It’s 9:53 a.m. on a Thursday in June, and Ruth Barajas is catching up. She strolls into the warehouse wearing hoops and a mauve Latino Task Force varsity jacket.
“The only way you can get it down is if you throw it,” Barajas says matter-of-factly, ordering someone on the upper level to toss down boxes of diapers.
The volunteers await below with outstretched arms. And then, they hurry, for soon mothers in search of diapers will arrive. Already, at 10 a.m. a line of four Latinx residents stand at well-worn, spaced-out demarcations on the floor, hoping to get inside the Resource Hub.
The Hub is a drafty, capacious warehouse at 700 Alabama St. that houses the Mission Language Vocational School. When the pandemic struck and devastated the city’s Latinx population, many of whom live in or near the Mission District, community groups responded by activating the Hub and all its space.
Like a prettier, cozier Wal-Mart, the Hub offers anything a client may need to survive: food, resources, even a sympathetic ear. Beneath a canopy of papel picado one can find dozens of boxes prepped with Honey Bunches of Oats, tomatoes, and masa, sustenance that encourages lines around the block. On Thursdays, technicians come prepped with vaccines and set up white tents outside for those who want a shot.
Today is just another typical Thursday. An engine roars, interrupting the stillness outside. It’s Zair; they can always tell by the car. “I think he might need help; can you go out there?” Barajas, the Hub’s head and “mastermind,” says to some volunteers.
Soon the line of Latinx residents will arrive with their requests. That day, the Hub will serve 80 families, a little less than its average, which ranges from 90 to 115 families. Overall, this is a fraction of the 12,000 they’d served by July 2021, not to mention the few thousand families they serve every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in its famed foodlines. But the first ones are here. Prepared.
To organize them, a young volunteer in short-cropped hair, Susy, steps outside to the growing line and, in rapid Spanish, asks each visitor why they came. The man in the pink shirt needs to settle his immigration case; another aims to straighten out hiccups with his unemployment.
After she checks them in on a laptop marked “PLZ DO NOT TOUCH. SUSANA’S,” she’s positioned to direct the rush of people to where they really want to go — upstairs.
“Are you ready,” Barajas says to the volunteers. She leads the clients to an inconspicuous orange exterior door and swings it open, then whips out her walkie-talkie. “Alondra, we’re doing the first run. Five people.”
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Up and away
The First Run — a group of Hub clients — emerges from the dark stairwell into sky. They find a large, sunlit, second-floor room painted light blue. Like a wedding party, the floor is populated by a sea of numbered tables, each reserved for a particular person and service.
Like all who come through, the First Run must face Alondra Gallardo, 25, the amicable upstairs leader who checks them in.
The pink-shirted man at the front of the First Run steps up to Gallardo, and she grins widely. She scrolls through the color-coded boxes confirming his appointment in Spanish. She directs him to Mesa 22, where a high-heeled immigration lawyer awaits. She only comes on Thursdays.
Twenty minutes after 10 a.m., the clients quadruple, filling each numbered table. There, they’ll meet a representative of one of the numerous partner organizations: Institute Familiar de la Raza, Clínica Martín Baró, Mission Neighborhood Centers, and more. Each may be the answer to their ongoing problems. While clients wait to be called, they sit in the black fold-out chairs facing Gallardo’s check-in desk. A mother bounces her toddler on her leg, a woman dozes off. A dragged-along teenager plants himself indignantly in the back, buried in a phone.
Because many have come to the Hub for months, Gallardo recognizes them. She waves to Gloria, who’s visited at least five times; today she’s donning a tan baseball cap and pigtails. Gallardo already knows where she’s headed: Mesa 11, the unemployment table, where Ernesto Cuellar is waiting to help.
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The Avon lady’s favorite
Cuellar, 23, has been at the Hub since May and deals with all things unemployment. Gloria hasn’t gotten her unemployment check, she tells Cuellar. As a mother to a 15- and 11-year-old, and a soon-to-be divorcee, she needs that check.
Her case is a bit complicated. She works a few hours at the San Francisco Unified School District as a lunch monitor, but not enough for full unemployment benefits. She’s qualified for partial benefits.
“When was the last time you worked for them?” Cuellar asks her in Spanish.
Gloria consults a tiny blue composition notebook full of Post-its. Since her schedule is on-call and up in the air, she has to record her own time-sheet. “May 21,” she says.
“It’s weird,” Cuellar says, poring over the state’s unemployment portal from his laptop.
“It’s weird,” Gloria agrees.
