Black and Latino community leaders are stepping in to help their own through the coronavirus crisis.

WASHINGTON — Janice Hagigal pulled on latex gloves, then placed canned corn, salad dressing, potted meat, cranberry sauce and frozen chicken leg quarters in a plastic bag. By noon Tuesday, there wasn’t much left on the shelves at the Emory Beacon of Light’s food pantry.

Still, Hagigal wanted to make sure everyone in line – mostly brown and black people like she and her coworkers -- got something to eat that day.

“They’re more in need now than ever,’’ said Hagigal, an assistant who has worked at the nonprofit's pantry since 2006.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to take its toll on black and Latino communities, black and Latino churches, advocacy groups and civil rights activists have ramped up efforts to help their own, filling in gaps where they say the federal government and even some local governments have fallen short.

Some have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help people buy food and diapers. Others have given out masks and hand sanitizer. Some have set up coronavirus testing sites in communities where there were none.

The pandemic has put more focus on health care and income disparities in those communities. But while some officials have pledged to address those inequities, advocates said their communities can’t wait.

More: Coronavirus spares one neighborhood but ravages the next. Race and class spell the difference.

“It’s clear that we had to step up to fill in the gap,’’ said Joseph W. Daniels, Jr., lead pastor of Emory Fellowship, a predominately black church in Washington, D.C., and founder of the Emory Beacon of Light. “We had to fill in places where typically and traditionally you would think that (the federal) government would step in.’’

A survey in April by the Pew Research Center, found 61 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of blacks said they or someone in their household had lost a job or had their wages reduced because of the outbreak compared to 38 percent of whites. 

Centuries of institutionalized racism are a main driver behind the many economic and health care disparities that have fueled high rates of unemployment and positive cases in black and Latinos communities during the outbreak, according to experts.

At the same time, the federal government has a history of neglecting communities of color during crises, said Silas Lee, a sociology professor at Xavier University, a historically black university in New Orleans. As one of many examples, he and others point to the government's slow response in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated black communities in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. 

They also point to the response after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico in 2017 and government policy toward the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in 2014, which heavily affected black communities. 

Community groups and churches have long served as resources for people of colorto help fill the void, Lee said. 

“When the challenges arise, they do not run away from them,’’ Lee said.  “They will find a way to have an impact."

Food insecurity grows as black and Latino Americans lose jobs

Outside the food pantry at Emory Fellowship, a steady stream of people walked up, each stopping at blue tape on the ground marking the recommended six feet of social distancing. They came pushing carts and carrying shopping bags. Some came alone, others with small children. At one point, about a dozen people waited. 

It was the first visit for Ralphie Avix Vincent. She saw someone with a bag and they directed her to the pantry.  

“It’s so kind,’’ said the 73-year-old as she walked away with a plastic bag. 

For more than 20 years, the pantry has served people in the neighborhood, which until gentrification crept in over the past decade, was mostly black and Latino. Each Tuesday, the pantry served about 80 clients. Since the outbreak, that number has more than doubled, reaching a high last week of 215 people in need.

“The only time we have that may people is Thanksgiving,’’ said Hagigal. 

The center has been scrambling to get more donations as more people have been laid off and furloughed, with more than 33 million Americans filing unemployment claims since March as of this week. The non-profit relies on church members, local businesses and other faith organizations. It also partners with the Capital Area Food Bank.  

Helping the community is at the heart of Emory's mission, said Daniels. But problems facing communities of color, including food insecurity, the lack of affordable housing and access to quality health care and education, can’t be addressed without government intervention.

“The federal government is looking for churches to step up and help, which it should. As a church, that’s our responsibility to community,’’ Daniels said. “However, with the realities of what people in the margins are going through … We can’t sustain it. We don’t have the resources.”

More: Historic layoffs take biggest toll on Blacks, Latinos, women and the young

Many Hispanics, African Americans have little in savings 

In California, Canal Alliance has been giving out food and masks every Tuesday to about 500 families in Marin County since March. Before the outbreak, it distributed food to about 250 families on Tuesdays.

Omar Carrera, CEO of the nonprofit community-based organization, said the need was clear. People the group served -- mostly low-income Latino families and immigrants -- needed money to buy basics like medicine, food and diapers. Many worked in lower-paying jobs, including landscaping, childcare, construction, restaurants and retail.

So Canal Alliance launched a fundraising drive aiming to collect $50,000. It raised more than $2 million. Throughout April, the group distributed the first $500,00 to more than 1,500 families. Most got a check for $350. The next distribution of $800,000 is expected this month, with each family getting $600.

“We were really giving the power to people to make that decision’’ about what they needed, Carrera said. “The gap in our community was access to cash.”

In contrast, much of the help from local officials was earmarked for rent payments, said Carrera.

Lee, the professor at Xavier, said churches and community groups often customize their efforts to meet the needs of communities unlike the “cookie-cutter approach’’ of governments. About 73 percent of African Americans and 70 percent of Hispanic said they didn’t have emergency funds to cover three months of expenses, compared to about 47 percent of white, according to the Pew survey.

Lee said those groups are trusted institutions in their communities.

“People know them,’’ Lee said. “It’s very important to have a level of trust when you’re providing services especially in the environment we’re in now. People are emotionally fragile, financially fragile, spiritually malnourished."

Making sure people of color can get tested for coronavirus 

In Atlanta, community groups are also working to ensure black and Latino residents have equal access to health care. 

