We have seen these inequities play out firsthand at the Latin American Youth Center, a multicultural youth development nonprofit serving about 5,000 youths at sites in D.C. and Maryland. LAYC never closed its doors; staff remained committed to supporting youths and families. As the pandemic hit, we transitioned our programs virtually, including tele-counseling, online job readiness training and after-school enrichment via video call. Within weeks, we mobilized a food distribution system, began fundraising for rental assistance and delivered laptops for virtual learning.
“Everything got hard when the pandemic started,” recalls Miner Hernandez, a participant in LAYC’s Promotor Pathway, a long-term, relationship-based intensive case management program. “School, work, everything.”
Hernandez’s “promotor,” or case manager, Alvin “Pibe”Alvarado, helped him navigate virtual classes as he finished his senior year of high school. He connected Hernandez’s family with rental assistance and grocery delivery when sales from their food truck dropped. “I wasn’t going to continue studying,” Hernandez says. But with encouragement from his family and Alvarado, he enrolled in the University of the District of Columbia’s architecture program. When Alvarado learned Hernandez’s computer couldn’t handle the required software for his classes, he helped Hernandez get a new laptop. “We feel happy that we know Pibe,” Hernandez says. “If anything happens, we can contact him.”
The unique relationships that LAYC and other nonprofits build with clients are critical to meeting the needs brought on by the pandemic. In a recent survey of 750 LAYC youths and families, more than two-thirds of households reported not having enough money to cover necessities such as rent, utilities and food because of job or wage losses. When asked about their primary concern at the time, 37 percent of households said they were most worried about paying bills and rent.
Government assistance, such as unemployment, has been slow or limited and often excludes undocumented family members. One youth’s family could no longer pay rent and they are now couch-surfing. “Working to help the family for the upkeep of bills is the top goal,” another client said. “School is now on hold.” Many youths have had to assume the role of caregiver to younger siblings while parents work.
One out of every 5 households had at least one member test positive for the coronavirus, our survey showed. Latino and Black essential workers are less likely to have health insurance and paid sick leave, compared with White essential workers. In D.C. and many other areas, Latino and Black residents have died at disproportionally high rates. “We have lost many friends and family members to the virus,” said one client.
Adding to these difficult circumstances, nearly all LAYC’s school-aged youths are attending classes virtually. “There are many distractions at home that don’t allow me to fully comprehend schoolwork,” one said. “It’s hard to prep for SATs and college while being completely online,” another told us.
Improving technology access has been a top priority for LAYC. About half of our in-school youths received a laptop from their educational institution, the survey showed, and LAYC purchased and distributed laptops to clients who did not receive them from school. But shockingly, our survey revealed that 44 students were still connecting to online classes using only a tablet or cellphone. Because of our role in the community, we are often the first to identify who has fallen through the cracks. Once we shared this story with D.C. and Maryland school leaders, they immediately offered to help supply those students with laptops.
Our youths and families trust community-based organizations that have provided relief and a sense of hope. As local leaders, schools and businesses plan for reopening, they must consider what this new normal will look like. We shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of normality when community members are still unable to pay rent, put food on the table or attend school.
Community-based organizations must be at the table as part of reopening plans to advocate and provide for the needs of underserved communities.