They discuss this, Gloria chuckling every now and then. On May 23 and 28, she worked 13 hours total.
Finally: “It appears you made too much to qualify,” Ernesto tells her.
Gloria protests, saying she’s about to lose hours next month. Ernesto tells Gloria to obtain a certificate from her employer to prove this, so he can fix it next time. Gloria flashes a smile and jauntily takes off, promising to return.
Most of Cuellar’s inquiries are like Gloria’s. But if cases get more complicated, they turn to other volunteers with more expertise. Still, some rare cases require an elite helping hand. “When cases are way too complicated or time-sensitive, they put it to [a representative from the office of Assemblyman] David Chiu,” he says.
The most clients Cuellar’s seen in a day is 14, the fewest seven. Memorable ones are regulars, like an elderly woman who sells Avon products, who thanked him with perfume earlier in the day.
One time, a woman’s case was so complicated she stayed until 9 p.m., long after the Hub officially closed. A video call with Chiu’s office ensued, Cuellar remembers.
“I said, ‘Do you want me to walk you home?’” Cuellar recounts. “‘She said no. My husband has been waiting outside.’ This was for five hours!” Cuellar laughs, still incredulous.
“I said, ‘why didn’t you tell him to come in?’ and she said, ‘Oh. I guess I forgot.’”
She and her husband weren’t the only ones desperate for a helping hand. In March 2020 when all were asked to stay at home, most businesses, including service-oriented nonprofits, shut down their offices.
That left a severe need for in person, low-barrier assistance. In March 2020, this led Roberto Hernandez, the unofficial “Mayor of the Mission,” to distribute food to the neighborhood’s hungry families from outside his garage and to connect them to unemployment services. One day, he decided to move operations to the warehouse on 700 Alabama St. Along with 113 volunteers and numerous donations, he fed dozens, then hundreds of families. By March 2021, the line clocked in at 9,000 families weekly and could be hours long.
But the Latino Task Force, of which Hernandez is a member, envisioned more for such a huge space — much of cara a cara, or “face to face” services nonprofits offered pre-pandemic were gone. So by May, the Hub gathered all the nonprofits and organizations, and filled the void.
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1:03 p.m. The Left Side of the Hub
While some take off to get lunch (strict Covid-19 rules means no eating in the room) the Left Side bustles. It’s popular: That’s where the immigration and disability lawyers are.
But the most sought-after table is Mesa 23, where Dairo Romero and his promotoras are. If you want to get into affordable housing, you need to first go through the city’s affordable housing portal, DAHLIA (or Database of Affordable Housing Listings, Information, and Applications). And if you have no clue how to go through that process, or don’t have a computer, or have questions, well — Romero is your guy. Romero, who works at Mission Economic Development Agency, knows about taxes, unemployment, grants.
Thus, the one desperate client who missed his tax deadlines, kneeling on the floor with neon orange folder and tax documents spread on the hardwood.
Romero, from his spot at Mesa 23, gesticulates calmly. You’ll need this one. That one. That one. Like an air traffic coordinator, Romero carefully guides the man out of his fog.
- * * * *
The Texas detention center for unaccompanied minors wasn’t so bad, Maria says. The small 18-year-old looks over an unassuming desk. In front of her are about 10 piles of documents — intake forms, tax documents — and each has about 100 copies. Copying papers is one of her many responsibilities as an intern, and she must reorder and staple them. She’s one of the 30 or more staff working at the Hub at a time.
“Maria, can you help this woman walk down the stairs?” Gallardo asks; she’ll lead them to the free food at the end. Wordlessly, Maria obeys.
Her move was unique to say the least. The first half of 2020 she was in a detention center, following her departure from her native Guatemala. Six months later she was released to her sister, a Daly City-resident and U.S. citizen. She then stepped out into a different kind of shut-out world.
Nowadays, she works at the Hub five hours a day, two days a week, she says proudly, doing whatever’s asked of her. “I feel really good, being able to help people, being a part of the community.”
Most of all she’s excited to continue studying, as her education path had dead-ended in her hometown. In the meantime, she keeps her head down, contributing to the Hub’s white noise of shuffling papers, clacking keyboards, and the whirring copy machine.
2:00 p.m. “Here, have my card”
Just before the Eviction Defense Collaborative is about to wrap up, a kind of eclectic, elderly Latina woman sits down, a sunset colored tie-dye backpack in tow. The EDC, a nonprofit, provides counsel for eviction notices.
