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In battle-tested Detroit, neighbors help each other as coronavirus spreads

The coronavirus is spreading in Detroit with brutal speed, whipping through a city that has had its resilience tested after surviving one crisis after another.

From the multiple crashes of the auto industry and the crack wars to massive depopulation and bankruptcy, Detroiters have decades of experience with upheaval. Time and again, neighbors have learned to help each other, even when the government won’t, lessons that again are becoming paramount as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

“People are looking out for each other. We should salute that,” said Sheila Cockrel, a former city council member and founder of CitizenDetroit, a civic engagement nonprofit. “The bonds in neighborhoods have been built on meeting crises and tragedies and coming through those together.”

The spotlight is again turning to Detroit, as the White House this week identified the city and its surrounding Wayne County as a national hot spot in the pandemic. Barely two weeks after the first case was discovered, the city and county had 2,316 cases as of Saturday, about half Michigan’s total. Nearby Oakland and Macomb counties had a combined 1,552 cases.

Detroit may be battle-tested, Cockrel said, but it can’t go it alone.  Containing the spread of the virus will require work at multiple levels of government. 

“We need to be very careful we don’t inadvertently push the message that we are so tough and resilient we can do this alone,” she said.

Bridge spent a week reporting on how Detroit neighbors are once again coming together in time of crisis.

Visiting families, planting seeds

Emily Staugatis is focused on hunger. Staugatis teaches art to 800 children at Davison Elementary-Middle School, a public school on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck, the same neighborhood where she lives. 

She regularly checks in on neighbors.

“My experience has been going to houses, ‘How are you, what do you need?’” she said. 

Even though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently issued a stay-home order, “you can still wave to your neighbors, at least.”

“One of my concerns,” Staugatis said, “is that for kids, school is their social safety net.” When she checked in with families, she told them that the school offered grab-and-go meals for students to pick up even while school is closed, which she said many families didn’t know. 

By the time the word did get out, the district shifted from 58 to 17 food distribution sites to limit employee exposure to the virus. Davison wasn’t one of them. The closest site is now 2 miles away. (Food distribution sites at both schools and city recreation centers are listed here.)

Staugatis, who used to run a nonprofit that supplied food for neighborhood restaurants, is still connected to many of the owners who are facing their own challenges. She’s delivering food to families and connecting others to help.

It’s so hard to see people having to shut their doors after working so hard to open them,” she said. “They are really struggling.” 

Staugatis runs a community garden and is turning over the dirt to get it ready for summer. She thinks the community might need to rely on it, now more than ever.

“If this happened in the winter, it would be terrible,” Staugatis said. “But I’ve been prepping seeds.” 

Triage and telemedicine 

In Midtown Detroit, the health care providers at Central City Integrated Health, a clinic that serves patients regardless of their ability to pay, are preparing to meet the critical and the chronic needs of residents.

Fewer people are coming into the office during the governor’s stay-home order, said Dr. Kristi Thomas. But patients’ needs are now greater, so the  clinic is still in full triage mode. Detroiters have a host of health concerns, in addition to coronavirus, which makes them especially vulnerable. 

The city has the shortest life expectancy in the state: 62 years.

“We are only addressing the needs of emergent care that could end up at the hospital,” Thomas said. Emergent care addresses only the most immediate threats to life or health.

Central City providers treat patients through a Telehealth app, a video platform that allows them to reach people with minimum exposure during the public health crisis. The app is only available for patients with a smartphone and a robust data plan, however, which most of Thomas’ patients do not have. That’s why most of her appointments take place over the telephone, as voice calls. 

“Over the phone, you need to take more time because people are scared,” she said. Her days are much longer, Thomas said, even though she’s working from home, because the benefits of in-person communication she uses to reassure patients—eye-contact, body language—aren’t as available. 

So each appointment is time-consuming.

“If this continues we won’t be able to triage,” said Thomas, who explained the clinic is trying to figure out when they will be able to access scarce Personal Protective Equipment so that it can safely get back to medical and dental procedures.  

“We need to get people out of pain,” Thomas said.

First in line for church

Any economic pain from the coronavirus and business shutdown is expected to hit immigrant communities harder and last longer. The $2 trillion federal stimulus bill, which passed Congress last week, requires a Social Security number for stimulus payments. 

Alicia Mata is an immigrant rights advocate in southwest Detroit, which many immigrants call home, and she knows what’s at stake.

Mata’s work is based within her local church, Ste. Anne de Detroit, where she runs a “circle of support” to help immigrant families financially and emotionally. 

“Just yesterday, I got calls about needing diapers and food,” she said. While the rate of calls is slow, “I think it’s going to get worse.”

Mata is concerned about how a prolonged health crisis will limit the ability of her group to get diapers, food and other necessities to families.

Mata’s group uses burrito breakfasts after Mass at Ste. Anne’s to raise money, but those activities are canceled indefinitely. 

“Hopefully, we don’t get too many more (calls for help) because the funds are just not there,” she said. “But we will do what we can.”

Mata’s own employment hasn’t been affected much by the outbreak. She’s working from home doing translations and document control for the Gordie Howe International Bridge project to Windsor. Public works construction is exempt from the statewide stay-home order.

But she worries about the health and safety of another essential city function: the police. “I heard about the police officers being in quarantine,” she said, referring to several hundred officers who self-isolated after possible exposure to the coronavirus. 

In addition to hoping front-line officers don’t get sick, Mata is worried about public safety. “God, I hope they have enough personnel to attend to anything bad,” she said. “As it is, you call and it takes them forever. Imagine now with 200 people less.” 

Last week, a police captain and a 911 dispatcher died from the coronavirus, as well as a Wayne County sheriff commander. Detroit Police Chief James Craig also has tested positive for the virus.

Mata said she still goes to church, it helps her stay calm. Ste. Anne’s, the second oldest Catholic parish in the country, is holding Mass during this season of Lent on YouTube. On weekdays, “they still have the Blessed Sacrament from 6 to 7,” Mata said. “Only 10 people can be there so I try to get there first.” These days, only a few people show up, she said. 

What’s the holdup?

Sherry Meadows also relies on the kindness of friends and relatives, although she would prefer independence. She quit her job late last year as a secretary with the public school district. She and her two sons, ages 20 and 13, moved in with her 65-year-old uncle on the east side. She had lost her housing, and also wanted to help him out with his daily needs. She and her sons planned to stay with him for a couple months until her tax refund came in and then move to Atlanta. But that’s all on hold.

In the meantime, her uncle has dialysis appointments three days a week — Meadows said that he told her the clinic is improving safety conditions by putting antibiotic cream “in the nose and I think in the ears.”

Household expenses are pooled together, but it’s tight. 

Her uncle is on a fixed income and Meadows receives monthly child support. She signed up with a temp agency, but no work is expected during the public health crisis. “We just stay in the house and cook at home,” she said. It feels crowded, and her kids in particular are antsy.

She filed her tax return on Jan. 21 and is expecting a refund of a couple thousand dollars. While the Internal Revenue Service has not warned filers that the coronavirus is delaying refunds for those who have filed, Meadows is worried. It feels like she’s stuck.

“With that [refund], I can go out and buy supplies at Sam’s Club or Menards or wherever because now I have enough overflow money without having to depend on strangers or family members to get gloves, get some masks.” Instead, she’s buying small items, one at a time.

And if she and her children can finally make their way to Atlanta, where Meadows has family, it would be her first time living outside Detroit — an opportunity for growth, she feels.

“What is the hold up?” she said about the refund. “This is one thing that can take me to another city so we can restart our lives.”


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