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As COVID-19 crisis hit low-income communities, two local nonprofits found new ways to help neighbors

'We're all in this together'
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 20:28:36-05

CINCINNATI — When Lower Price Hill became a food desert in 2018 with the closure of Meiser’s Parkview Market, the community came up with a plan to bring fresh groceries back to the neighborhood.

But the coronavirus pandemic hit just as work was underway to open the new Meiser’s Fresh Grocery & Deli, said Reba Hennessey. She’s the president and founder of Your Store of the Queen City, the nonprofit operator of the new grocery.

“The impact was profound in so many ways,” Hennessey said. “You had what everyone was starting to experience, which was when you go to a grocery store, you’d walk in the doors and you’d see shelves were completely bare. But the stakes are so much higher when you live in a neighborhood like Lower Price Hill.”

Many of the neighborhood’s lower-income residents don’t have cars to drive to the grocery, she said, so just getting to the store required a frustrating amount of coordination. Lower Price Hill resident Melissa Baker said she tried having groceries delivered instead, but the store was constantly substituting more expensive items when the brands she requested weren’t available.

“They’d always try to increase your grocery bill,” Baker said.

So community organizations found ways to help their own. Your Store of the Queen City got toilet tissue, paper towels and other essentials donated to neighborhood food pantries. Local nonprofits delivered food directly to residents. And, with support from community development corporation Price Hill Will, Hennessey launched an outdoor market next to the Meiser’s location where residents could get fresh fruit and vegetables and buy fresh bread, crafts and other goods from their neighbors.

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A shopper checks out the vegetables at an outdoor market organized last year in Lower Price Hill.

“It’s been really extraordinary, the level of support that neighbors have brought to everything,” Hennessey said, adding that Price Hill Will has been especially helpful. “They don’t see neighborhoods as a set of buildings. They see them as a collection of community members.”

Lower-income neighborhoods like Lower Price Hill have been hit especially hard during the pandemic, said Adrian Washington, founder and CEO of Neighborhood Development Company, which is based in Washington, D.C.

“These communities often are living paycheck to paycheck,” Washington said. “They are restaurant workers, hotel workers. They might be sanitation workers. And so these jobs have been hit both in terms of layoffs, particularly in the hospitality sector, and for health issues.”

Research updated Jan. 8 by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that most jobs lost in the economic crisis have been in industries that pay low average wages, contributing to problems that families face when it comes to staying current on rent and mortgage payments and putting enough food on the table.

Here in Greater Cincinnati, some community organizations have found creative ways to blunt the pandemic’s economic trauma.

Providing support for the ‘have nots’

Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses had what executive director Alexis Kidd Zaffer called “a laundry list of concerns” related to Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood when the pandemic began.

“Like most communities, there are a great deal of issues. But when you have communities like ours, who are under-resourced – we have deserts of many kinds in terms of resources, access to things, with food,” Zaffer said. “We knew we would have a challenge there.”

When schools first stopped in-person teaching, many parents were scrambling to find the devices and the internet connectivity their children needed to keep learning, she said.

The organization also saw a spike in the number of people requesting emergency assistance with food and toiletry items but a decrease in the number of people visiting Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses for its Daily Bread Room, she said.

The Daily Bread Room collects donations from Kroger, Panera and farmers markets and offers them free to residents each day. But Zaffer said West End residents were understandably nervous about leaving their homes to get the food they needed.

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Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses delivered food to senior residents of the West End last year.

“Every element changed,” she said.

After the first two months of the pandemic, Zaffer said her organization had served the same number of people as it had during all of 2019.

“We were like, OK, emergency food is definitely needed,” she said. “But then we also knew that our regulars who came in for emergency assistance and the Daily Bread Room weren’t showing up. And so when we reached out to the housing units we found that COVID was, it’s something that’s just terrifying to our elderly residents.”

Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses began delivering food to senior housing complexes in the neighborhood, she said, to make sure older residents were getting the food they needed.

The organization also dedicated a staff member to help parents navigate the technology their children had to use for virtual schooling and teamed up with Elementz to provide tutors and virtual learning assistance to students.

The next step for Seven Hills is to set up several Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the neighborhood to make it easier for residents of all ages to connect to the internet, whether it’s for schoolwork, staying in touch with family or ensuring that all residents can be part of neighborhood decision-making now that so many community meetings are held virtually.

“Eighty percent of our residents are renters,” Zaffer said. “Less than 20% are homeowners and so there is a clear case of the haves and the have-nots.”

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Virtual learning assistance has become an important offering at Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses.

The organization also is working on an activity book designed for victims of violence that also could be useful for people traumatized by the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

“There’s been a whole lot going on in a year when we’ve had to do a lot of adjusting,” Zaffer said.

‘We’re all in this together’

Price Hill Will also has made many adjustments to serve the three Price Hill neighborhoods, said Rachel Hastings, the community development corporation’s executive director.

“Obviously, our main role is to improve the lives of residents here in the community working with them,” Hastings said. “But we also recognize that in a crisis situation that we had to help everybody just survive.”

That meant doing lots of things that Hastings' organization has never done before to help residents in Lower Price Hill, East Price Hill and West Price Hill. Among them:

  • Price Hill Will converted its after-school youth orchestra, MYCincinnati, to an online program within a week last March because the organization knew it wasn’t safe to gather 120 young people from 20 different schools for practices.
  • Staff members connected with orchestra members’ parents – and parents throughout the Price Hill neighborhoods – to determine whether they had the electronic devices their children needed for remote schooling and other activities and then helped track down devices for those who didn’t.
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A screen capture of a MYCincinnati online rehearsal.

  • The organization partnered with the Children’s Hunger Alliance to create snack bags to distribute weekly.
  • Price Hill Will has been helping families that previously haven’t needed emergency assistance navigate the complex systems to get the help they need. The organization has been especially focused on helping Spanish-speaking residents figure out what help they can receive to avoid evictions.
  • Neighborhood meetings had to transition to online forums, and the organization has helped residents connect to those.
  • And Price Hill Will created new programs to help residents feel connected to each other and the neighborhood. A staff member who is a talented photographer took graduation photos of students in the communities and then family portraits of residents outside their homes, with Price Hill Will providing families with a few free prints. And the organization gave away sunflower seeds so that residents could grow sunflowers to brighten up the community and show their connection to each other.

“While they were all isolating at home, it was just so important for folks to feel like there are other people in my community that are feeling the same way,” Hastings said. “Just really trying to think creatively about how to nurture both people’s sort of physical bodies and keeping people safe and distanced, but also their souls and spirits because I think that is the toughest thing to sort of diagnose and the toughest thing to heal as this lingers now into its second year.”

Washington, the developer from Washington, D.C., said he hopes government supports will continue into 2021 to help people pay their rent and help landlords pay their mortgages. But he said local government and community efforts will be crucial to help get through the pandemic, too.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “It’s just an unprecedented challenge, and that is going to take commitment, understanding, creativity, you know, passion from all of us, and working together as a team to get through this -- and we will.”

That’s exactly what neighbors in the West End and Price Hill neighborhoods have been doing.

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Price Hill Will took family photos like this one in 2020 to help residents feel less isolated.

More information about Price Hill Will and Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses can be found online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.