SF-Marin Food Bank volunteers at Cesar Chavez Elementary School on Tuesday. Photo by Lydia Chávez

As businesses, schools and daycare centers closed around San Francisco, so too did the lifeline for the vast majority of the Bay Area’s undocumented population — estimated at some 300,000 residents — including 35,000 in San Francisco.

With nearly one of every 10 California workers undocumented and few public services for them, the impact of a long shelter-in-place policy will be brutal, according to nonprofit providers.  

“All of the services we provide, we provide to everyone — but we’re cognizant that [undocumented people] are more vulnerable,” said Erica Kisch, the executive director of Compass Family Services

In a normal year, Compass will assist 6,000 families. Kisch has no estimates on current figures but expects “an avalanche” of new clients this year.

In San Francisco, Healthy SF, a city health insurance program for anyone who works or lives in San Francisco offers a medical safety net. And, the San Francisco Unified Public School District is handing out free meals at 18 locations for those with children. 

Moreover, the SF-Marin Food Bank has started pop-up pantries at an increasing number of places for anyone who arrives and residents are arriving in droves. 

By 10:45 a.m. on Tuesday at its pop-up pantry at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, the Food Bank was close to giving out all of its 300 bags and called for back-up, according to Tina Gonzalez, the director of community partnerships. Another 341 bags arrived and they too were distributed.

Rigoberto and Maria were two beneficiaries who got to the school early on Tuesday to collect a bag. The couple generally manages fine on the income they earn as janitors, Rigoberto said. Those jobs, however, are gone. The couple received no paid sick leave and they cannot file for unemployment, Rigoberto said.  

“We hope that the little that we have will get us through,” he said as he walked on 22nd Street toward home. His landlord, he said, told them they could wait a while to pay rent, but he doesn’t know what will happen if this shelter-in-place policy goes beyond two or three weeks — the duration that he thinks his savings will last. 

Applying for public services — even if possible — can complicate an immigration case. Winifred Kao, litigation director for Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, advised that immigrants consult with a workers’ rights clinic, including hers, for free advice on what they should apply to get. 

Clinics such as the Asian Law Caucus, La Raza Community Resource Center and CARECEN are all consulting by phone — and free of charge.  

But their advice, she acknowledged, is not hopeful for the undocumented. “The big piece we tell workers who’ve been laid off or lost hours to shelter in place … is unemployment insurance,” she said. “Undocumented residents, unfortunately, do not qualify, but others do.”

Kao did, however, note that many private organizations have started emergency funds to give much-needed cash to out-of-work undocumented people. They include the Restaurant Opportunity Center, One Fair Wage, Another Round Another Rally, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, and UndocuFund, among others.

Diana Flores, director of community engagement and organizing at Dolores Street Community Services, said they and other organizations are also working with District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office to come up with a cash assistance program for working-class families with no safety net. 

Flores estimates that households are losing $800 to $1,500 a week and that a monthly payment of $3,200 to $4,800 a month would make a big difference for families. She expects that if the shelter-in-place policy endures, more than one payment will be needed. 

Paul Monge, Ronen’s legislative aide, said her office is working with a coalition of community organizations including Dolores Street, Jobs with Justice, and MEDA “to design a financial assistance program for undocumented individuals and families.”

The Mayor’s Office has dedicated some funding, he wrote, and philanthropic dollars have come in through the Give2SF fund to serve undocumented households, but no exact figure has been finalized. 

In interviews on Tuesday, it quickly became clear that unlike the nonprofits that serve them, many immigrants optimistically view the crisis as one that will be short-lived. 

Take Ana Vela, for example. “I have work,” she said, using the present tense, and then — like others who described themselves as having a job — she put that in context. “But because of what is happening, I got laid off for two weeks.”  

Vela’s job was at McDonald’s. And, while the company offered her two days a week, she decided against taking the hours because her children are now at home. Plus, the bus she took from the Mission to the city’s southeast, she said, concerned her. 

And if the crisis endures beyond April 7, the current date that the city’s shelter-in-place policy is loosely slated to end?

“We don’t know how we will get through this,” she admits. 

Carla, who works at a fast-food restaurant on Kearny Street, was also offered two days a week, and she felt she had no choice but to take the hours. Getting there by bus, she said, “scares me, but I have to do it.”

Kisch, from Compass Family Services, said that because immigrants feel more inclined to take whatever work they can, they are also at greater risk of contracting the virus.  

Victor, who was with his wife at Cesar Chavez Elementary school for the food bank, would appear to be one of the lucky immigrants. He has legal residency and a job with San Francisco Public Works, but even this has failed to shield him from going to the food bank. His wife, he said, has been laid off from preschool program where she once worked. 

“Already, I’m sorry to say, we are behind on the rent,” he said, adding that his salary alone barely covers the $2,800 a month he pays to house himself, his five children and his wife in the Mission District. 

Recently, he said, they received a letter from the landlord asking if they would be paying rent. 

“We’re discussing this right now,” said his wife.

One immigrant, who asked not to be identified, kept her store open on the first day of the shelter-in-place policy, but has since closed it. “It is just hard. We weren’t prepared for this,” she said in tears. “I am trying to not think too much, but I am really thinking all the time. Food for our family is a priority now, but to have food, we have to have sales. It just feels like a big dark storm.”

This story has been corrected. An earlier version misreported the amount of money that undocumented households will need to replace the loss of income.   

Mission Local has compiled this list of resources. We are updating and translating all of this material. Recursos en Español.

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Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor at Berkeley’s J-school since 1990. My earlier career was at The New York Times working for the business, foreign and city desks. As an old...

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