Edwin Martin was playing a game of Tetris with cardboard boxes and bags of groceries he was trying to fit into his car when Chinenye Chigozie got the call that he would soon be headed her way to make a delivery.
“Oh my God!” she yelped on the phone. “I know this will be a very good day.”
The past seven months have been mired in difficulties for Ms. Chigozie, but Mr. Martin’s visits have redeemed Fridays.
She slipped on a pair of flip flops, grabbed her grocery cart and headed down to the lobby of her high rise on Chalkfarm Drive in northwest Toronto. Mr. Martin greeted her warmly and handed her a green reusable grocery bag and a cardboard box. She peered inside the bag, which was filled with items including instant oatmeal, corn meal, cinnamon-raisin bread and a whole chicken.
“There’s no turkey. Where’s my turkey?!” she asked teasingly (it was Thanksgiving weekend).
Few neighbourhoods have been worse affected by COVID-19 than Ms. Chigozie’s. Her community is one of four in Toronto that has logged more than 600 cases since January. The infection rate eclipses most other areas and the accompanying economic downturn has exacerbated existing housing struggles, food insecurity, job losses and poverty in this neighbourhood, which is home to a large Black population.
Because many are unable to access some of the relief programs the government has rolled out, a patchwork of social-service organizations – including the Caribbean African Canadian Social Services, which runs the grocery delivery program – are using their meagre budgets to fill the gaps. But as the second wave washes over Canadian cities, some wonder how long they can sustain operations.
After Ms. Chigozie and her three children arrived in Canada last year from Nigeria, they spent five months in a shelter on Weston Road. Ms. Chigozie landed work at an industrial bakery at the start of this year and two weeks later, she moved into a $1,500-a-month two-bedroom apartment. She worked as a lab scientist back home and was hoping that after taking an online training course, she could ditch the factory job and find work as a personal support worker. The COVID-19 risks are high with both occupations, but they are the only ones Ms. Chigozie could envision for herself.
Two weeks after the move, COVID-19′s quick spread prompted the city to go into lockdown. The bakery paused operations, Ms. Chigozie was out of work, and her three children were out of school and at home with her all day. She had only worked a month, not even completing her probationary period, so she didn’t qualify for CERB. Her only option was to collect welfare while praying schools and the bakery would soon reopen.
The challenges brought on by COVID-19 have touched every part of her life. Last year she could outfit her family in clothes from thrift stores but donations have dried up since the pandemic started, with many charities no longer accepting them for safety reasons, and she worries how she will clothe her family once winter arrives. Receiving her weekly grocery delivery from Mr. Martin was one small thing keeping her head above water.
Since April, CAFCAN has realigned its priorities after recognizing the massive demand for food programming in the community it serves – they’ve already spent about $195,000 of their annual budget (most of which comes from the government) so far, with about $75,000 left to carry through till the end of March.
Each week, volunteers and staff pack 118 bags with dry goods, dairy and household items like dish soap – spending about $17 on each bag – and buy boxes of produce for $25 each from Afri-Can FoodBasket, another community non-profit. Some of the fruits and vegetables come from a nearby community farm run by African-Canadian farmers, and curated to include callaloo, plantain and chayote (or chocho as it’s known to Jamaicans) to appeal to palates of clients.
Ms. Chigozie is most delighted by the avocados and mangoes that come in her box – luxury fruit she wouldn’t dare spend money on herself – and that’s precisely why they’re included, says Zakiya Tafari, who works for Afri-Can FoodBasket.
“For that second when you bite into a mango, you can forget about the pandemic,” he said.
In this community, he’s seen the people who have been overlooked by pandemic assistance programs: undocumented African-Caribbean seniors, and newcomers such as Ms. Chigozie who can’t access CERB.
Mr. Martin says these are the people on his delivery route who feel the effects of isolation the most intensely. “Sometimes they are at the door waiting,” he said. “Sometimes they just need someone to interact with.”
That morning, he stops at the school where Rose Samuels, an early-childhood educator, works. She bursts through the doors in personal protective equipment and goes in for a fleeting half-embrace of Mr. Martin before remembering they probably shouldn’t touch and breaks away.
Ms. Samuels returned to work in late August after being stuck at home for five months, struggling to cover her family’s monthly costs, which exceeded how much she was getting through CERB. Some months she was only able to give her landlord two-thirds of her rent.
“He was okay with it, and then he wasn’t,” she said. She was thankful to start work again and is almost caught up on payments.
Caryma Sa’d, a lawyer who represents landlords and tenants, said she’s seen an uptick in cases involving non-payment of rent in the northwest part of the city since the pandemic began. Long-term tenants are among the ones she worries about most. Market rent has sky-rocketed in recent years and she worries that if evicted, those tenants will have nowhere to go.
“If these affordable tenancies aren’t sustainable we’re going to be evicting people into homelessness,” she said.
The desperation brought on by lockdown has forced people to make impossible decisions, said Floydeen Charles-Fridal, the executive director of CAFCAN. Food deliveries, while vital, cannot come close to addressing the full scope of devastation in her community.
“I’m not nervous that people will be dying from the virus [this winter],” she said. “I’m worried about poverty, not having enough food to eat, loss of jobs, families losing their children because of the stress and then somebody decides to call child welfare.”
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