In the past two years, Vashon Youth and Family Services has expanded its outreach to the island’s growing Latinx population, providing resources and support that have become essential to a demographic that is now disproportionately impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Data released last month by Public Health – Seattle & King County found that communities of color are experiencing significantly higher rates of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations compared to white residents. The data showed the rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases for Hispanic, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents are four times higher than white residents. The rate of confirmed cases for individuals of the black community is double than the white community.
Though more information is needed to understand the risk factors that contribute to the disparity, health differences between racial and ethnic groups can often be attributed to economic and social conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such factors can then isolate people from the resources they need to prepare for and respond to crises, exacerbating harm.
It’s for that reason Director Mariela Franco has sought to help the island’s Latinx families feel included and informed throughout the course of the pandemic.
‘Bridging the gap’
Franco has been distributing fresh produce at a satellite location outside of her home sourced through the island’s Food Access Partnership to as many as 30 families. There, she is able to share important updates about the virus from VashonBePrepared and even perform case management, assessing her clients’ needs face to face and making referrals if necessary to licensed mental health counselors back at VFYS or parenting support and education available at Family Place.
“My clients have all types of needs, anxiety, and fear, not much different than what many of us are feeling. Yet a lot of my clients can’t access things they need, so we are here to help them along the way,” Franco said in an email, adding that the fallout of the pandemic has been felt hard by VYFS’s Latinx clients. “I call them, I make sure they have food, that they can pay their rent, their utilities. I make sure the kids and youth are connected to the school, that they have the technology and connection they need. I give the kids toys, clothing, warm, kind reminders that we are here together,” she said.
Franco said that building relationships between VYFS and Vashon’s Latinx community started with establishing trust, listening and respecting their confidentiality. In time, that strategy has led to positive outcomes and broader improvements, particularly in the Vashon Island School District. There, the organization now serves as a point of contact for Latinx families, advocating for students and strengthening communication. Recent efforts have focused on helping Latinx students receive the assistance, translations and technology they need for remote learning.
“We help families and students navigate the school system with what is available within that system, we help bridge the gaps, we connect them all, we find what is missing,” Franco said. “We want to impact systems, provoke beneficial change and integrate families and students, [focusing on] what works according to their needs [as heard] through their own voices within the school system and this community.”
But the pandemic has only created a greater need among all groups. Franco noted that many in the island’s Latinx community have lost their jobs as the economic fallout grips the country, challenging her to work almost nonstop on behalf of her clients while putting more pressure on VYFS to keep up with the workload.
Meanwhile, VYFS faces potentially difficult prospects ahead as a result of a revenue shortfall — last week an advisory committee forecast a substantial deficit in the upcoming biennium in the county’s Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) fund, money going toward behavioral health programs and services, due to a loss of sales tax revenue.
Despite the setback, the organization is targeting ways to position itself to continue serving Vashon, said Jeni Johnson, executive director.
VYFS works closely with other social service organizations on the island such as the Vashon Food Bank, St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness. This network of local partners has remained accessible to families when other offers of support from the federal government and regional nonprofits are often difficult to navigate, have short application windows and may require personal information some may not be sure is safe to share. Yet other barriers to support remain.
One of those barriers faced by Latinx families who wish to access public assistance is an 1883 federal rule known as the “public charge,” intended to disqualify those who use benefits from obtaining a green card. The Comunidad Latina de Vashon, working alongside partners from the Northwest Immigration Rights Project, who sometimes offer the group legal support, are monitoring the rule as it was revised and implemented in February under the Trump Administration. Namely, they are concerned that fear over the rule dissuades those who are eligible for unemployment benefits from seeking assistance — or even seeking medical care without health insurance — when in fact the rule does not apply in such circumstances. And that apprehension could leave many especially vulnerable as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.
There are calls for a statewide response to guarantee everyone economic relief, including from the nonprofit Washington State Budget & Policy Center, recommending that Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators invest $100 million in a new worker’s relief fund to support the state’s estimated 270,000 undocumented immigrants who are excluded from receiving public benefits despite being taxpayers. At the federal level, senators could vote on the next stimulus bill, called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, in the coming days. Among other measures to jump-start commerce and come to the aid of Americans, the bill includes a provision to extend work permits for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, though it does not eliminate the public charge rule, an item that immigration activists pushed for.
During the most recent island COVID-19 live-streamed town hall event, former VYFS executive director Carol Goertzel discussed the chilling effect the public charge has had on many in the Latinx community, including on the island, noting that the organization is attempting to fill the role left by traditional public assistance programs however possible to help fulfill basic needs for those who may be afraid to look for help from other sources. She cited a recent donation of gift certificates to VYFS for clients to use for purchasing essentials such as toothpaste, diapers, shampoo and soap as an example of helping to make a difference. But Adriana Ortiz-Serrano, an attorney and Sensitive Locations Project Coordinator at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, said she believes it should be the responsibility of the government to ensure people’s rights and wellbeing are protected rather than leaving it to a patchwork of private initiatives and enterprises.
In the meantime, El Centro de la Raza is expanding its workshop offerings so the community can help itself, from Know-Your-Rights trainings with information about what to do if approached by immigration agents, to workshops on gender-based violence, COVID-19 and health care services. El Centro de la Raza is also offering information sessions for DACA recipients in anticipation of a final ruling this month on the program by the United States Supreme Court.
Earlier this year, Ortiz-Serrano conducted a workshop about identifying locations designated as sensitive — places where immigration agents have restricted access — at the Vashon Library after El Centro de La Raza was invited to the island by VYFS. She said economic hardship is only an addition to the near-overwhelming stress that immigrants experience living in this country, particularly those who are undocumented, as the Trump administration regularly announces dramatic changes to already-complex immigration laws with a zeal that has not slowed during the pandemic, closing the borders to nonessential travel, including to asylum seekers, and continuing to conduct deportations.
“Even if the measure or the new rule that is announced doesn’t affect you, you would start managing a lot of the stress because you don’t know when your situation is going to change at any time after building a life here,” said Ortiz-Serrano, who is on a foreign H-1B skilled-worker visa. Last month, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration is considering whether or not to discontinue issuing such visas. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate is the highest it’s ever been. Should those holding H-1B visas lose their jobs and fail to find new employment to transfer their visa within a two-month grace period, they may face deportation.
“I can tell you by myself, I’m a person with legal status right now and I am freaking out,” Ortiz-Serrano said, adding that these days she is mindful of practicing self-care.
Molly Matter, an islander and current chair of the civil rights law section of the Washington State Bar Association, said she believes more opportunities for people to embrace their culture and join together where they feel safe, comfortable and included, will make for stronger communities that are more resistant to hatred and prejudice.
Matter was Co-counsel with several civil rights organizations in defense of the constitutionality of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 in Higginson v Becerra, a case before the Supreme Court just last week. The court refused to hear the case, upholding the law that requires municipalities to draw their own district lines in a way that will ensure minority voters have equal access to the political process and equal voting power.
“Color has always mattered as it does today,” she said.
Matter has done pro bono work on behalf of immigrants in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma who she said often exercise their own voices by hunger strike. Some of her clients in the detention center have faced harrowing adversities, or are in the process of appealing denial of their asylum claims. Matter said she continues to be inspired by the human connection still possible between them, seemingly worlds apart.
“It’s a moment, sometimes it’s like five seconds, that you can just be with somebody and hold their hand. I don’t think a lot of lawyers hold people’s hands, but I hold people’s hands. And I’m able to say, ‘this isn’t right, and we care, and people outside this prison or this detention center care about you,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a moment that makes it all worth it or that gives you hope. Being in the moment with people.”