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Pandemic Further Marginalizes Community

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By Alaina Kennelly, JONAH Intern
Edited by Michelle Pride, JONAH Board Member

The COVID-19 outbreak will have lasting effects on people locally – especially those who were struggling prior to the virus and are now more vulnerable than ever. I decided to interview a few JONAH Leaders who work with marginalized populations on a daily basis to find out more about how exactly people are impacted.

I recently spoke with Susan Wolfgram, Co-Chair of JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force and Criminal Justice Reform Advocate. She points out that we have almost 7,000 people in Eau Claire County who are uninsured and countless others who are under-insured. These are also the same people who don’t have paid sick leave through their employer, either currently unemployed, or needing to stay home without pay. Wolfgram went on to say, “People losing their jobs contribute to the uninsured rate-lose your job, lose your healthcare. There are few options for people in that position. Even if they are able to access a plan through the Affordable Care Act, they are not able to pay the premium.”

Regarding COVID-Care, Wolfgram went on to say, “I am insured by Mayo-I’M ALL SET-no hoops. We expect our uninsured and under-insured neighbors to jump through hoops, digging through websites to find information about COVID- Care and at a time when they are losing jobs and in survival mode. This is unacceptable in a city home to health-care giants. We all deserve a clear and accessible resource. In Milwaukee, Ascension Health, St. Joe’s Hospital which serves many uninsured folks, will screen, test, treat the uninsured with no cost, this is called ‘Universal Care’. Although our health care partners have offered to test uninsured people, this information has not been widely accessible to everyone who needs it. It would be helpful for the Public Health Department, on their COVID-19 website, to have a tab, if you are uninsured, where resources specifically can be listed without someone having to figure out that they need to call the hotline.”

She goes on, “Our most vulnerable, need cash assistance now, and ongoing. The federal stimulus package, specifically the stimulus checks to individuals and families, will be most readily available to people whose bank accounts are tied to direct deposit with the IRS. Many of our most vulnerable will ‘slip through the cracks’ and receive nothing, folks who are ‘unbanked’. Those who qualify and will receive their checks through the mail, it may take several months for them to receive this money. This does not help them in this immediate time of crisis. People need cash now, immediate and ongoing cash transfers to poor and working people. This becomes increasingly critical as ‘Stay at Home’ orders are extended, and as the Governor begins to incrementally ‘open businesses back up’ over time. “

“These are our neighbors and considered COVID-19 ‘outliers’, unbanked folks, folks who don’t have paid sick leave with their jobs or paid family leave.” Wolfgram also points out a big issue with childcare. With many centers being closed, parents are forced to figure out how to care for their children and many cannot afford to quit their jobs to do so. No one should have to face choosing between going to work or taking care of their children.

As Co-Chair of JONAH’s Affordable Housing Task Force, Wolfgram, along-with Judi Moseley, Co-Chair, and Paul Savides, hear regularly from folks fearing eviction, who have lost their jobs or are receiving unemployment at less than half of their salary. Wolfgram explains, “Federal and State orders are only as good as they are enforceable, like any law. Governor Evers suspended evictions until the end of May; however, the order does not release tenants from paying their rent. Whenever the order is lifted, tenants will need to rely on their landlords working out payment plans with them. Many vulnerable individuals and families will not be able to catch up and then will find themselves entangled in an eviction process. Often people do not know their rights and do not have the funds to hold their landlords accountable. It is not just tenants who need relief. We have talked to many small landlords who are not eligible for any federal deferred mortgage assistance if they do not have a federally-backed mortgage. These landlords also need relief if they are working with their tenants and are not receiving monthly rents”. The Task Force’s 2020-21 goal is to establish a Tenant-Landlord Resource Center; they are collaborating with the Dane County Tenant Resource Center (TRC).

Wolfgram also explained how important it is we do not overlook jails and prisons in our efforts to control the virus.  “Incarcerated people are human and deserve compassion and protection instead of primarily being viewed as a “serious threat,” and “jails and prisons are incubators of disease spread. Incarcerated people disproportionately suffer from chronic illnesses and other health conditions that could exacerbate Covid-19.” Those who are incarcerated, said Wolfgram, “are one of our most vulnerable populations in the country. As “inmates”, they are unable to give consent or exercise autonomy over their treatment, and as such are wholly subject to the whims of Sheriffs, Corrections officials, Correctional Officers, and politicians.” 

