Hey there! Steph here. For those folks who don’t know me (most of y’all), I worked at ASA (now Vivent Health) for 5 years, and recently moved to Texas Health Action/ Kind Clinic. This is my 6th year participating in HCRA and to me it is the most magical day of every year.
There is so much amazing work that the beneficiary agencies do, and it is also really challenging to highlight all that work. Spending the past year on the ground at a beneficiary agency, I wanted to provide a little glimpse of what that work looked like. Obviously I can’t speak to everything - just my own experience in the services I worked in.
Our focus was to keep clients at home, out of risk and exposure as much as possible. We had a very limited number of staff working on campus, so in order to get Food Bank orders to clients, we had to be creative. Volunteers from every department worked different shifts to put Food Bank orders together, and case managers from various HIV service agencies would come pick up multiple orders and deliver them to clients. So many people put extra hours into their work weeks to help out in Food Bank during the work day, and catch up on their other job duties after hours. Things eventually smoothed out a bit and the Food Bank delivery system adjusted to different models as we had more staff on campus. The massive mobilization every week for staff and volunteers for months on end was amazing and inspiring.
At the onset of the pandemic, staff across programs tried to find ways to keep in touch with clients and decrease isolation. Case managers across case management programs went above and beyond their normal job roles in order to help the clients they could communicate with, to provide referrals to mental health support and other resources. However, it is incredibly challenging to communicate with clients who have no consistent phone access or computer access. The pandemic has allowed a lot of services to focus on the folks they are able to connect with - folks with reliable phone and/or email communication, folks who can make virtual appointments, and folks who can can remember their case manager’s phone number when they do get to a phone.
From day one, we had clients showing up at our agency trying to connect with their case managers. They didn’t know the agency had shut down, because they didn’t have working phones for us to reach them at. The libraries were all shut down, so those that did have email addresses weren’t able to access computers for email. Those who used their phones as internet phones (but couldn’t keep minutes or a plan on it) weren’t able to get into places with free wifi, because those were all shut down as well. They didn’t have access to the news to know what was going on, especially how quickly it happened. If you haven’t experienced houselessness, imagine for a second living outdoors, without a reliable phone or news, and then every service you know of, and every shower, food, and temporary shelter resource, suddenly shuts down. Every agency you go to has closed doors, and the 1 or 2 people inside are talking to you through a mask, and have no information about any other agency or services. They have no idea what day your case manager might be on campus in the future, and no way of connecting you to your support system because they cannot allow you to enter the building or use the phone just inside those doors.
As the pandemic progressed, needs for financial assistance skyrocketed - landlords were still charging rent and clients were getting months behind on what they owed. We got some CoVid funds from a few different sources, but none could meet the ongoing need created by months of an unprecedented pandemic. We were constantly looking for new funding resources or special CoVid funds in existing programs to supplement the existing programs, and to try to fill in the gaps of what grant funds couldn’t cover.
We shouldn’t have to dig for funds to cover something as urgently necessary as cell phones for unhoused folks in the midst of a pandemic that basically excluded service access for people who did not have phones.
I bring this up because I want to highlight where the gaps were and are. As service providers, we need to be innovative, flexible, and to find new solutions to new challenges. We need to be able to meet people where they are at, and to provide support on what our clients see as their primary challenge. We need to be able to communicate with our clients when they need support, and when they are ready to work on their goals. The funds that the HCRA beneficiary agencies receive are so important to services because they help fill in the gaps - they aren’t restricted by grant requirements, and are flexible funds. They allow us to innovate and to find new solutions. We can use them to pilot programs, and push the existing grant resources to expand and fund new areas.
It was an incredibly tough year, and that year keeps extending out with new challenges. I still carry guilt that I wasn’t able to find ways for my team to better connect with many of our clients a year ago. I still worry about the folks who slipped in between the cracks of our services because we could not communicate with them for months at a time, and they couldn’t connect with us - not for lack of trying either. I could excuse a lot of this away, but I think it's important as a service provider with many layers of privilege that I center the personal responsibility as a to always push to do better. Services can always improve. The day we say “we do enough” is the day we know we’ve strayed from our mission, and need to take a hard look at who we are missing. So I end this with no clear gift-wrapped message - the work that the beneficiary agencies do is hard and complex. There is massive need in our Central Texan community for HIV services, and for continued innovation in those services. HCRA is a part of the lifeblood of these HIV service providers, with not only the funds raised, but also the connection to a larger community that cares about the work we are doing, helps keep us accountable, and reminds us that we should always say “what more can we do?”