Outside courtyard of Wellness Center at former LA County Hospital. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

How are Boyle Heights’ residents, particularly the most vulnerable, able to gain access to essential health and legal services in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic? Do the undocumented have equal access to testing and treatment? Are Spanish-speakers being properly informed? How do tenants know if they qualify for a rent moratorium?

Boyle Heights Beat took these and other questions to the leaders of two community-based organizations who provide services in the neighborhood –Yvonne Maríajimenez, President and CEO of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles (NLSLA), and Robert Hoo, Lead Organizer at One LA/Southern California Education Fund. We wanted to find out how their work has been impacted by the coronavirus emergency.

Both organizations are members of the Health Happens with Prevention workgroup from the Building Healthy Communities –an initiative funded by the California Endowment, of which Boyle Heights Beat is a member.

The interview was recorded on March 31 and can be listened to here:

The following is an unedited transcript of the interview, conducted by Boyle Heights Beat reporter Olivia Teforlack:

Boyle Heights Beat: I know, it’s kind of crazy right now, trying to get through all these changes due to Covid-19. I know I’ve definitely had to make some major changes with online school and even just trying to figure out work patterns. So I want to know, how has your work changed? How are you pivoting your work right now to contribute to the Covid-19 response here in Los Angeles. Robert?

Robert Hoo: Sure. So I would say that the Covid-19 response has become one hundred percent of our work in the last few weeks. We’re adjusting like everybody else to the constant changes and working from home. It’s certainly a challenge to do organizing work when you can’t go out in the public and meet and gather. So we’ve had to learn how to do things virtually using Zoom and other technologies. But this is really the center of our work, it’s how do we help communities and especially the community in Boyle Heights respond to this challenge. And so you know, there’s obviously the public health crisis that we understand and that we’re taking leadership from public health authorities. But then there’s also this huge economic crisis that is the consequence of social distancing. And so we’re doing a lot to try to help people respond to that, whether it’s related to tenant protections and the fear of evictions, or economic dislocation or other issues like that. But then finally, I think there’s also the potential for really a social crisis that through the result of social distancing, which may be a necessary public health measure, that people become isolated. So we want to make sure as much as possible that we do everything we can to stay connected to one another, stay connected to people, especially the most vulnerable members of our community. That’s become a big part of our organizing work.

BHB: And Yvonne? Again, how has your work been, trying to contribute to the Covid-19 response, and how has life changed for you?

Yvonne Maríajimenez: Well, the method in which we deliver services has changed drastically. We are now pretty much 90 to 95% remote access, which means that our services are accessible through special email addresses we set up, through special phone numbers we’ve set up, referrals through the partners that we have. We have a number of partners in the Boyle Heights area. We’re doing a lot of community outreach and education to let people know how to access our services. Prior to Covid-19, Neighborhood Legal Services provided in-person and phone and electronic assistance at four main offices. One of them is in Boyle Heights, at the Wellness Center, at the LA County USC Medical Center. We also have nine court-based projects called self-help centers, in nine county courts. We also have what we call medical legal partnerships. We’re working with patients of health providers at three hospitals, Martin Luther King, Rancho Los Amigos, and Olive View. And then we’re working at four clinics. So all of these projects were on-site based, so people were able to walk into these places to get services, ask questions on any legal matter they may have, and sometimes came regarding a certain matter and then after an interview, we were able to flag that they had other legal issues that they did not know they had. Today, it’s all remote. It’s all electronic. It’s all phone. So obviously it’s been extremely difficult to be able to have the volume of people we were serving prior to Covid-19. We’re ramping up our numbers again, we’re doing as much of community outreach and education to get the word out on how to reach us. We’re leveraging all of our partners throughout LA County, our county partners at the Department of Mental Health, Department of Health Services, Department of Public Health, to do that, our community clinics and our hospitals. So it’s changed drastically. On top of that, the courthouses have closed. And that’s true for civil matters, criminal matters and immigration matters. So that is very different now. We have made special arrangements to ensure that domestic violence survivors are able to access protective orders now, through special phone lines and other ways of contacting us. Also going through law enforcement is another way. The eviction of tenants throughout LA County has ground to a halt, more or less. They’re no longer serving evictions, so the ones that have been served have dwindled. So the protections that have been put in place to keep families housed are good, and so that has slowed that process. Most of our emergencies right now, like I said, are dealing with domestic violence survivors and other victims of abuse and crime. We’re also doing emergency matters for Family Law, such as guardianship custody orders, and we’re doing healthcare, a lot of health care, access to services coverage, denials of MediCal. Those are the three areas that we’re continuing to see a lot of people One other area that has really, risen to the top, as a need in our communities across LA County, including Boyle Heights, is unemployment benefits, right? People are losing their jobs. They want to know, do they qualify, if they do, how to access benefits and what to do about them. So that’s another area where we’re seeing a lot of people present questions around unemployment, and also around workers who’ve lost their jobs and didn’t get paid or didn’t get their last paychecks. So our services have, the delivery mode of our services has changed completely, but we’re still here. So we’re still here, we’re still serving the community and trying to, as much as possible, to let the public know, so that people continue to come to us and seek legal assistance.

