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Story Publication logo June 24, 2020

Food Bank Lines Filled With Stories of Life and Death

Image courtesy of Mission Local.

With the economy in crisis because of the pandemic, survival is a day-to-day struggle for millions...

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Multiple Authors
Illustration by Molly Oleson
Illustration by Molly Oleson

The food lines snake down the street and around the corner, spilling over from one block to the next in San Francisco. In the Mission, Bayview, downtown, most of the people in line are women and most are Central American, Mexican and Chinese  immigrants, although some put down American roots years ago. Most have never before sought assistance and never expected to find themselves lining up for food. But these days, they welcome it: The boxes they pile into their carts and baby strollers—full of soups, fresh produce, rice and beans – make the difference between surviving with dignity and scavenging.

Here are stories from three of those lines.

The line at the Mission Food Hub on Alabama Street. Roberto Hernandez should have been busy helping organize Carnaval, but this spring was different. In place of food concessions and a parade, Hernandez became the chair of the food committee of the Latino Task Force, setting up a weekly food pantry in his garage. By early May the demand had become so great that he moved it to Mission Food Hub, a warehouse on Alabama Street. Soon he was overwhelmed with donations: first from Goya Foods, then a woman named Marjan who sent over “cases and cases of steaks.” Other deliveries followed: 1,400 boxes of vegetables and fruit, 1,400 gallons of milk, 49 bags of French bread. From week to week Hernandez never knows what to expect, but there is always plenty of food. The pantry is now open three days a week and it distributes 7,000 boxes, up from 500. “I call it a milagro,” a miracle, he says of the donations.

After 21 years in San Francisco, Tayna Cabrera and her husband Luis Briceno, immigrants from Yucatan, Mexico, managed in April of last year to fulfill part of the American dream  –  they established their own business. With all the smash and grabs in the city, Auto Glass Connection & Rock Chip Repairs did well, racking up nearly perfect ratings on Yelp for Briceno’s speed and personal attention.

Then, in early February, Briceno got sick. The SF Medical Examiner hasn’t yet filed an autopsy report, but it is possible that he was the city’s first COVID fatality.

Cabrera said her husband was fatigued and running a high fever but the virus wasn’t that well-known in February, so they treated his symptoms like the flu – rest, liquids and pills. Briceno stayed home a few days, but on Feb. 15, a Saturday, he insisted on delivering a piece of glass. “I told him to stay home,” Cabrera says, “but he said, ‘I feel better, I’ll take some pills.’”

As he drove down Mission Street, he pulled over at 18th Street and called his wife. He felt terrible, he told her. Then the line went dead.

At the scene, she watched as the paramedics tried to revive the man she had met in San Francisco so many years ago, when she was 16 and he was 17. They married young and had two children, now ages 19 and 12. In minutes, that life was over.

Now Cabrera, waiting in line for a box of food, said she’s unable to pick up the pieces of the business or decide what to do next. “It’s the bills, the rent.”

Their one employee has returned to Mexico. “He didn’t know what to do,” she said. “He didn’t have a way to pay the rent.”

Eva Alvarez said that she and her husband have lived frugally, spending only $525 a month for a room that they rent on Capp Street in a Mission District apartment they share with another couple. They had some savings when the city shut down and her husband’s job preparing floors for carpeting ended.

“Now I come to get food here,” she said. “And it’s a very long day.”

It’s a good thing she and her husband get along well, she said. They met seven years ago at a dance for “older people” on Mission Street. She was 42, he was 36 and they hit it off quickly.

If the shutdown had happened 10 years ago, it would have been worse. At that point Alvarez worked to send money home to her son. Now, he’s a veterinarian in Mexico.

Still, in lockdown she does wonder whether she’s too isolated. “I have a lot of people that I say hello to but not close friends,” she said.

Guadalupe Silva, who also lives on Capp Street with her husband, says the hours of the day go by ever so slowly.

“It’s very boring,” she says. “Imagine, both of us there, every day, all day.”

She has not yet been recalled to her housekeeping jobs, but her husband, who works at Whiz Burger, is working occasionally. “It’s just a few hours,” she says, but it will come in handy now that their savings are nearly depleted. Up until now, she says, they have been able to pay their $1250 a month rent.

To pass the time at home, they’ve been re-organizing their apartment and doing small projects, but more than anything she wants to be called back to clean houses.

“If we don’t get work, then what are we doing here?” she asks.

Nuvai Soriana and Regina Ortiz live on the same Mission Street and walk together on Fridays to the line at the Mission Food Hub.  