The Latina woman chatters to Wendy, the only EDC rental assistance coordinator that day who can speak fluent Spanish, and recounts her recent encounter with her landlord. She’s subletting from another elderly tenant, who, allegedly fed up from lack of payments, threatened to kick her out.
“It’s not guaranteed, but we’ll try to help,” Wendy assures her, before turning back to the eviction lawyer Gina Pham.
“[The landlord] can’t legally kick you out,” Pham says, which Wendy translates. “But he might. The police might come. If they do, make sure she has a lease agreement. They can’t change the locks.” Gina reaches into her bag. “She can have my card.”
Wendy takes out a Post-it note and writes down what the woman needs. An ID, a lease contract, proof of income. “It’s my email,” Wendy says. “If you don’t have your documents, we can’t help you with anything.”
While at her laptop, Wendy sends Courtney Matlock, another EDC rental assistance coordinator, to print out some documents the woman will need later on. Matlock goes and her bell bottom jeans consume her feet, which she taps while she waits for the documents to shoot out.
At the table, the woman thumbs through her phone, trying to find her proof of loss of income. She clicks on random photos in her library. It’s a no-go, but Wendy promises someone can help tomorrow.
“Mañana, verdad?” the woman says, laughing incredulously. ““Le agradezco mucho, thanks so much.”
They finish just before Wendy must scoop her kids up from school. She disinfects the table, and rushes off.
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3:00 p.m. School’s out, and the organizers are in
Three o’clock is when the kids arrive, peeking behind mothers with strollers.
One girl sits in a folding chair in the waiting area. She’s no older than 8 and sports tiny braids held together by pink rubber bands. She drops a spinning top underneath two chairs where señoras chat, and as all kids must learn to do, discreetly squirms between the legs to grab it. The toy, along with her picture book “THREE BRAINY BIRDS,” was stuffed in freebie bags for kids and gifted by the Hub. But now it’s under the señora’s chair, and she can’t reach it.
Luckily, she’s aided by an 11-year-old boy. He adroitly points out the top to the señoras, who follow his finger, find it, chuckle and return it.
Meanwhile, Melia, who comes nearly every week to represent her organization, Trabajadores Unidos Workers United, snakes through the seated crowd, passing out flyers for local workers’ rights meetings; there’s one today at Dolores Park. Her hair is in a top knot and she sports a tie-dye mask and sandals. There’s generally a few in the crowd who take her flyers.
- * *
3:30 p.m. Parting gifts
The Covid-19 vaccine tents outside are packed up, but there are still Runs waiting outside. The vocal stylings of Bad Bunny, Jhay Cortez, and J Balvin’s hit “No me conoce” wafts from a black, boxy stereo.
Soon, only the clients above will need assistance with their respective experts, meaning the Downstairs staff can go home by the Hub’s close at 4:00 p.m.
But it’s not time yet. A guy in a black Led Zeppelin tee and a baseball cap asks those five still in line if they have an appointment. Inside the warehouse, a client grabs the guaranteed goodie bag: a trash bag full of food.
“Will you take some tomatoes? Cereal?” says Ronnie, a volunteer, to the client.
“Yeah, is it in the box?” The burgeoning boxes filled with food sit nearby, with hundreds more on deck in the room behind them.
The food and the Hub is paid for by both private and public funders, but notably Mayor London Breed and the city gave the Hub $3 million that kicked in November 2020 and carried them through June 2021. In part, the funding allowed the model to grow into three other neighborhood Latino Task Force Hubs: two in the Bayview, and one in the Excelsior. As an emblem of its success, city funding doubled in June 2021 to $6 million. That will carry them through June 2022, Barajas said.
Ronnie, 22, occasionally passes out food, a way to rack up community service while he’s on parole. He found the Hub thanks to his social worker and assists in the kitchen, and helps Dr. Misa Perron-Burdick, who started her own Bernal Heights food pantry for her patients in the pandemic. Now he’s in cognitive therapy, anger management, and is pursuing firefighter school.
Esperanza Tirrez — called fondly Espy by her peers — brushes past, tossing food into bags. Another young volunteer tells her she smells good. The 23-year-old bursts out laughing. “I thought I was a musty ass.”
Barajas a few feet away, keeps watch, and sees the last few clients. “Zair, can you run the last one up?” she asks. He obliges, and with the group, disappears Upstairs.
- * * * *
4 p.m. The Last Round
Among the Last Run is Marcos Samayoa, 36, crutches resting beside him.