BHB: I know this definitely hasn’t been easy for everyone, so I definitely applaud you both, especially by providing the services and resources for people during kind of uncertain times, so I just wanted to thank you. Thank both of you guys for that. How are neighborhoods like Boyle Heights impacted specifically by this pandemic and what other resources are available for our residents. This question for any of y’all.

YM: This is Yvonne, I’ll start. I think Boyle Heights is impacted just like all communities across LA County. I think Boyle Height is also presenting high numbers of Covid-19 cases. I think that the need for resources, practical resources, like I said, questions on unemployment, eligibility for benefits, is there and it’s more important now than ever before. I think another huge need for all of us, I think that, has been our own mental health, right, the challenges that we face. Like I could tell you that for our staff, the last three weeks have been incredibly stressful. Team of senior management trying to get everybody up to remote operations, the technology, we worked literally round the clock through the weekend for two weeks straight to do that. That was extremely stressful. And on top of that, prior to March 20, we hadn’t closed. I think that this stress that we feel are the same stresses presented across our communities, and especially in Boyle Heights, where we have a large immigrant community. And I think people like everybody else need to get out. Social distancing and isolating oneself in their home, it’s not natural. It’s not natural human behavior. So I do think our communities are presenting a huge need for, quote unquote, you know, mental health services, although I don’t always like using that word because it’s not about, you know, mental illness. It’s about the stresses that we all share over time. And right now, I think our communities across LA County are showing a great need for that. The LA County Department of Mental Health has put a lot of information on their website. They’ve also translated it into 12 languages, the threshold languages presented in LA County, but letting the community know how to access it. I know our partners in Boyle Heights are also making efforts to reach out to the community. But I do think that that is an area that more and more as isolation continues is going to be a huge need for everyone.

RH: I would echo everything that Yvonne said and just add that, you know, this disease does not discriminate. It doesn’t discriminate based on geography or on race or ethnicity. Everybody is vulnerable to catching the disease. But I would say that the access to resources, the ability to cope with the economic dislocation does discriminate. So part of our work in Building Healthy Communities is to make sure that people in Boyle Heights have access to as many resources as possible, that they’re able to ask, you know, to connect with one another and support one another. One of the big holes in some of the resources that have been released by the federal government relates to undocumented workers, that they’re not eligible for the same types of unemployment benefits, that they’re not eligible for the cash benefits that are part of the Federal Relief Act. And so part of our work is to talk to elected officials at the state, local and federal level to try to make sure that those undocumented workers who are important part of the community in Boyle Heights, that they also get the support they need so they can pay their rent and support their families and buy food as their needs are just as much as anybody else.

BHG: Yes, you guys both brought up important topics for undocumented folks and also kind of how all communities are kind of struggling with their mental health and it’s really hard and like a stressful time. Do you all think that this can possibly open a pathway to talk about more mental health services, specifically in the Latinx community in the future?

RH: I think that’s a great point, and absolutely. First of all, Yvonne and I are both very proud to be part of the HHP workgroup, the Health Happens with Prevention workgroup, and we were able to get the county to invest county funds in providing access to mental health services for people who don’t have insurance, especially undocumented people. So mental health is very important to us. But I think you’re absolutely right, that this kind of crisis is going to highlight the need for greater investments in mental health. And it is an opportunity to highlight all of those needs and the various challenges that communities face. So I think that’s an excellent point.

YM: I agree with Robert and I would say, one of the things Robert said was that the disease doesn’t discriminate, but the access to services, there is discrimination in that. And perhaps because this disease has stirred stressors and mental health challenges to people with resources, that perhaps it’s going to have more attention paid to it. You know, I try to look at what good comes out of everything, including tragedies, and I do think that the fact is Robert said that disease has not discriminated against people with resources and income, per class, that the fact that they are affected by this and that they’re affected by the same stressors everybody else is being affected with, will shed light and the need for resources in that vein, much more than before.

