Worlds Collide in the Time of COVID-19
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
April 10, 2020
Now more than ever, I exist between two worlds. Let’s call them World A and World B. World A is the world in which concerned parents who look like me post on social media about how far behind their children are falling because our school district cannot make distance learning or e-learning or whatever they are calling it happen. World B is the world in which I am trying to help a homeless pregnant diabetic get off the streets because she is terrified of contracting COVID-19 and what that would mean for her unborn child. World A: friends are suddenly working from home while supervising their children’s schooling and trying not to murder their spouses who have filled all available storage with toilet paper (or candy, ahem). World B: there are 600 and then 800 and then 1,100 and now 1,400 people on the list to receive help paying their April rent. It is April 10th. We’re still working on April, but what will happen in May? World B people don’t have the money to stock up on anything. World A: my mom plotting secret visits to her hairdresser to touch up her highlights and cover her gray hair. World B: hairdressers, housekeepers, and hotel staff calling and wondering how they will make up 1, 2, 3 or more months of lost income.
I live in Santa Clara County, where the median income for a family of 4 is $126,606. It is a county full of tech workers and the people who support their lifestyles. Many not directly employed in tech were already struggling to make ends meet even before COVID-19 -- the number of homeless people in my city increased by 46% over the last 2 years. The main road leading to the tech companies is lined with RVs (many lacking in fresh water) housing workers who cannot afford the more than $3,000 average monthly rent for even a one-bedroom apartment.
We are a tech family – my husband and I met 20 years ago as undergraduates at MIT. After a career in World A, I have spent the last 3 years working at a small nonprofit helping people who occupy World B. This nonprofit offers a food pantry, housing case management, senior services, and more. In this new reality, my worlds collide every day. Parents of my children’s friends come in to request food. An acquaintance can no longer pay her housekeeper, and the housekeeper calls for help with rent unaware that I know her former employer. I open an email from someone seeking rental assistance and realize I know her professionally. It is only a matter of time until I walk into work and see a neighbor or a friend in a desperate situation.
How did I get to World A? Did I work hard? Sure. Did I make good choices? Definitely. Was I born into the right family? If you’ve met my parents, you may find this debatable (and funny), but for these purposes, yes. Did I marry well? Yes. Is it fair? No. It’s not fair. So I do what I can to help others and teach my children to do so as well. When I get home from a long day in World B and find my kids fighting over some World A nonsense like how much time they can spend on their tablets, it’s hard. I want to tell them about the homeless person with respiratory issues struggling to get temporary housing to whom I just handed a bag of food. And sometimes I do tell them. But they’re 5 and 8 and they don’t really get it. I hope that one day they understand and do what they can to help. Until then, I’ll try my best not to get frustrated by things that seem so minor to me, but are so major to them at a time when their worlds have shrunk to the size of our house.
I am writing this as I sit in a parking lot wearing a mask (not an N-95 because we ran out of those) checking people in for a food distribution. California in April is supposed to be warmer than this, but there is a breeze that chills the people waiting for food and me and disturbs the papers I have to pass out with updates to our services. There are all kinds of people here: an older couple who immigrated from Russia decades ago and don’t speak English, a Spanish speaker who is unable to write her name and lives in a small apartment with 7 other people, an Asian man around my age with an easy smile who recently lost his restaurant job. During a slow moment after the initial rush of people, someone from World A rides up on a bicycle and hands me a $1,000 check. As I sanitize my hands, I think about how I wish we could use it to build a bridge between the two worlds.