How Pontiac's Centro Multicultural La Familia stays connected to vulnerable clients during pandemic

At Centro Multicultural La Familia, we went from working at the office and seeing each other every day to working from home. March 16 was the last day we were at the office. On March 17, we started working from home and developing policies and procedures as we further assessed the ongoing COVID pandemic. And then we started to set up Zoom meetings which we had never done before and had to purchase a subscription to zoom as the free version only allowed 40 minutes.


For the first 3 weeks, we met every day via Zoom, but later we started meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at nine o'clock. This was a new way for us to touch base and update each other. Monday meetings were mostly to check in about the work plan for the week and to discuss new policies and procedures; Wednesdays were mostly our How To meetings where we discussed how we were going to implement our new database system and new procedures and Fridays were focused on several Self-care topics. We realized that staff was spending too much time on the computer and sitting down and that was affecting their eyesight and backs. We started to introduce self-care tips on a weekly basis as a way to reduce stress and receive support from each other. This, of course, was not only for the staff but also for us to teach clients how to take care of themselves as well.


As we reviewed new policies we learned that we needed to retrain ourselves on how to communicate remotely, how to use telehealth in a way that was confidential and HIPAA-compliant. We had to learn how to run support groups without jeopardizing safety for clients, especially as their partners were not working and were home most of the time. We needed to make sure that we were not inadvertently placing our clients in more danger. It became a constant training ourselves on new ways to provide services that were relevant.


We provide mental health counseling as well as advocacy-based counseling for victims of crime, either domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, children that have been bullied at school, human trafficking, and hate crimes. Before this pandemic, we used to accompany clients to court, or to their lawyers’ appointments because they were often doing personal protection orders or needed interpretation services. We were connecting them with other resources.


As the courts started to close and hearings were suspended, we started to provide services remotely. Most of the lawyers stopped providing face-to-face services so we were doing more connections over the phone on behalf of the client or we might have a three-way call so that we could interpret for the clients because most of them are mostly Spanish-speaking. So that kind of added another layer of challenges.


After about a month of working from home, some of the clients started losing their jobs or receiving reduced work hours. We started receiving calls from clients needing help with paying for their rent, utilities, needing diapers for their children, personal hygiene items, and food.

We decided to focus more on clients’ basic needs and registered to provide case management through a newly developed Pontiac COVID Collaborative platform which was put in place to connect the community with food resources and other items. Some of our staff learned how to navigate this platform and assisted clients to sign up for food distribution and sometimes even the delivery of food to their homes. The goal was to connect clients with volunteers that would deliver the food boxes but sometimes they would be the ones delivering to the homes when no volunteers were available.


The goal was to try to register clients in need of food into the system and ask them to complete a brief needs survey. We started focusing on Spanish-speaking clients, but later we added English-speaking clients too. About 5 staff are currently coordinating and delivering food to clients’ homes and distances range from Lake Orion to Milford. This is necessary because some of the clients do not have transportation or they need to stay home due to being exposed to COVID-19. People registered in this COVID platform are currently over 800 clients.


Besides basic needs, we were concerned about the increased incidence of abuse. Since many people lost their jobs, victims of abuse were forced to interact with their abusive partners for a longer period of time as they would be home more often. It became more difficult to contact our clients when their spouses were home, some of them had to go to the garage to have more privacy and make a phone call. Some of the police officers we work with were saying that they had been receiving more domestic violence calls. Because of the spouse being at home, and victims not being able to have the financial independence to just leave, many just had to withstand it, and they were suffering. While this was unfortunate, this helped us identify people who needed help. We started to distribute bilingual help postcards to law enforcement to share with the victims who called them.


Centro was fortunate to receive funds through the Pontiac Funders Collaborative, DTE Energy, United Way and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan. These funds will allow us to improve our infrastructure to keep our staff and clients safe during this pandemic by adding Plexiglass barriers, masks, and other equipment that we need as we move back to the office. We have also been using funds to help our clients with rental assistance and procurement of basic needs items such as personal hygiene items, diapers, car repairs, and cleaning supplies. Many of our clients do not qualify for the stimulus package or might not qualify for unemployment benefits. So, if they're losing their jobs, or they're getting fewer work hours, then with this funding we can help them with rental assistance or utilities or prescription medication.


My biggest concern is to try to keep staff safe and healthy. And as we go back to the office, even if we stagger staff schedules, appointment times, enforce mask use and keep social distancing, we cannot predict when we are being exposed. We are developing strict procedures that include screening questions as recommended by CDC, temperature measures, and frequent cleaning and sanitizing of frequently used surfaces. People get sick and it doesn't have to be coronavirus, and everybody's going to get in a panic if someone sneezes or coughs. So we're going to learn how to deal with that and hope for the best.


Dr. Sonia Acosta is the president and CEO of Centro Multicultural La Familia, a Pontiac-based nonprofit that takes a holistic approach to assisting the community with social support services and mental health services in a bilingual mode. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.

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