More than 40 cars drove up to the testing site Monday at the Project South parking lot in south Atlanta. Some lined up before testing for the coronavirus began at 10 a.m., while others walked up to get the free test. It was the first day for the new site.

“It was slow and steady and sort of a good day to get into our groove,’’ said Emery Wright, co-director of Project South,a community organizing group.

As the outbreak spread, Project South teamed with Hunger Coalition of Atlanta to hand out food, hand sanitizers and toilet paperin the African American neighborhood in Atlanta where the groups are based. 

The group's leaders also decided they needed a stepped-up public health response. In early April, Project South and the Hunger Coalition partnered with the Community Organized Relief Effort, a non-profit founded by actor Sean Penn, to set up the community's first testing site.

Community activists and civil rights leaders have called for federal health officials to track and release racial data of people testing positive for the coronavirus and those who died from it. President Donald Trump vowed weeks ago that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would do just that, but so far only a few states have released racial information. Data from these states shows black and Latino people are dying at a disproportionately higher rate compared with whites.

Wright said groups learned they would have to take care of their own from Hurricane Katrina, when government and private contractors failed to help communities of color in the predominately African American city of New Orleans and others in Alabama and Mississippi. In 2011, eight community groups across the Southeast formed a coalition to respond to disasters. The groups, including Project South, have kicked into action to help during the pandemic. 

“When it hit we just knew that this was going to be up to us, both here locally and then coordinating a response across the region,’’ Wright said.

More: 'Tuskegee always looms in our minds': Some fear black Americans, hardest hit by coronavirus, may not get vaccine

'They are the forgotten ones'

In Florida, staff from the Redlands Christian Migrant Association went to bus stops in Collier County last month to hand out masks and bandanas to farm workers headed to the fields to pick fruit and vegetables.

The non-profit provides childcare and runs charter schools, but with the outbreak its mission has expanded to raise money to help its clients -- mostly Latino farm workers and migrants -- buy food and cleaning supplies and pay for rent and utilities.

Many don’t qualify for federal stimulus checks or food stamps because they are undocumented immigrants. And with the outbreak, many now work just one day a week instead of five or six days. 

“They’re really struggling to make ends meet,’’ said Isabel Garcia, the organization's executive director.

The last time the organization launched a massive fundraising effort was after Hurricane Irma in 2017 when it distributed food and supplies for a week. This time it’s different, said Garcia. The health care crisis will require a longer recovery time. They don’t know when childcare centers or schools will open.

“We’re not ready and set up to be able to serve families," during a pandemic, Garcia said. "It’s emotionally draining, but we’ve never stopped.”   

In recent weeks, the group has also handed out staples such as rice and beans to needy families.

‘‘They are often the forgotten ones," Garcia said.

'It was scary to see' 

In southwest Chicago, officials at the Esperanza Health Centers started seeing more patients show up in early March with COVID-19 symptoms. So workers there starting testing their mostly Latino patients. Initially, there were about 25 people a day. Now, it’s up to 150. Of those tested, about 55 percent test positive.

“It was scary to see,’’ said Carmen Vergara, the center’s CEO. “That’s alarming.”

When the pandemic hit, the community health center formed an internal task force and expanded testing space at two of its four sites. There weren’t enough testing sites in the community, Vergara said.

“It was our role to make sure we were taking care of the patients that we serve,’’ she said. “We knew we had to stay on top of’’ developments.

Vergara said the state and city are helping more now, including providing more testing supplies.

But “there’s still a lag of testing,’’ she said. “There’s still work to be done.”

Nearby, Enlace Chicago, a community-based organization, started raising money to help its most vulnerable clients, including seniors, single parents and those ineligible for federal aid because of their immigration status. 

“You have to be able to mobilize on your own,” said Katya Nuques, the group's executive director. Last month, the group started giving families $500 each from the $300,000 it had raised.

“People are really suffering during the crisis,’’ said Nuques. “We don’t think we’re going to recover easily from this one.”

More: Health issues for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans may cause coronavirus to ravage communities

‘Heart wrenching to see the need'

In Maryland,Grainger Browning, Jr., and his wife, Jo Ann, both pastors at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington, watched on Easter as the line of cars waiting to get gift cards grew to three miles long. Some drove up with all their belongings inside. Some came with their children.

“It was heart wrenching to see the need,’’ recalled Grainger Browning. But “we were happy that we were able to assist … and just seeing people so happy that somebody was reaching out to them because government money had not come in yet.”

The church is in a predominately affluent black county, but there are pockets of poverty among its black and Latino residents, and the pandemic has hit Prince George’s County hard.

“The crisis is hitting every area of our community,’’ said Grainger Browning.

With donations from the congregation, the church has given away $150,000 since March to help nearly 5,000 people buy food. On Thursday, it teamed with the World Central Kitchen founded by chef Jose Andres to distribute 1,000 meals.

On Mother’s Day, it plans to give $50 gift cards to mothers.  

Jo Ann Browning said giving is not foreign to Ebenezer, but called it a “blessing’’ during the pandemic to see church members ''stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run in terms of their giving.”

The last time the church launched a massive relief effort was when it raised $120,000 to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. It’s important, the Brownings said, to help their brown and black communities.

“There's never been a case where everything was okay. The church is always there to fill the gap,’’ said Grainger Browning. “The church was never there just on Sunday…It’s really what we did Monday through Saturday that made the difference.”

Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter @dberrygannett

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