BHB: Some residents feel like there’s a lack of important news and information available to Spanish speaking families in LA. How does this impact the response to this pandemic?

YM: How does the communication..? I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your question.

BHB: So, some residents feel like there’s a lack of important news and information available to Spanish speaking families. So, basically the lack of translation. So how do you think this will impact the response to pandemic in mostly Spanish speaking communities?

YM: On our part, I think both of our organizations are very attentive to and sensitive to ensuring language access in everything that we do. I do know that our partners in Boyle Heights, our organization, all information that has been, is being provided, is provided in all the threshold languages, in particular Spanish. Our website has been translated, all the information on our website related to issues impacting our communities, including with Covid-19 have been translated into Spanish The one thing I do think is that there’s still a barrier to technology. And so, although there’s a lot of information on the internet, you know, low income communities, including those in Boyle Heights, don’t often have access to that information. And I think it’s extremely important that that information be disseminated through all the media channels that we have, print, radio, television, and then of course, all the social platforms that our younger generations access. But we’re trying as much as possible to get the information out. And I think that it’s good for us to also get feedback from the community and where they feel that they’re lacking information that we know, so that we can ensure that it gets to them.

RH: Yeah, I think Yvonne’s absolutely right. And, you know, so part of our response has also been to train as many people in the community as we can on using different social media technology. So we’ve been holding Zoom trainings in English and in Spanish, for anybody who wants access to that, and so that, you know, people can have the most up to date ways to access information, and then to really spread that information in, as Yvonne said, every way possible. Including old-fashioned phone trees. So we’ve been organizing teams of people who can just by phone call their neighbors, call the people in their network, to share important information.

BHB: Another, I guess, big question is about rent, and how tenants can pay rent. So can you tell me about the current moratorium on rent for tenants in Los Angeles, and how does it work? What does it do and what does it not do?

YM: Well, let me start it, then maybe Robert can weigh in as well. Just recently, I think that the LA City Council, and the mayor of LA just recently improved the eviction moratorium and the guidelines that have been provided for LA City residents. And so, the idea that evictions have been told, meaning suspended, that tenants who cannot pay rent because they’ve lost their jobs or what have you, they don’t have to prove that as long as they’ve kept some documentation, but they do not have to pay rent, I believe it’s three months, and they’ll have a year to pay it back. Some of the provisions of some of the ordinances in Los Angeles, and across LA county will provide some time limits. They’re all different across LA County but for LA City, I think that there are stronger protections. People in subsidized housing also have stronger protections because there are rent freezes that have gone into effect for rent control units and for apartments that receive subsidized housing. So the Housing Authority units are all under a rent freeze, they’re under an eviction freeze, and people will have a year to pay back.

RH: Yeah, that’s right. So I think if you live in the city of Los Angeles, there are there are these great new protections and so for the next three months, I think through June 20, you cannot be evicted for non payment of rent and as Yvonne said, you have this longer period of time to pay it back. We do recommend that people pay what they can and stay in contact with their landlord. So it’s important to communicate if you’re having trouble paying your rent and to communicate why. And be able to try to collect your documentation about loss of work or need to take care of your children or so and so forth. So right now, people should not leave their apartments, there’s not the danger they will be evicted, but they have to know that eventually they may be asked to pay that back rent. And so it’s not a, it’s not, It doesn’t mean that rent is not owed but it means that that during the crisis that they do not they do not have the fear of losing their home. We are doing workshops on all of these new provisions in detail, so that’s something that we’re offering to people as well. We’re doing that virtually through Zoom in English and in Spanish.

YM: One thing that I think is important for renters to know is that they need to give their… if they’re unable to pay, they need to notify their landlords in writing no later than seven days after the rent became due. So that is one requirement in place that people should know. It’s not automatic, you need to give your landlord notice in writing that you are unable to pay. So yeah, and as Robert said, the protection through June 1 for any apartment that has a federal subsidy, whether it be a housing authority kind of complex, or whether you’re living in an apartment, an apartment complex where the landlord has a federally subsidized mortgage, under particular federal program, they’ll have 120 days to come to pay their rent, but that only applies to those properties and I think it’s, it’s gonna be difficult for tenants to figure out whether that applies to them or not, unless they’re in subsidized housing.

BHB: All right. Both of you guys have mentioned that this disease does not discriminate against anyone, and we seen reports of wealthy residents being able to acquire Covid-19 tests, but for the vast majority of residents that aren’t wealthy, there hasn’t been any access. How do we fix this? Do you guys think there is a solution at all, or is it kind of like nothing we can do? So yeah, I just want to know your thoughts.