“It’s hard,” Nuvia says. She has a two- and a three-year-old at home and she generally gets out to clean houses, but those jobs ended along with the work she had cleaning restaurants. “They say next month it will start again and then next month and then next month,” she said. “We don’t know what we are going to do.”

The little savings Soriana and her partner had are gone. She tried to apply for rent assistance from a local nonprofit “but we needed accounts and we don’t have accounts. We tried and tried, but they won’t take the application.” Her family back in Honduras suffers along with her. “We want to send money, but we don’t have any,” she said.

The Homeless Prenatal Care Program at Potrero and 18th Street hands out diapers, formula and food boxes on Fridays at 10 a.m. Before the pandemic, it served some 70 clients a week. Once the city shut down, program administrators knew immediately that the need would explode so they opened the pantry to anyone. Now they serve 480 people on Fridays, said Laura Springer from the prenatal program. 

Michael Cai used to have three jobs: He drove for Uber in the day, served at the Embassy Suites by Hilton SFO Airport, and occasionally sold one or two properties a year. It was hard work, but it allowed his wife, pregnant with their first child, to take leave from her job in February as a housekeeper at a hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf.

By the time Ashley, a child of the pandemic, was born on April 21, Cai’s jobs had disappeared. Now he has the midnight diaper change shift at home and stands in line for a bag of diapers and food at the Prenatal program’s Friday pantry. Aside from this, he and his wife hunker down at home, so nobody gets sick.

Viky’s four-year-old Luna had just started school last fall, so she could work, taking along her now 15-month-old daughter Naomi to her job as a nanny on Russian Hill. But in February her employer’s husband started working at home and she was let go – no severance, no unemployment pay. It’s a common plight for many housekeepers.

At the same time, her husband was one of 10 people fired from Cintas Uniform Services in San Leandro.

Still, Viky feels blessed. They received stimulus checks and on the weekends she makes pupusas and other Salvadoran dishes to sell to friends and family.

And it hasn’t been bad having her husband around – he’s handy and has already fixed a couple of things around the house.

Other than the worry about money, the break has been most difficult for her four-year-old who enjoyed seeing other children in class. The school recently sent a package of scissors and glue for Luna but did not indicate when school would reopen.

“I can keep her busy, but I don’t have a lot of experience teaching,” she said. “It hurts me a lot. I can tell she misses learning at school.”

Olivia Egwuogu is still transported by the December arrival of her first child, Naomi. After early difficulties, she had almost given up on having a child at 35 and it is as if she still doesn’t quite believe her luck.

She has the nervousness of a first-time mother and said that when her daughter broke out in a rash early in the pandemic she demanded an in-person appointment. Everything was fine.

Her boyfriend has continued working at Safeway, but their income has dropped significantly and she depends on the free diapers given out on Fridays.

Their landlord—friendly but firm—recently reminded her that they needed to start paying rent for the months they missed.

“Being a new mom is not an easy task, but I really thank God that I feel contented,” she said.

“As long as she’s there with me I’m okay.”

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank has pop-up pantries every day of the week in San Francisco; on Tuesday mornings two of those are in the Mission, at Cesar Chavez Elementary School and Mission High School. Pre-COVID, the food bank served 32,000 households a week. These days it is distributing food boxes to some 62,000 households.

Roberto Cruz, a construction worker and a remodeler before the pandemic, is a COVID-19 survivor. In April, he had a 100.3 degree fever, diarrhea, muscle pain, a bitter taste in his mouth, and trouble breathing. His social worker connected him to a doctor. When his fever climbed to 103, he landed in Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, where he stayed until mid-May.

Doctors put Cruz, who has asthma, on a respirator. He thought he would die.

“Imagine the suffering and the sadness,” said Cruz, who was unable to contact his 22-year-old daughter who is in medical school in Honduras.

Once he was released from the hospital, he was placed in quarantine at the Vertigo Hotel. He finally called his daughter and she burst into tears, he said.

Now, out of Vertigo he has to focus on paying his bills. He was one of the 3,000 lucky undocumented San Francisco residents who managed to get through to Catholic Charities and receive $500 in state aid. He plans to use it to pay the rent and utilities for his room at a Single Room Occupancy Hotel.

John Banesa never imagined ending up in a food pantry’s line.

“I’m very lucky,” he said. He owns his home and has some savings, but there’s no income in sight so in early June he joined the line at Mission High School.

Before the pandemic, he was working at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square as an events manager—a job that is unlikely to come back anytime soon.

On the one hand, he said, he feels bad using the pantry, because he has more than others. But he also feels insecure and the box of food helps stretch his savings.

“I never thought I would be doing this,” he said. “If I saw an end to the crisis with hotels, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

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