea is an open question now that the grim tallies there, and across the state, are dropping and the beaches are back. But before we move on, let’s meet Veronica.

Chelsea residents' vulnerabilities have been thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/file

This pandemic has rendered visible millions of lives many of us never really saw before.

It has forced us to look more closely at cities like Chelsea, home to some of the people whose labor and low wages make this country run, and whose vulnerabilities have been thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19. You can’t explain the devastation the virus has brought to Chelsea without talking about poverty, overcrowded housing, pollution, and powerlessness.

Whether we will continue to care about the city on the other side of the Tobin Bridge is an open question now that the grim tallies there, and across the state, are dropping and the beaches are back. But before we move on, let’s meet Veronica.

Even in the Chelsea spotlit by the virus, hers is a precarious perch. Veronica, 22, fled El Salvador with two young siblings when she was 18, after her mother was murdered and the rest of her family feared gangs would take their lives, too. Trauma piled on trauma, and in Chelsea Veronica fell into a life saturated by the kind of casual violence she had witnessed in El Salvador. She was poor, and putting up with domestic abuse because she had no alternative, and no sense that one might even be possible — especially after she got pregnant with her daughter, now 2. Well-meaning police officers and social workers couldn’t save her, so Veronica landed with ROCA, the Chelsea nonprofit whose workers spend years building trust with those others can’t reach.

ROCA’s relentlessness was paying off for Veronica when the virus hit. She had an on-the-books job processing fruit, which paid $500 in a good week. She and her daughter had just moved into the first place that was Veronica’s alone — a bedroom she sublet from another woman, for $600 a month. Though she struggled financially, and was afraid, she was growing more resilient, and more confident.

But it doesn’t take much to puncture a life on the bubble.

The virus has been disastrous for the women in ROCA’s young mothers program in Chelsea and Springfield — the program Veronica is part of. Of the 177 women it serves, 62 have lost jobs since March 23, and are not getting unemployment; 50 have no stable housing. Some are sleeping in cars, exchanging food stamps for a place to sleep, or staying with abusive partners because they have nowhere else to go. A total of 53 have open cases with the Department of Children and Families, and 19 of those are separated from their children right now.

Of the 116 women ROCA serves in Chelsea, 19 have tested positive for the virus, said Sunindiya Bhalla, who runs the program. She says others — including 18 who have symptoms, and 26 who live with someone who tested positive — refuse to get tested because they’re afraid a positive result will mean losing their housing, or their children.

Veronica, who asked that her last name be withheld to avoid angering her employer, saw her shifts cut in March, leaving her short on rent money. In late April, she fell very ill. It hurt to breathe, and she lost her sense of taste and smell. Because she has a heart condition, she was terrified the virus might kill her, and leave her daughter alone. She worried she had infected others, including family members who were pregnant.

“It was very difficult for me to think of how I would come through this,” she said in Spanish as her ROCA youth worker, Olga Romero, translated. “But then I thought of my faith, and if I kneel before God he will move mountains for me.”

He could not move her new landlady, however, who was pregnant and vulnerable herself. She needed Veronica’s share of the rent to avoid running afoul of the man who owned their apartment and expected his rent on time, and in full. Worried that it would get out that she was sick, and fearful of infecting the woman from whom she rented, Veronica stayed in her room with her daughter. Veronica finally told her she had the virus, but the landlady could not afford to avoid Veronica: She kept cornering her, asking for the money.

ROCA worked with the city to get Veronica and her daughter out of the apartment and into the COVID-19 isolation hotel in Revere, and paid her May rent to hold her apartment until she was well. Veronica is suspicious of most people, so being in a place run by people she didn’t know was challenging: A social worker from a hospital reached out to offer toys for her daughter, and Veronica called Romero, terrified DCF wanted to take her child away.

“That is one of my biggest fears,” Veronica said. “My daughter is all I have.”

Veronica got word on Friday that she could finally leave the hotel this weekend. She doesn’t know if she still has her job, or whether she even feels comfortable going back there while the pandemic still rages. Her landlady isn’t returning her calls, so Veronica has no idea whether her room and belongings will be waiting for her when she returns to her apartment.

“Where will I go if I can’t go back there?” she asked. “Rent is so expensive. Nobody wants to rent a room to one person with a child.”

Veronica’s health will return. What will become of the life she is just beginning, whether we see it or not?

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