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It’s getting close to 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the line outside of Street Level Health Project on E 15th Street and Fruitvale Avenue is already wrapped around the corner. Staff and volunteers have been working around the clock, as they do every week, to hand out free bags filled with fresh produce, dry goods, and hot meals prepared by local restaurants. Patricia Contreras Flores, Street Level’s ACILEP dispatcher and mutual aid coordinator, is also passing out PPE—ziplock bags with face masks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and disinfectant spray.
“We don’t even open until 2 p.m., and people already start lining up around 11,” said Samantha Vázquez, Street Level’s wellness and prevention program manager. “We used to stay open until 5 p.m. Now, the bags usually run out by 4 p.m.”
Last year, when the Oaklandside visited Street Level Health Project in mid-May, the food distribution had gone from 60 to 80 bags a week pre-pandemic to more than 150. The need for food and other resources in East Oakland hasn’t let up. Currently, the weekly distribution consists of 120 grocery bags from the Alameda Food Bank, El Charro (a local market across the street from Street Level’s offices), and Food Shift, a company that distributes surplus and imperfect food to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.
“There’s a great need still, and we are trying to find ways to push out for more food,” Vázquez said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough room. We need a bigger space.”
The hot meals are prepared through a partnership with Trybe, East Oakland Collective, and Homies Empowerment. Trybe applied on the coalition’s behalf to the Alameda County Social Services Agency’s food distribution program for a monthly contract and Street Level serves as one of Trybe’s subcontractors to distribute the food. Before the grant, Street Level was receiving hot meals through World Central Kitchen.
Street Level’s executive director, Gabriela Galicia, said her group’s goal is to try to get more funding to extend the hot meals program for a full year. “It will allow us to keep our infrastructure and not have to think about reducing our services. Without this funding, we would have to reduce back down to pre-pandemic numbers, and the need in the community will continue through the recovery period.”
Before the pandemic, Street Level’s offices included a community hub where day laborers would gather to receive medical and mental health care and information about their legal rights. These kinds of indoor gatherings haven’t been possible over the past year so now the space is taken up by plastic tables stacked with bags of food, hot meals, and tall shelves filled with diapers.
Most community members who have used Street Level’s services are Latinx day laborers, and most of them were unemployed due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. But towards the end of last year, client demographics shifted to families, single mothers with kids, and more of a mixed racial group, including older Asian people who are experiencing food insecurity.
“Now, every week is different folks,” Contreras Flores said. They come here because of what we provide. We give out healthy food and lots of produce.”
Toribio Ticante is a day laborer who has lived in Oakland for over 16 years and has utilized the organization’s services for the past decade. When The Oaklandside spoke to Ticante last year, he was out of work and relying on the weekly food distribution.
“It wasn’t until this past March that I have been working consistently, at least three days a week,” Ticante said in Spanish. “Now, if I work on Tuesday, I don’t come to the food distribution. But, I’m grateful for everything that Street Level has done for me.”
Ticante also benefited from Street Level’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund, which provided him with three separate cash payments of up to $500 spread throughout the year. With the funds, he was able to pay towards his rent and other basic necessities.
“Street Level cares about the community,” Ticante said. “They make us feel like we are not alone and can count on them.”
For the single mothers who line up every week, the necessities include diapers for their children. A bag of 19 diapers can cost $11, adding up to a major expense for some households. “We don’t have enough of a supply for the great need in the community,” Contreras Flores said.
Last spring when vaccines were just an idea there was very little information about the COVID-19 virus and how it is transmitted, and public health information wasn’t readily available in Spanish in neighborhoods like Fruitvale. Street Level’s members and volunteers relied on information from the Alameda County Public Health regarding mask-wearing and social distancing and shared this with their members.
The team has transitioned from providing information on where to get tested for COVID and working with La Clínica to conduct contact tracing to a focus on helping its members get vaccinated. Street Level was at the forefront of providing information in Mam, a Mayan language spoken by many Central American immigrants, to assist Oakland’s growing Guatemalan population.
“When the pandemic started, there was a language barrier to provide information to Mayan immigrants,” said Sandy Chales, Street Level’s ACILEP Mam community health outreach worker. “When vaccines became available at the beginning of the year, Street Level teamed up with the clinics set up at Fremont High School, La Clínica, and Native American Health Center with outreach to those who come by for the food distribution.
“Although there’s still some distrust, we are starting to see more people in the community interested in getting vaccinated,” Chales said. “I’d say that about 60% of the regular community members who come by are already vaccinated.”
Street Level staff also help people in line for food sign-up for a vaccine appointment while they’re waiting. And volunteers fan out around Fruitvale and other parts of Oakland where day laborers congregate looking for jobs. “Through our outreach efforts, we have encountered a variety of people that were ready, people that were excited, and people that due to their jobs, there was a push for them to get vaccinated,” said Galicia.
They’ve had to dispel some misinformation and address people’s hesitancy. “When the pause to provide the Johnson & Johnson vaccine happened, it made our work difficult,” said Galicia. “We continued providing information and resources and got different responses. Some people weren’t ready to get vaccinated.” Instead of pressuring people, Galicia said her team provided accurate information to gently nudge them along.
Street Level has been in constant communication with the Alameda County Public Health Department, updating them on the immigrant community’s needs in Fruitvale. The organization’s efforts will soon pay off in the form of mobile clinics that will roam around hard-hit neighborhoods in Oakland with a disparity in vaccine distribution.
“We heard [from day labor workers] that although they know where some of the [vaccine] sites are, it’s tough to miss a day of work to get a vaccine,” Galicia said. “Also, there are no evening clinics where workers can go when they get off work, or even consistent Sunday clinics. That’s why we’re deciding to push for mobile clinics.”
Day labor workers like Ticante are grateful for the services organizations like Street Level provide, especially in uncertain times. Last May, Ticante had faith things would get better. A year later, he remains optimistic.
“The storm is passing,” he said. “Although we are not fully out of the pandemic, God never leaves our side.”