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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for everyone in Kansas City in ways we don’t even understand yet. KCUR is documenting those changes, one by one, through our individual stories. Share yours.

Coronavirus-Related Hardships Aren't Letting Up For Kansas City's Low-Income Communities

Laura Ziegler
A food pantry volunteer and security guard at St. James United Methodist Church loads up bags filled with breakfast and lunch for Rene Jennings, whose son, daughter, and grandchildren have moved in with her during the pandemic.

Four months into the pandemic, thousands of Kansas Citians are unemployed, and those who lost low-wage jobs were already in a precarious financial state.

Every day for the last few months, Rene Jennings has pulled her gray van up to a curb at St. James United Methodist Church on Paseo Boulevard. She arrives at 11 a.m., when food distribution begins.

Jennings is a stroke survivor, so when her husband died, her adult son and daughter came home to take care of her. All nine of their children came with them, ages 5 to 18.

Being together in a five-bedroom house during a pandemic hasn’t been easy, and economic challenges have added to the stress.

Jennings' daughter, a pharmacy technician, was looking for work when the pandemic began. She was offered a job at a health center, but with several members of her household at high risk for COVID-19, she turned down the job for her family's safety. For now, she’s working at home for an insurance agency.

Jennings' son had been working the odd construction gig, but now, even day labor has grown scarce.

“You know, he’ll go to the places and they’ll say 'We only need five people today, or maybe we need just six,' and you know, it’s hard.”

Jennings doesn't complain.

“We’re doing good,” she says tentatively. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”

As the coronavirus threatens to send the metro into another lockdown, thousands of Kansas Citians who have been without work are struggling to make ends meet. Most of the layoffs have occurred in low-wage sectors of the economy like hospitality and entertainment, pushing those in already vulnerable financial positions into increasingly difficult situations. Childcare issues and the shrinking job market have compounded existing challenges for families, and the moratorium on disconnection notices by some utilities will soon expire. As a result, local service agencies anticipate food and housing insecurity will continue to grow.

Laura Ziegler
St. James United Methodist Church stepped in to supplement meals for kids when schools shut down in March. They'll continue with the summer program through August. Meals include breakfast and hot lunches and are prepared by church volunteers.

The United Way of Greater Kansas City reports a nearly fifty percent jump in risk for homelessness between February and late June of this year. Most of the calls to the organization's 211 helpline were requests for assistance with rent.

St. James United Methodist Church began serving meals in response to community need when schools closed this spring. As other community food distribution sites grew, the number of people coming to St. James saw a decline, but still, as of July, they're serving up to fifty people a day, five days a week.

“Everything else has gone online, but people can’t get their essential needs online,” says Yvette Richards, the church's Director of Community Connection.

Byron Whitmore, a security guard at St. James, stands watch along Paseo, ready to alert the team of volunteers when someone's arrived to pick up food. That way, the food is hot when it's delivered.

“Meals for nine!” he shouts when Rene Jennings arrives.

Laura Ziegler
St. James staff Yvette Richards and Byron Whitmore wait for cars to drive up for summer meals from the church food distribution site. They started the program to make sure students had meals when schools shut down.

Whitmore hands Jennings all nine plastic bags through her car window. Inside are to-go boxes of spaghetti, meat sauce, and green beans, plus breakfast bags that include fruit and milk. Jennings says the money she’s saving on groceries will help pay for other necessities.

“We don’t have no cut-off notices,” Jennings says. "We're not in the dark or anything like that."

Most gas, electricity and water companies put a moratorium on shut-offs when the pandemic began. But some of the larger utilities like Evergy, the dominant electric provider in Kansas, and Spire, which provides natural gas for much of the Kansas City area, ended those grace periods this month. Kansas Citians who can't settle their accounts could soon begin to have their utilities turned off.

Laura Ziegler
Palmira Ortega lives a few blocks from St. James. Like Jennings, she comes daily for meals. Before the pandemic, Ortega worked for a neighborhood dry cleaner, which closed when stay-at-home orders went into effect. Her husband has a factory job, but it's not enough to feed a family of four.

Access to childcare has emerged as among the most intractable coronavirus-related problems for parents, whether working from home, looking for work, or heading back into potentially unsafe work environments.

Emanuel Cleaver III is the senior pastor for St. James United Methodist Church, and he says childcare is what he hears about most from parishioners. “They’re having to weigh ‘How do I do this? Or How do I go back to work in a physical location, or go out and find a job when I don’t have money for daycare?’”

At the Community Action Agency of Greater Kansas City, the pandemic has meant reverting back to an old model.

"A couple of years ago, we primarily focused on emergency services," explains Program Director Lamont Hale. "Rental assistance, utility assistance, food and toiletry assistance."

In recent years, there's been a push to focus on providing the skills people need to break the cycle of poverty long-term. Hale says it's impossible to maintain these programs now.

"We can’t really get into development of education programs, employment programs, income programs so on and so forth," Hale says. "The needs that are showing right now are the basic needs."

Have you been struggling with unemployment due to COVID-19? We'd like to hear your story. Text WORK to 816-601-4777 and tell us about your experience. You can also email us at TellKCUR@kcur.org or leave us a voicemail at 816-235-8930.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions. Email me at lauraz@kcur.org and follow me on Twitter @laurazig.
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