One of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods has often been “overlooked” even during normal times according to residents. City Heights residents, the majority of whom are Latinx with significant Laotian, Vietnamese, Somali and Cambodian communities, had the potential to slip through the cracks in the pandemic response. However, local organization are offering innovative services to ensure that does not happen.
Already, City Heights has been one of the more hard-hit neighborhoods in San Diego. According to a SANDAG study, just under 25% of people in City Heights were unemployed on April 11 – the third-worst rate in San Diego County. City Heights’ jobless rate is only surpassed by Logan Heights and San Ysidro. Even before this current economic crisis, City Heights residents were on average low-income and many are refugees and immigrants with more barriers to accessing healthcare. As of April 27, at least 83 people in City Heights have been sickened with the virus — 122 people per 100,000, which is also higher than the County rate overall of 94.1 cases per 100,000 people.
Local business associations, businesses, and community groups are trying to keep people safe during the pandemic through free masks, food deliveries to healthcare workers, promoting small businesses, and fruit swaps.
The Little Saigon Association has developed a system to make 1,000 masks per day that they are giving out for free. Initially, the focus was on giving out masks to vulnerable seniors and grocery workers on the frontline. Many low-paid workers from waiters to janitors to grocery store clerks are being repeatedly exposed to the virus without proper protective equipment. The organization saw this need and passed out masks to businesses to keep workers safe long before many grocery stores and restaurants provided masks to their employees because of the County mandates.
Then hospitals began requesting the masks and volunteers delivered hundreds. Since then, the group has expanded their reach to anyone in the community who comes to pick up masks.
The Little Saigon Association is able to make and distribute hundreds of masks per day using an all-volunteer network and without raising any funds. All material to make the masks is donated. Volunteers with a variety of experience levels turn material dropped off at their door into masks. Those masks are then left outside for a different group of volunteers to pick up and bring to the business center in Little Saigon where the masks can be distributed.
Two leaders in the Little Saigon Association are coordinating the pick-up and distribution by text, phone, Facebook and email each day. Although their time has been busy, Su Nguyen said the community has come together in a way he has never seen before which has filled him with hope.
“We care for each other. We love each other,” Nguyen said. “I see Mexican people coming here [picking up] masks for their coworkers. I see African American people come here and bring the fabric to donate to the organization. Some people bring food to help volunteers.”
To pick up 1-9 free masks, stop by 3412 Central Ave. To receive more than 10 masks, email Contact@LittleSaigonSanDiego.org.
What’s the Buzz
The City Heights Town Council is doing several things to support residents during the crisis. “Since City Heights is one of the more overlooked communities, I would say, in San Diego, it’s especially important for us to act as that liaison between the San Diego City Council and the neighborhood,” Chardae Jones, a board member, said.
The Town Council is able to connect residents to services or government officials. For instance, Jones reached out to the Office of Council member Georgette Gomez on behalf of a woman without internet access or an email to contact them. Gomez’ office then helped the women via phone.
In addition, The City Heights Town Council is using its social media platforms to raise awareness of mom-and-pop shops that are still operating and giving back to the community. On Instagram, the group shares information on the owners and how to support the business in their “What’s the Buzz” campaign.
“We really want to highlight those stories of those local businesses who are going above and beyond to still maintain their businesses during this time,” said Ben Mendoza, a community activist volunteering with the Town Council. “We want to make sure that we’re really playing that pivotal role of connecting community members with those local businesses.”
Some of the small family businesses may not have their own social media so the Town Council is giving them access to a new platform. Mendoza and Jones worry that many of the businesses owned by refugees and People of Color (POC) will not be able to survive a long shutdown, or even a short shutdown.
“It’s definitely concerning to me as a resident that we might lose some of the uniqueness that makes City Heights special if these businesses are forced to shut down and larger businesses come to take their place,” Jones said.
She knows of a leader in the Somali Business Association who has helped Somali-run businesses apply for grants and loans they may not have been aware of or struggled to apply for because English is not their first language. Other businesses may not have that help.
Mendoza sought out Cafeina Cafe to highlight in one of the first What’s the Buzz posts. They said, “I don’t want to see local businesses run by POC folks to fold because I think that one of the crown jewels of City Heights is the fact that we have so much diversity within our businesses.”
Cafeina Café is a City Heights coffee shop owned by Andrew Benavides and his partner. He actually worked in the medical field before opening his shop so had friends at local hospitals requesting that he donate coffee and pastries. When word spread, he had more requests than he was able to fill out of his own pocket. The City Heights Business Association stepped in and gave funds so Benavides could keep delivering to local medical centers.
He has been able to pivot his business for takeout and delivery partially because he had no employees so all the money that comes in can go straight towards paying bills.
“Even though we try not to encourage people to come out, we always do appreciate people that do show up. We’re gonna have our doors open, just in case you need coffee,” Benavides said.
He appreciates the work of the Town Council and other groups that are highlighting small businesses during the crisis. Benavides has already seen some stores owned by City Heights residents shut down completely.
“Hopefully they can make it, because I do feel that the way people look at City Heights like, ‘Oh City Heights is upcoming; let’s go to City Heights now,’ people might take advantage of the situation,” he said.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the economic fallout of the pandemic could speed up gentrification in some neighborhoods. Benavides grew up in City Heights and has already seen it change significantly.
Cafeina Cafe is open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily at 4011 46th St.
The businesses are closed and events canceled at the activated space Fair@44, so the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association decided to launch a free fruit swap in the empty space.
“[Fair@44] has acted as a resource to the community for now over three years. We figured ‘how could we continue to utilize this platform as a resource to the community knowing that there are just essential resources that people need at this point?’” said Beryl Forman, marketing and mobility coordinator of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association.
Every Wednesday, people with fruit trees and other produce they cannot consume drop off their spare food at the lot. Some of that fruit would go to waste if it was not given away and many San Diegans have fruit trees. Volunteers then divide all of the produce into smaller bags that are handed out to people walking, biking and driving past the spot in the early afternoon.
“Fruit is a simple thing that brings joy to people. It’s healthy and it’s just a basic essential here that we can offer to people in the community,” Forman said.
In the first week they launched, the volunteers handed out 200 bags of produce. They included items like oranges, lemons, potatoes, and even a papaya.
“There’s so many people that need help and all of us that can do something, why not? I just think it’s a blessing to be a blessing,” said Tracy Allen a volunteer who runs 9to5Not Business Solutions.
The program is sustained by people donating their spare produce. Every Wednesday, drop-offs are10 a.m.-noon. Free pick-ups from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (or until supplies last) at Fair@44, El Cajon Boulevard, between Fairmount and 44th.
Like much of the help being offered, neighbors are looking out for each other to make sure nobody gets left behind.
Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.