A slowdown of pandemic-era funding is putting a strain on many organizations that operated critical social safety nets to vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 crisis.
Numerous community organizers around the city say the dwindling of public and donor financial support comes as need for services grows — particularly for food and cash assistance.
“We built the infrastructure to help so many people over the last few years and, all of a sudden, many of the resources are gone,” said Dr. Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan.
An increase of available resources over the past three years allowed many organizations like Gabeau’s to offer new and expanded services such as food pantries, cash assistance, and vaccination clinics, to combat systemic inequities that made low-income and minority communities more vulnerable to COVID.
But as cases decrease and funding to fill gaps the virus illuminated disappears, many are left scrambling to maintain services. This comes as widespread inflation, physical and mental health crises fueled by the pandemic, and an influx of new immigrants create increased demand for social support programs.
“We’re blessed to be able to celebrate some normalcy [after the pandemic], but normalcy for communities of color and poorer communities means that poverty remains stronger than ever and resources are not there,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea-based La Colaborativa, which has offered social and economic support to Greater Boston’s Latino communities since 1988.
When Chelsea became the commonwealth’s hardest hit city, with an infection rate six times higher than the state average, Vega and her staff mobilized to create one of the region’s largest weekly food pantries, offer $300,000 in cash assistance to residents struggling with unemployment, and later co-host the city’s first vaccination efforts.
At the height of the pandemic, the food pantry budget was almost half a million dollars, allowing the staff to feed 10,000 families a week, according to Vega. But, as the pandemic began to subside, so did funding for the program that still serves between 5,000 and 7,000 families a week — now on a budget of about $150,000.
According to a 2022 report, La Colaborativa was one of several organizations serving Chelsea and East Boston that was able to double staff and budget during the pandemic due to increased funding, but now Vega is left “having a hard time explaining to a community experiencing a financial crisis that all these resources have disappeared.”
In Allston, the Brazilian Worker Center is seeing a similar reduction in its food assistance program.
The nonprofit, which supports immigrant workers, received enough support during the pandemic to begin offering food services and cash assistance, feeding nearly 100,000 people and giving away $300,000, according to Gizele Bombardier, the group’s finance and office manager. These days, she said, they only have enough money to feed roughly 100 people a month and their capacity to offer cash assistance varies widely each month.
The Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, a key partner in Boston’s pandemic response, is also feeling the squeeze.
Co-created by former state senator Diane Wilkerson in the first weeks of lockdown in 2020, the coalition of leaders, organizers, and health experts mobilized to disseminate health information within Boston’s Black communities, provide transportation to testing sites, mobilize volunteers for vaccine trials, and incentivize residents to get vaccinated. Funding for this work came from private donors, the city, and organizations like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Amazon, which helped the coalition raise more than $2 million, according to Wilkerson.
“People would see an article in the paper about the BBCC and call on of us saying, ‘I like what you’re doing, where can I [give] money?’” she said.
But most of this support disappeared last year, leading the organization to begin slowing down much of its operation, letting go of the van it had been using to transport people to get vaccinated, and reducing its workforce.
As the group rebrands itself the Black Boston Health Coalition and expands to focus on a wider net of health issues affecting Black residents, it feels like the health institutions, donors, and public partners that helped it do pandemic work, “have gone back to their respective corners,” Wilkerson said.
Funders must reverse course and continue offering the same type of “no strings” support as the pandemic subsides, to meet the dire needs of communities where pre-existing barriers to housing, food, and health care are even stronger now, organizers say.
For Vega and Gabeau, this need is also fueled by the increasing arrival of immigrants to the city.
“In terms of the socioeconomic and health effects of the virus, we’re still in a pandemic,” said Gabeau. “We want to see the same desire to support and protect our communities continue because we need that more now more than ever.”
The pandemic, said Boston’s public health commissioner, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, should be a call to action to empower community-led solutions to address issues of health equity, even in the absence of a national emergency.
The commission signaled its commitment to this practice Wednesday, awarding $1.4 million in grants to community health centers providing critical care to vulnerable communities recovering from delays in care brought by the pandemic.
“We know where the problems are, so let’s collectively invest in those areas and see what happens in another 10 years,” Ojikutu said.