Jennifer* lives in a studio apartment on East 172nd Street in the Bronx. Her landlord is Community Access, a 45-year-old nonprofit that offers supportive housing for people with mental health conditions. Jennifer, who has ADHD, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, lives on Social Security benefits, and pays 30 percent of her income for rent. Early in March, as the novel coronavirus was spreading rapidly in New York City, she became ill — fever, vomiting, diarrhea — and she had trouble eating for several weeks. She wasn’t able to get tested, but she’s reasonably sure it was COVID-19. During her recovery, which lasted as long as the illness, Jennifer says she was physically weak and mentally unable to focus. And on top of that, she was basically confined to her room, unable to socialize with her neighbors like she normally would.
“So stressed,” she says. “Mentally, it was like I was imprisoned.”
Still, the staff workers in her apartment building managed to make things easier. They brought food, toilet paper, and medicine as often as she needed it. And they brought her a new plant, which she tended indoors until it was hearty enough to plant outside in the garden. Focusing on that got her through some of the worst times, Jennifer says.
“Mentally and physically I was just very fragile, but they provided me with tools that I can [use], and I was able to cope during that time,” she says. “I‘ve got to be mindful every day because when I didn’t use [those tools] or I couldn’t use them because I was so sick, it was a domino effect. Everything was dying — my plant was dying — so when I [was] mindful of the tools I need to use every day, that’s what got me through.”
As COVID-19 spread across New York city in the spring, some neighborhoods in the Bronx, where many essential workers live, were particularly hard hit. Residents in large supportive-housing complexes like those run by Community Access were, on paper, especially vulnerable to infection. More than half of the Community Access’s Bronx tenants are Black, and more than a third are Hispanic or Latinx, according to figures shared by the organization — both groups with higher rates of COVID-19 than the population as a whole. The vast majority of its tenants are on Medicare or Medicaid and receive Social Security income or SNAP benefits. But of the 538 residents of Community Access’s Bronx properties, only four have gotten COVID-19 so far, the group says.
“I always hesitate to use the word ‘lucky,’” says Cal Hedigan, the CEO of Community Access. “But from the very beginning, the profile of so many of the people we serve, who are living with serious mental health concerns — most of whom have histories of homelessness and many of whom have histories of chronic homelessness — the deck was stacked against so many people, in terms of the potential for severe impact.”
Early in the outbreak, the group took the typical steps to minimize residents’ and workers’ risk of contracting the disease. They closed down common spaces, moved as much work online as they could, and enforced social distancing in their properties. Jennifer says only three people were allowed in elevators at once, for example, and they were required to face opposite directions to limit the possibility of sharing germs.
At the same time, workers had to find new ways to check in with residents, many of whom needed additional support during the height of the spread. So Community Access bought 250 cell phones for residents who didn’t have their own, to allow regular communication between support staff and tenants in lieu of face-to-face interaction. Check-ins are based on individuals’ needs, and typically, pre-pandemic, staff would check in with a tenant once or twice a month or more, depending on what they were going through. At the height of the outbreak, though, staff were checking in with tenants by phone every day. That helped them to communicate guidelines for social distancing and monitor tenants’ mental health, while making it easier for people to stay in their own apartments.
“There was a lot of work we did to really repeat and refine the public health messaging and help people understand what was going in terms of what was happening in New York City and the infection rate,” Hedigan says. “We [also] gave people a lot of mindfulness tools, coloring books, art supplies, to explore what are the things you could add to your environment that are really going to help you feel better as much as possible.”
Jennifer says her social life suffered when group activities stopped at the beginning of the outbreak. But the daily check-ins and access to remote meditation group practices helped her to cope.
The operational changes Community Access raised its usual costs by about $1 million in spending on personal protective equipment and salary overtime, the group says. The group took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program, and only furloughed three people from one of its crisis respite centers, Hedigan says. Community Access is funded through a mix of city and state housing and mental health services programs, and Hedigan says it’s hoping to recoup some of its additional costs through New York City’s FEMA-funding application. As of mid-August, New York City’s seven-day average of new daily cases is below 200 for the first time since early March. But the pandemic is not over, and Hedigan says that housing providers as well as lawmakers need to pay close attention to what worked to limit the spread for when cases start rising again. She hopes some of Community Access’s decisions can be informative for others.
“How did New York City stop the spread? We did it by listening to the public health messaging,” she says. “Boring as it is, we have to keep with that messaging so that people really understand that we’re not in the clear yet and we need to continue with these new habits … We need to learn from the things that we did well and make sure that we’re remembering them when there is another spike or rise in infections.”
Editor’s note: We are using a pseudonym for Jennifer, at her request.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.