Samayoa is here for his third time this year. Today he’s here for rent relief. He used to make pizzas in San Francisco, but hasn’t been able to work for a few months after problems with his back. Now, he’s out $2,000.
Samayoa has a wife and a 3-year-old daughter. Both are sitting on the other end of the waiting room for other needs; his spouse, Jessica Veliz, 34, is tasked with asking questions about taxes. She got a bill from the Internal Revenue Service that’s confusing.
“I don’t have an appointment, but they said they could see me today,” Veliz says in Spanish, a little cheerier than her stoic husband. She and Samayoa’s daughter, Andrea, entertains herself. “Andrea, venga por mami,” she chastises, as Andrea attempts to dart away. Just then, they’re whisked away to Mesa 14.
Also lounging around the fold-out chairs is Rosibel Cardenas. Nestled in her double-studded ear is a cross and a diamond stud. At her feet is Jose, her 5-year-old, buried into whatever phone game captures kids’ attention these days.
Gallardo spies Jose, and now unburdened by check-ins, leaves the table and extends her service. Does Jose want to color instead? Jose ditches the phone, and sheepishly accepts a macaroni-colored crayon and paper, then emphatically colors a dinosaur.
This year’s been rough. Cardenas is undocumented, and hasn’t worked. She’s strung along what little handouts she came across: an $1,000 gift card, weekly food from the Hub and the school district, a $500 Catholic Charities gift card for undocumented immigrants, a check worth two-months of rent from her son’s teacher.
“It’s difficult, but praise be to God, we keep going,” Cardenas says.
- * * * *
4:48 p.m. The man, the myth, the Hub legend
The waiting chairs are empty, but nine people are at tables.
One family leaves Mesa 23, Romero’s financial assistance table. They’ve been there for hours. The family of four — including a 9-year-old girl — was one of the lucky ones in the city’s affordable housing process. Odds of winning the lottery process are against you, with affordable housing in such high demand. “For one unit, there’s about 10 applications,” Romero says.
But getting chosen isn’t the end of it — you need to prove you can swing the rent. Pandemic incomes implied this particular family couldn’t, but their new jobs in 2021 says otherwise. For hours, Romero helped them call employers and print out statement. In the end, they had all their ducks in a row.
“No 9-year-old should have to live in an SRO,” Romero says. Now they have a shot at a two or three bedroom unit.
It’s this expertise that is both Romero’s glory and bane. Satisfied clients will pass his number around, eliciting calls from frantic strangers in poor situations at 10 p.m. on Sundays who say, “‘I have a question about taxes.’”
Yet his hard work pays off. He got dozens of families into these brand new affordable housing sites since October. No small feat.
Romero looks tired. He scoops up his leather satchel, fastens the maroon “MEDA” mask on his face before heading out. “I need a vacation,” he sighs.
- * * * *
5:15 p.m. A treat for tomorrow
There are two parties finishing up with their gurus. One is the zany, tall, bald man who says the feds messed up his unemployment check; another is a couple seeking financial advice. Who here wasn’t?
Except for them, Upstairs is silent. Downstairs is already locked up.
Gallardo and Cuellar straighten out papers, chat about some of the clients who call them sporadically throughout the week.
“I try not to share my cell, it feels so mean,” one volunteer says. Gallardo nodded empathetically, noting five strangers called her Google Voice number during off-hours.
As Thursday winds down, Maria dutifully sprays and wipes down desks for tomorrow. Gallardo shows Ernesto a meme, before he and Maria take off.
Tomorrow will be the building director’s birthday, so Gallardo takes out a tiny helium balloon and an apple with tajin and leaves it on the table. “It’s a tasty dessert, but healthy,” she says, attaching a candle.
- * * * *
6:02 p.m. Locking up
There’s one couple left standing. Soon, they get what they need.
The next day there’ll be more, and the next one and the next one. With the $6 million, the Hub will be fully operational until June 2022 at least, said Barajas, but with a new focus on recovery, “helping families stabilize, and ultimately, to support them to become self-sufficient.” Services shift to job access, financial education, and wealth building opportunities.
At 6:09 p.m. the final couple of the Last Run descends the dark stairwell leading from the warehouse, then steps out into Alabama Street’s light. As they go, they’ll pass the early-bird-drinkers populating True Laurel’s parklet downstairs.
“Gracias,” they call out to Gallardo, who will lock up. “¡Que le vaya bien!” May everything go well.
*Maria’s name was changed to protect her privacy while she looks to be taken on for an immigration case.