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food pantries uptick
Clients line up outside Human Needs Food Pantry on Label Street on May 5. Groups that help people in need have seen an increase in the number of people needing help due to the pandemic. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

On most days, the line of people waiting to pick up meals from Toni’s Kitchen stretches well away from the door. The Human Needs Food Pantry has taken on 131 new clients who have never needed its services before.

“A lot of these people, they’re hourly workers, they’re paid per diem, and they were the first to be let go,” Mike Bruno, executive director at Human Needs, said.

The new clients at both Toni’s Kitchen and the Human Needs Food Pantry are a mix of senior couples, families with children, senior singles, and single parents with children. “It would really tear your heart out to see these moms come in with little kids with masks on,” Bruno said.

The Salvation Army, which provides showers for the homeless, has had to limit the number of people inside its building.

The COVID-19 outbreak has been a challenging time for Montclair’s social service groups and charities, from food pantries reporting large increases in the number of clients requesting food, to agencies that serve the homeless trying to figure out how to maintain social distancing.

NEED REACHES BEYOND MONTCLAIR

Many of the new clients have never needed the services of a food pantry before, and many of the new clients are from outside of Human Needs’ usual coverage area, especially with other pantries closing down, Bruno said.

At the start of the outbreak, the pantry was faced with the prospect of having to close for two weeks because of a drop-off in staff and volunteers. But more volunteers have come onboard, and Bruno said the pantry had enough volunteers to meet daily needs.

On average, Human Needs has been delivering meals to 230 homebound clients a week, and has been getting 145 walk-in clients a week.

Toni’s Kitchen has gone from distributing 4,300 meals a week on average to 16,000 a week with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the number of weeks in the pandemic increases, so does the need.

“Our numbers go up every week,” said Anne Mernin, Toni’s executive director. “We’re seeing people who were previously financially stable, and overnight they’ve lost their finances, they’ve lost their businesses.”

Human Needs gets two deliveries from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey a month. But in April, that was cut back to one delivery. Some items, like chicken, have been hard to come by. And the pantry has been getting regular deliveries of bread, bagels and other baked goods from a Paterson-based bakery, The Bread Gal, which reached out to the pantry and offered to help, Bruno said.

The Montclair Foundation was able to rush through a grant for Human Needs, as was Partners for Health, which provides grant funding to programs related to food, nutrition, and healthy living in Montclair and the surrounding area. And the community has been very generous with support, Bruno said.

Mernin said, “We’re going to be in this for a long time. We need to position ourselves for the long haul.” Even when the pandemic is over, it is going to take a long time for families to recover financially from its effects, she said.

The United Way of Northern New Jersey, which serves Montclair and other towns in western Essex County, started a recovery fund to assist  ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) households: households that are above the poverty line but still have trouble covering necessary expenses.

The funding helps ALICE households that have seen a loss of income due to COVID-19 with necessary expenses, including food and monthly bills.

“So I don’t know when we’re going to see the end of this or when this is going to wind down. But we’re holding our own and we’re trying to help as many people as we can,” Bruno said.

Helping the homeless

The Salvation Army Montclair Citadel on Trinity Place, while continuing to operate, has had to restrict the number of people it can allow inside at a time.

The social-distancing guidelines have required the staff to make several adjustments to how it serves clients, Executive Director Michele Kroeze said, most notably in providing shower facilities for people who need them.

For meal service, the citadel has gone from providing sit-down meals to providing takeout: about 60 a day, on average.

The biggest challenge for the Salvation Army was figuring out how to provide shower facilities for people who needed them, Kroeze said. The staff thought about bringing in a mobile shower truck and setting it up in the parking lot. However, she said a staff member would still be needed to stand by and supervise while it was in use.

In the end, the staff decided to have clients come in one at a time to use the shower. Each client receives a towel, clean clothes, soap, and toiletries. The showers opened up three weeks ago. This week, Kroeze said, nine people over two days used the showers. “It’s not just the showering. It’s really the only time they’re indoors,” she said.

The township has also set up portable toilets around town for people who need to use a restroom, which helped, Kroeze said.

The Salvation Army runs the Cornerstone shelter for homeless families to stay in during the night. Since the shelter-in-place rules went into effect, the shelter now operates 24-7, which Kroeze said leads to more expenses.

Currently, there are 14 people at Cornerstone, with no new intakes since the shelter-in-place rules went into effect.

The Salvation Army also works in partnership with Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless (MESH), which also provides meals and overnight respite services to people in need.

MESH had to restrict the number of people it could assist at one time, from the usual 20 people for overnight respite in cold weather down to 10, and instead of offering a sit-down cafe as it usually did, it had to distribute takeout meals.

Before the outbreak, MESH provided 750 meals a month, on average. During the outbreak, that number has increased to 1,000 a month.

Gwen Parker Ames said MESH is definitely seeing more people in need. Previously, 25 people was a good turnout for the cafe services. Now it can be as high as 45. “And some of them are coming in with children, which is hard to see,” Ames said. She recalled one woman in particular whose financial situation changed rapidly after she lost her job. “I mean, she cried. She cried with her two children standing there,” Ames recalled. “She had a college degree, but here she was, standing in a food line.”

Since that time, the woman has started a small business, sewing masks to sell, and Ames said her prospects were starting to improve.

MESH is in need of rain gear and Mylar blankets to distribute. Because the weather this spring has been unpredictable, going rapidly from warm to cold, homeless people are very much at risk sleeping in the elements. MESH also hopes to partner with doctors and nurses who can conduct medical screenings for homeless people, since homeless people who are on foot are the most at risk for medical conditions. But because of COVID-19, they may be afraid to go to an emergency room, Ames said.

The Salvation Army staff provides, on average, 60 bag lunches a week to people who need them.

Two social workers from the Salvation Army work with clients who need help with their rent or their mortgage payments.

Toni’s Kitchen, Human Needs, MESH and the Salvation Army have all requested financial donations first and foremost, since financial donations allow those organizations to buy needed supplies and help reduce expenses.