“Everyone is afraid,” writes one woman in that situation.
Over the past several months, those text messages have popped up on the cellphone screens of volunteers who have helped organize a regionwide effort aimed at keeping people from going hungry during the pandemic.
The Food Justice Initiative has drawn volunteers from churches, nonprofit organizations and within some of the communities that have been hit hardest by the economic fallout of the virus, and together those volunteers have distributed tens of thousands of meals.
Some of them have also become receptacles of other requests, as their cellphone numbers have spread from one person whose needs go beyond food to another.
This has placed those volunteers in the unique position of seeing up close the raw and real ways the pandemic is hurting people who live in and around the nation’s capital, not far from the White House, where President Trump on Tuesday turned talks over a stimulus plan that would help millions of Americans into a political show of power.
In tweets, he indicated that he had stopped bipartisan conversations about the stimulus package, stating, “I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election.” Then hours after that stomping of his feet, he caused further confusion by calling on Congress to “IMMEDIATELY” pass a different economic relief plan than the one he rejected.
The food distribution effort has nothing to do with politics, but after seeing Trump’s dizzying tweets, my thoughts went straight to those text messages that the volunteers have been receiving. They come from people who have been hurt most by our stalled economy and show that they need immediate help, not a drawn-out political showdown.
I first received a glimpse of those texts a few months ago — and they are gutting.
I promised I would protect the privacy of the senders, so I won’t share any of the names mentioned in them. But the words warrant our attention, regardless of our individual political beliefs. They offer a rare reflection of what has been happening, mostly unseen, within households all around us.
Some of the messages are brief. Some stretch one swipe of a page after another. All of them come from people who at some point decided that pleading with a stranger for help was better than the alternative.
“Hello, my name is,” begins a message from a woman who describes needing food, shampoo, toothpaste and other basic necessities. She writes in Spanish, “I don’t have a job and I have children and well I’m really in need since I have nothing in my house.”
In another text, a person describes a household in which all the adults have lost jobs and don’t receive help from the government.
“We have been surviving on one meal a day for some time now,” the person writes. “We were lucky that some neighbors brought us a couple of mangos the other day so we’d have something to eat.”
That person expresses concern for a 12-year-old daughter who has a heart condition.
“I’m so worried about her, I can see she is depressed,” the person writes. “She is on her period, but we have no sanitary products so she is having to use rags, but we don’t have money for laundry detergent either. I try to hide in the bathroom when I feel like crying, so my daughter won’t see me sad. We’re living in an impossible situation, but us adults — we can cope. I’m most worried about my girl. She asks me ‘how will we survive this?’ and I tell her somehow we’ll find a way, God will provide a way somehow.”
God shouldn’t be the only one, though, trying to provide a way.
I am not an economist and can’t say what needs to go into the stimulus plan to make it the most effective. But I know what it’s like to see a parent lose a job and suddenly realize that the pillar holding everything up in your life isn’t as unbreakable as it seemed only a day earlier.
I also know what it’s like to have small children depending on you to keep their stomachs full and the ground beneath them stable.
Ernestina Sagastume used to clean houses before the pandemic. But after losing that work, she says, she found herself relying on the food distribution effort to help her feed her four children and nephew.
She now volunteers with the Food Justice Initiative, helping to get meals to about 120 people in her Maryland neighborhood each week. In May, she says, her entire family caught the virus, but they have since recovered.
“Thank God I’m still here to help people,” she tells me when we talk on a recent evening. “I feel so bad for them. Without work, it’s really hard.”
Josh Wenderoff, who also volunteers with the initiative, says that since he started delivering food, he has found his phone increasingly buzzing with messages from people saying, “Can you help me?”
“One of the questions we ask is, ‘When will you run out of food?’ ” he says. “More and more the answer is, ‘Two or three days,’ if not, ‘Now.’ ”
The requests for help have come from across the region, he says, and have resulted in him at times delivering food a mile away from where he lives in Virginia.
Not all the people who have received food from the initiative would directly receive stimulus funds, but they would all benefit from them. Many immigrants don’t qualify for that assistance. But those funds would trickle down to them and others who stand at the bottom of the region’s economic totem pole, holding up everyone else. The relief would allow people to hire them and donate to the organizations that are trying to keep up with their needs.
In a recent text message to a volunteer, a woman asks for help buying medicine for her mother and covering the bus fare to get her daughter to and from the hospital.
“Sometimes I start crying when I see the situation we are in,” the woman writes in Spanish. “I don’t know when this coronavirus will go away. I ask God to take this away so that my husband will get his job back and be able to help my mother with the medicine, because she has always had this medicine prescribed and we have always bought it for her but just now we don’t have money . . . ”
She ends with a plea: “We are asking you to help us please.”