For a family in crisis, a community aid worker is ‘like a mother’

When Belkin Yojana Vasquez lost her Sunnyvale apartment in a November 2019 fire, the pregnant mother of four had no idea what the family was going to do, or even where they would sleep that first night.

Then a police officer connected her with Sunnyvale Community Services — a nonprofit that helped pay for rooms at hotels for her and some of the other 51 residents, including 20 children, who also lost everything in the 11-unit complex fire. Vasquez and her kids stayed at the hotel for a few weeks until SCS helped her move into a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara.

“They helped a lot with my kids, with the rent, with getting an apartment,” Vasquez, a Honduran immigrant and single mother, said in Spanish. “They helped me giving me the beds, blankets. They gave me a lot of things to get ahead with my kids.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Santa Clara County was already one of the most expensive areas to live in the country, with many low-income residents struggling to survive. The pandemic made the situation even more dire — upending the lives of many working families who already were at risk of eviction, according to Sunnyvale Community Services. Wish Book donations would help the nonprofit provide emergency rental assistance to local low-income families to keep them from becoming homeless.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, Vasquez lost her job as an office custodian. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time as she had just given birth to her youngest daughter. But SCS stepped in again to help the family of five. It offered holistic support geared toward helping clients deal with an immediate crisis and “not just survive, (but) begin to thrive,” said Maria Buenrostro, a financial literacy coach for the agency.

“She could not leave her home because of the newborn between February and March, so I became her feet by using online services,” Buenrostro said of Vasquez. Also, Vasquez didn’t own a computer.

For Vasquez, Buenrostro became a key source of emotional support, beyond the financial and material aid the nonprofit provided the family, which included furniture, kitchen supplies, food and rental assistance after the fire and later, help filing for unemployment benefits.

“For me, she is like a mother, she is like my sister, my friend and more than anything, a therapist because when I lost my job I became depressed,” Vasquez said. “She helped me a lot.”

Vasquez’s case is similar to many others SCS has handled over its five decades as an emergency assistance agency battling homelessness and hunger, said David Hernandez, director of programs and services. Many first come to the nonprofit at a time of financial crisis, often tied to the loss of a job or threat of eviction.

“The majority of our clients live paycheck to paycheck and they have to prioritize, ‘Do I pay for my rent or do I feed my children?’” Hernandez said.

Those choices have been exacerbated by COVID-19, which has pushed many families that rely on work in the hard-hit hospitality, food and retail industries to the brink.

SCS went from an average of 100 financial aid applications every month to 600 in March, when the Bay Area became the first region in the country to shut down. And because the pandemic has gone on much longer than the short-term challenges the nonprofit normally deals with, most clients need help for at least two months — increasing the average aid per family from about $2,000 to $3,231, according to SCS.

Long-term aid is not the goal of SCS, which seeks to help families become self-sufficient. Although some come back when they hit rough patches, Hernandez said the staff is working to put themselves out of a job by permanently reducing the need in the community.

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