Conditions in the jails and prisons make precautions the rest of us are taking nearly impossible.  She explains, “There is no opportunity for social distancing in the blocks and in the cells. Hand sanitizer is considered contraband for its alcohol content and soap is often in short supply. Hallways and gathering areas are often small and tight, deliberately so for security reasons. An outbreak could not only infect and potentially kill many, but also potentially spread to nearby communities as well. Visitors and correctional staff could spread the disease when they go back home, and the incarcerated could spread it when they’re released. Even an outbreak contained within the jail could strain our health care systems, as many people suddenly need medical care that jails themselves can’t provide.” 

WISDOM, JONAH’s parent organization, EXPO, and JONAH have been pushing hard to get Governor Evers to improve conditions. (Read Wisdom’s open letter to Evers) Some important changes were made to jails and prisons, but it has not been enough. These organizations will urgently continue to hold our legislators accountable until things improve. Wolfgram is also working with David Carlson, regional organizer for the ACLU, Rights for All Campaign. They have formed a collaborative of which JONAH is supportive, the “ACLU Collaborative Under the Rights For All Campaign”. Currently, they are working on verifying recommended WI Epidemiologist COVID-Care measures in our Jail and Juvenile Detention Center, including what the testing protocol is. Recently, carceral, congregate settings were included by the State Health Department to be priority settings for testing along with Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities. 

I also interviewed Dustin Whittier-Rosas, JONAH Outreach Coordinator, who points out those who have been released from prison face a different struggle. Whittier-Rosas shared, “Those of us that have been incarcerated, are reminded of the grips of incarceration by the Safe@Home law. Being confined to our home with restrictions only to leave for food and medical attention has similarities to being incarcerated.” With reduced access to support, which is already sparse, these individuals have added difficulties. 

Wolfgram concludes by stressing that, “We need to continue to advocate on all levels: City/County/State/Federal to narrow the social disparities between under-served communities and the majority community. This means ‘showing up’ at public hearings, volunteering to sit on committees and commissions, and to occupy ‘seats at the tables of power making the decisions, as well as advocating for impacted people to be guiding these same policies and ‘filling the seats’. We should always be working within the context of reducing racial, ethnic, and economic disparities, along with increasing equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Perla Martinez-Beltran, WISDOM Immigration Organizer, shared her perspective on how people she works with are doing, and sheds light on similar issues mentioned by Wolfram but adds lack of internet access, lack of unemployment access/information/help, mental health problems, medical service accessibility issues and overall economic distress to the list. Martinez-Beltran believes if the government does not start to support these people, they will become helpless. She believes this situation will either push those struggling to not vote or participate in any government movement or it will make them angry enough to want to change. She hopes for the latter.  

“Those that I talk to tell me about being frightened by social distancing, as well as having to wear a mask and sanitize.  People are worried about the near future. Money to live off of, bills, housing, mental health, doctor appointments, and food are just some of their concerns. “

In response to this need, the JONAH Immigration Task Force is working with St. Mary’s church in Altoona to set up an emergency fund for Immigrant families, but it may not be enough. Lynn Buske, JONAH Organizer, says that all the JONAH task forces are strengthening their efforts in addressing the root causes of marginalization, as COVID-19 only highlighted how inadequate our system is in supporting people who need it most. “It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to see where people aren’t getting what they need,” Buske says. “For some of these folks it may be too late by the time we choose to address the gaps. Neighbors are neighbors, and every human deserves the same opportunities and protections to stay safe, healthy and secure. Hopefully we learn something from COVID-19 and improve our inadequacies.”

Wittier-Rosas says people in these marginalized categories are all the targets of the virus: elderly, minorities, felons, prisoners, low-income families, addicts, etc. Those who are homeless in Eau Claire are being confined to the Hobbs Ice Arena. Wittier-Rosas believes many people are worried for the future.

But he speaks of hope, “The COVID-19 outbreak has opened the eyes of us to become human again, meaning to have love for fellow neighbors and compassion for all human LIFE. How is it we have let out more people out of institutions since COVID-19 then we have ever let out before?  Prison reform is an issue that has been on the governor’s desk for a long time now. We have had less petty arrest and violations on probation. What it comes down to is We as Human beings have a civil duty to honor, love, and respect one another and mother earth. We can work together and overcome this. I truly believe we as humans will do.”