YM: I’ll hand that over to Robert because that’s about people power.

RH: Well, the first thing is I think people should know that if you go to LA County facilities, so you know, LAC + USC hospital or any of the public health clinics or nonprofit clinics, they are also not going to discriminate based on your immigration status or any other reason. The question is really a larger question, as far as I understand it, in terms of are there enough tests. So although they may not be discriminating, they have to make very difficult choices because of the lack of availability. And so they’re they’ve been prioritizing people who are already, who are in seriously ill categories or in risk categories, that if they think you’re not high risk, they’re not going to give you the test because they don’t have enough tests or they don’t have enough masks or gowns or so and so forth to administer the test. So, you know, that is an issue where we’ve discovered that our healthcare system is… doesn’t have the capacity that it needs. And so in the short run, it is about making sure that we, you know, we start to produce more tests and produce more masks and produce more of ventilators and all the protective equipment and putting pressure on our elected officials at all levels to make that happen, is something that we need to do to get this thing going. And then long term, we need to realize that, hey, the way that we’ve been providing health care in this country doesn’t work. I think this has been a test and we have not passed that test. So we’re going to need to look at ways to make our healthcare system more equitable, but also just more functional. Even, you know, even for even for middle class people right now being able to access a test unless you’re super wealthy, and you can go just pay a private company. Most people don’t have access to these things.

BHB: Is there anything else do you feel like local residents need to know to be safe right now? And what to expect in the future?

YM: Well, I think people do need to accept and understand that this is a pandemic and the gravity and severity to which our governments have gone to keep people in place and safe in their homes is really a reflection of, of how critical and essential that is, in order to get beyond this virus. I think that, I’m not sure… it’s been slow, I think, for people to really accept that this is really serious, and they need to abide by the orders that have been issued. So, I think that there has been a huge struggle, being attentive to the information that’s coming across, being attentive to information of access to health care and testing is also important for people to stay in touch with up to date information, but to accept that this is a reality and people need to really need to be careful and stay safe.

RH: Yeah, I would say that, you know, that we have to trust the public health authorities, that this is the right approach, that social distancing is our best measure to deal with this epidemic, and that we need to help one another. So that’s, that’s I think what we had to learn, the early lesson, was that social distancing is not necessarily about yourself, you may not be a high risk category, but it’s about everybody else. It’s about the community transmission. So part of the reason to follow these rules is not for your own health, but it’s for everyone’s health, it’s for the health of seniors, it’s for the health of people who have underlying medical conditions. And so we need to do that. But then we need to support one another, we need to stay in touch to not be isolated. We’ve seen the hoarding at grocery stores where you can’t buy toilet paper or essential food and medicine. And that’s another area where we have to help one another and not take more than we need. But then we have to organize because it’s also revealed that some of the systems that we have in place, that they’re not adequate, that our healthcare system has serious deficiencies, that our unemployment insurance system is not good enough, that we discriminate against undocumented people and other groups. And so we’re going to need to organize to make sure that those systems in the future get strengthened because I do think we have to be prepared that this thing could last a while, that even if hopefully, it passes in a couple of months, that there could be another outbreak in the fall, that we have to be prepared for again, or that there may be other epidemics in the future. So this is something that we can’t just think of as a one shot deal, it’s going to be over in a month or two. That we do have to be prepared, how are we going to create the kinds of systems, economic systems and social systems that are really going to make sure that everybody gets taken care of.

BHB: If people want to get in touch with your organizations, what’s the best way to do that?

YM: For Neighborhood Legal Services we have two 1-800 numbers that I can give you. One is the general health hotline for us, It’s 1-800-433-6251. And for any issues related to health care, coverage or access to services, it’s 1-800-896-3202.

RH: So you can email us at onelacommunications@gmail.com. You can go to our website, which is onela-iaf.org. You can also call us, although we are not in the office, but you can call us and we’ll get the voicemail at 213-743-0005.

YM: For us, Olivia, there’s also our website, nlsla.org, and our website will provide significant amounts of information on how to get ahold of us. And list a number of emails depending on where people live.

BHB: Okay, great. Yvonne and Robert, thanks so much for your time and your information. It’s great talking to both of you.

YM: Thank you so much for doing this. This is really important. Having a press that really informs the people is central and critical for our democracy. So thank you.

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Olivia Teforlack

Olivia Teforlack is a senior at Bravo Medical Magnet High School and it is her second year in the program. In her spare time, she enjoys dancing with her folklórico team at her school, and spends time...

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