A study of community resilience after the Spanish flu of 1918 found it was harder for communities to bounce back from a disaster that can be attributed to other individuals – those who are infected – than from a natural disaster.
But that effect was mitigated in communities where nonprofits and community organizations were in place before the outbreak.
Today, greater Portland is one of those communities where nonprofits and new networks of neighbor-to-neighbor support on social media are forging resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the onset of restrictions enacted to flatten the coronavirus curve, platforms such as Facebook and NextDoor saw an outpouring of offers of assistance. The Facebook group Portland Maine Area Community Support quickly grew to 1,800 members. Requests by the elderly or immunocompromised for cleaning supplies and groceries were answered immediately. Businesses that had been forced to close indefinitely offered needed goods and services for free. Arcana yoga studio offered to deliver its cleaning products to those in need as it closed up shop, and Patriot Subaru in Saco offered to print homework for students learning from home. MiBox offered free portable storage units for students forced to move out of their dorms early or food pantries needing more storage. Teachers offered online tutoring.
The South Portland Community of Kindness Facebook group has 1,500 members sharing resources and homeschooling ideas, and has seen offers of toys and games, pet food, and a call for volunteers to work at food pantries and donate blood.
And nonprofits quickly channeled their resources and shifted their operations to meet people’s immediate needs for food and supplies, offering guidance for people new to navigating social services, and giving emotional support to people grappling with isolation and fear.
Food pantries, in particular, have seen greater demand and have had to adjust their operations to comply with physical distancing guidelines.
Dwayne Hopkins, executive director of the South Portland Food Cupboard, said nearly 40 percent of the pantry’s clients are people they’ve never seen before or who have not been to the cupboard in more than a year.
He said the cupboard is keeping up with the demand in part thanks to increased donations from restaurants that have had to close. While some of their volunteers have had to pull back because of concerns about vulnerable people at home, other regular volunteers have taken on more hours and new volunteers have come forward from the community.
Clients are not allowed inside the building, but the cupboard offers drive-up service. Hopkins said that one of the volunteers has a 3D printer and produced face shields for volunteers.
Other organizations have set up support networks among their members. Hour Exchange Portland coordinated assistance for those who needed help among its more than 450 members.
The Southern Maine Workers’ Center has organized its 200 members into a mutual-aid network and a phone network to check on each other so they do not feel isolated.
While the center had to close its drop-in legal clinic, a worker hotline is still operating. Staff and volunteers have been offering advice about where to find resources, how to organize in their workplace, how to navigate changes to the unemployment benefits process related to the coronavirus, and how to apply or appeal if they are rejected.
Other organizations are stepping up to help the wider community.
The Southern Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has set up a mutual aid network to provide assistance during the coronavirus shutdown. Through an intake form on the organization’s website, people can offer help, request help, or make monetary donations.
The organization’s tech team developed a system linking the online spreadsheet application Airtable with the communication platform Slack to automatically pair offers to needs based on location and send out assignments.
As of March 30 they have had 140 people sign up to provide aid, according to member Kate Sykes. Besides doing grocery pickups and deliveries, volunteers are providing child care, giving toys and games to families with children at home, offering storage space, and some are even offering temporary housing.
Seventy-nine people signed up to request support as of March 30, with most asking for help paying bills. Other requests were for groceries and medicine, toys and games, temporary housing, transportation, child care, and storage space.
Sykes said once they realized the greatest need was cash they started a fund drive, from which they would provide direct monetary support. Many of the requests were from people who just needed $30 to keep their cell phone on, or they were a couple hundred dollars short on rent, she said. Each Friday the organization transfers up to $75 to each of 10 people who have signed up for financial assistance, and Sykes said they will continue doing so as long as there is money in the fund. As of April 7, they had raised more than $6,600.
“These are really small Band-Aids,” Sykes said, “but in so many cases it’s enough to just keep someone from falling off the edge.”
They also provide a list of resources where people can seek additional help. Many of the people requesting assistance had been working until the crisis started and have no experience navigating social services, and many do not realize that General Assistance is available to them, Sykes said.
Another nonprofit, The Maine People’s Alliance, launched the website Mainers Together to match needs across the state with volunteer assistance. In the first two weeks, 700 people signed up to help and about 300 people reached out for aid, according to Organizing Director Jennie Pirkl.
“Unfortunately what we’ve been seeing is that what people really need right now are bigger changes,” Pirkl said. “A lot of people are afraid of not being able to pay their rent or their mortgage and losing their housing.”
In response, the Maine People’s Alliance has launched a petition calling for a moratorium on evictions.
The group also organized regional volunteer teams across the state to help with grocery deliveries, has crowdsourced requests for such things as diapers and formula, and is connecting people with helpers who know how to sign up for General Assistance or unemployment benefits.
MPA has set up a fund for financial assistance, which provides $25 gift cards to recipients. Pirkl said March 30 that more than 100 gift cards had been distributed across the state. She acknowledged it was a small amount, but said it could help with immediate needs.
Marie Pineo is MPA’s volunteer leader for the Portland area, where she said people are scared about losing their housing.
“All of a sudden people are being sent home, they don’t have a job, or they have to work from home and it’s not all that easy to do and their work has really just dropped off,” she said. “So the whole thing is putting families in jeopardy.”
In addition to doing grocery deliveries and giving out supermarket gift cards, Pineo said her team has been providing emotional support. They buddy people up with volunteers whom they can call any time they feel scared.
She said the organization is also putting pressure on the lawmakers to put policies in place to help people through the crisis.
“The stimulus package is great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not going to get us through what we’re facing,” Pineo said. “Housing, mental health, food insecurity – all of these have a big spotlight on them right now. People were already struggling before this happened. If we can keep as much money in their hands as possible they can help the local economy by buying their groceries locally, purchasing from small businesses and supporting restaurants.”
Southern Maine Workers’ Center Executive Director DrewChristopher Joy also said the organization is working on policy changes that could support workers through this challenging time. The center held a People’s Town Hall March 31 to discuss unemployment, getting health coverage, organizing for rights at work and developing demands “to transform the systems that created this crisis,” according to the meeting announcement.
Though not affiliated with the national Socialist Party, the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America also does political work. Its chapters across the country often use mutual aid networks as a way to spread its socialist message. While the pandemic offers plenty of opportunities to bring up ideas like Medicare for all, if she does have those conversations she does so gently, Sykes said, because people are in crisis.
“There’s a lot of fear and a lot of desperation,” she said.
But politics aside, Sykes has found that organizing direct support is a good solution for now.
“The way to combat your fear,” she said, “is to jump into community projects like this, to help each other out as much as we can.”