Community in a time of COVID-19: How Metro Detroit is responding to the crisis


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As the nation reacts to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like every hour something changes. Suggestions become rules and rules differ greatly from state to state.

In Michigan, that means no school, no dining in at area bars and restaurants, and no gatherings of 50 people or more. The list goes on. And nobody knows for how long.

As dictionaries roll out their word-of-the-year lists for 2020, social distancing will no doubt be at or near the top of each and every one.

There seem to be two types of questions that have come up in the early days of this statewide semi-shutdown.

“When is my kid going back to school,” morphs into, “Is my kid going back to school?”

“When do I get to go back to work,” becomes, “Will my work still be there?”

And then there’s the fear of catching the virus itself.

Such uncertainties result in different reactions, some of the worst of which include hoarding and price gouging.

But for every roll of toilet paper that will be collecting dust in some yahoo’s basement a year from now, a look at the region reveals instance upon instance of community members banding together and helping each other navigate these strange days of COVID-19.

Food

Among people’s chief priorities is, of course, food.

“We have helped families with groceries before but I have never seen a need on this scale,” says Coleman Yoakum, executive director for the Micah 6 Community in Pontiac. The community development group runs programs that include a community garden and the Sprout Fresh Food Store, which offers fresh produce at low prices.

Yoakum credits Dustin McClellan and the Pontiac Community Foundation with organizing citywide efforts to fill the needs of its residents. For their part, Micah 6 and Sprout are handing out free bags of produce. The bags, valued at $10 each, are available at the Sprout Fresh Food Store.

With Michigan shutting down schools through at least the first week of April, a critical source of food for area children had seemingly disappeared. Many schoolchildren rely on free breakfast and lunch programs at their schools.

Micah 6 and Sprout’s produce bag program was initially reserved for families with children. Thankfully, as with many school districts throughout metro Detroit, the Pontiac School District will provide meals-to-go throughout the shutdown, with Pontiac even setting up a bus delivery system. The produce bag program is now open to the community at large.

“This was initially for families with kids but now with people even out of their service industry jobs, we’re extending the program to everyone,” Yoakum says, confirming that there are no criteria that would exclude a person from picking up a free bag of groceries.

“We will do this as long as we can.”

Yoakum estimates that Micah 6 has the funding to provide 140 bags of fresh produce per day for the next five weeks.

Mental Health

Social distancing has meant that access to one often overlooked but no less essential component of health care--therapy and support groups-- has become even more difficult than it already had been.

How does one continue therapy or continue attending support and recovery groups when society is trying to flatten out the curve? What’s more, as we attempt to practice acts of social distancing, mental health issues can be compounded in isolation, making a vulnerable group all the more vulnerable.

“In anxiety-filled times, people are fearful. Not having access to their healthcare providers increases that fear, and especially when they’re already dealing with issues like anxiety on their own,” says Chris Edgar-Smith, clinical therapist at the Radical Well-Being Center in Southfield. The center has closed its offices and is now offering recovery group meetings online. Its therapists are also meeting with their clients online, rather than the usual in-person sessions.

Edgar-Smith says it’s been important to let clients and other members of the community know that “we’re still here for them, we still hold a space for them.” The team at Radical Well-Being is hoping to offer peer support for oft-marginalized groups like the black-queer community, too, including online game nights and more.

“Me and the other therapists, we’re doing check-ins, seeing about what other ways our clients can take part in self-care, even with social distancing,” Edgar-Smith says.

“It’s important to remember that social distancing doesn’t mean you have to stay locked up inside all day, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go jogging or go for a walk.

“You have to break the monotony of being inside.”

Connecting Online

While organizations throughout metro Detroit are continually finding ways to keep offering their services or to fill in the gaps resulting from one shutdown or another, it’s often the act of an individual that can help make someone’s day a little more normal.

On Facebook, places like the Metro Detroit COVID-19 Support and the Detour Detroit Community group are rife with people offering each other tips and information useful to navigate through what can often be a confusing time. Some are offering to run errands for complete strangers while others are organizing community bread-making groups in case things really get bad.

In a post on the Hazel Park Community Forum, Madison Heights resident Wayne Reif simply offered people access to the bikes in his backyard. No questions asked. Just return them when you’re done.

It may seem small compared to some of the other tasks at hand, but these things add up, restoring a little sense of dignity in a world where a select few are trying to collect as many rolls of toilet paper as they can.

“I have several older bicycles in my backyard left behind by my kids. They are just sitting there unused. I thought this would be a perfect gift right now for anyone looking for some kind of activity to do without being around other people,” Reif says.

“Perhaps you don’t have your own bike. Come on over and borrow a couple of mine.”

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