The low-income senior housing community at 670 Valencia Street was designed to encourage socializing amongst its residents. Common spaces like a library, a community garden and a physical therapy room were built near circulation routes to make it as easy as possible for seniors to be active participants of Alcántara Court, a complex managed by Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC). 

One of the favorite activities was grocery “shopping” at the building’s lobby on Friday mornings, when the Marin Food Bank would make their weekly deliveries. Residents had a chance to catch up with each other while picking what they needed from the food bank delivery. 

But as the COVID-19 pandemic hit San Francisco in early March, residents had to curb activities that brought them closer to their neighbors in order to stay safe. MHDC had to modify the way food was distributed in order to comply with shelter-in-place and distancing orders. 

When El Tecolote visited Alcántara Court in April, several MHDC staff members were bagging up groceries from the Marin Food Bank into individual household bags for door-to-door delivery. 

Deputy Executive Director Marcia Contreras, Community Engagement Coordinator Chirag Bhakta, Community Associate Director Veronica Green, Empowerment Organizer for Valencia Gardens Erin Reeves, and Senior Site Coordinator Sully Argueta, were taking time aside from their usual responsibilities to ensure MHDC could deliver groceries to its most vulnerable residents while in compliance with the then new health and safety regulations to protect against COVID-19. 

Even pre pandemic, residents of all MHDC buildings had the option of having groceries delivered to their door, but generally, only residents with mobility challenges would request that service. 

However, new safety guidelines to protect vulnerable populations meant that now all seniors over the age of 65, whether they were mobility impaired or not, were to have their groceries delivered to their doorstep. 

“We always focus on earthquakes and fires,” said Contreras. “Who would have thought that we were going to be dealing with something like this?” 

Blasting upbeat music from a downstairs lobby, the staff members prepared bags for each of the 50 units in the building, trying to include a variety of items in each. As residents and their caretakers would occasionally walk by, they’d blow kisses and shout their greetings at staff members from a distance.

The week’s bags included items like potatoes, rice, bunashimeji mushrooms, pork chops, apples, oranges, raisins and carrots. Staff loaded the bags into shopping carts and split into two teams, each carrying a clipboard to keep track of which units they delivered to. They pushed the shopping carts into elevators and through resident hallways, knocking on doors and then taking a few steps back.

Wearing masks and gloves, staff members stretched their arms out as far as they would go when handing over the bags, trying to ensure they were keeping as far a distance as possible at all times. 

But the door-to-door food drop offs are just one of the many changes in service delivery taking place at MHDC as distancing guidelines now dictate that workshops and community meetings be done online. 

One advantage the nonprofit has is that even pre pandemic, the infrastructure to keep a close eye on residents and provide services to people who have difficulty leaving their home were already built in. It just had to be dramatically increased during times of COVID-19.  

In the hands of the Resident Services Team, a simple food drop off or a resident calling about a water leak has now become an opportunity for a sort of wellness check.

“The goal is to empower our residents and to make sure they feel that they can stand up in circumstances like this,” said Contreras. “We are hopefully giving them tools where they can be resilient, this is our number one concern.”

Efforts like these and more are being implemented not just within the 50 units at Alcántara Court, but across almost 1600 units scattered amongst the several sites managed by MHDC as well as providing additional services to some SROs. 

One of the first strategies implemented as an immediate response to the pandemic included an education campaign with signs in multiple languages plastered through hallways, bathrooms and elevators, reminding residents to wash their hands, wear masks, and keep a distance. And when possible, masks are donated to residents. 

Another was an intensive phone campaign where staff called residents and vice versa to establish lines of communication and ensuring the needs of residents—whether fixing a water leak or providing mental health workshops—where being heard and met as much as possible.

Complete isolation is difficult for SRO residents, given the use of common areas like restrooms. Recently, MHDC established a partnership with Mission Neighborhood Health Centers to provide COVID-19 testing to residents on their SRO sites. 
As sheltering regulations begin to ease up in San Francisco and businesses start to reopen, many feel the reopening timeline is too soon. With that in mind, at MHDC, “we’re going to continue to operate how we’re doing unless things change dramatically” said Contreras. “I think we’re going to take it a little bit slower just to make sure that we’re assessing correctly and that we can feel comfortable.”