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This 80-year-old is leading a team to help senior residents of Hamilton County public housing

'We just have to do it all'
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 08:26:17-04

CINCINNATI — The COVID-19 crisis has just about everyone worried, but it’s especially scary for the many senior citizens who live in Hamilton County’s public housing communities.

“They’re terrified,” said Yvonne Howard, a resident of Maple Tower in Avondale and a project manager for the Jurisdiction-Wide Resident Advisory Board. The advisory board, known as J-RAB, advocates for Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority residents.

“They don’t even want to come out for an hour in the air, you know, with social distancing, because they’re terrified,” she said.

J-RAB president and CEO Delorise Calhoun said many of the housing authority’s older residents have told her they are concerned about running low on food, cleaning supplies and other necessities.

So Calhoun convened a group of CMHA leaders to tackle the crisis head on.

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Several members of the J-RAB group working to help senior CMHA residents through the COVID-19 crisis met with WCPO on April 9, 2020, to discuss their work.

“We decided we would be the person to call the Freestore, the black chamber, Closing the Health Gap, anybody that I thought would answer our plea,” Calhoun said. “We, the six of us, which is all women, as you can see, have been doing the delivery. We do all the packing, the unpacking. We just have to do it all.”

Already the group has distributed 474 boxes of food that it received from the Freestore Foodbank to give to senior citizens who live in CMHA high-rise buildings, she said. The group also has collected adult diapers, cleaning supplies and laundry detergent donated by the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Closing the Health Gap, Calhoun said.

How CMHA is trying to help

Many of CMHA’s own efforts have focused on easing the financial blow of the coronavirus pandemic, said Lesley Wardlow, the housing authority’s senior communications coordinator.

The housing authority put a hold on any evictions at least through the end of May, she said, and has been urging residents to notify the agency of any change in income that could help reduce the amount of rent they must pay.

Since mid-March, CMHA has processed more than 900 income re-certifications to reduce the amount of rent that their residents pay, Wardlow said, although the agency doesn’t know how many residents have lost jobs because of the pandemic.

The housing authority has tried to help in other ways, too.

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The Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Closing the Health Gap have donated supplies to J-RAB for distribution to seniors.

For example, CMHA used money from its Central Office budget to purchase cleaning supplies and personal items that residents said they needed, Wardlow said.

“That includes things like tissue, toilet paper – the almighty toilet paper – bars of soap, cleaning supplies,” Wardlow said. “That’s not something that we normally do is provide that to our residents. But because of this crazy pandemic that we’re in, we want to make sure everyone is staying as healthy as they can. And there was a big need for it so we answered the call.”

Wardlow said CMHA also has applied for funding from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation to purchase Kroger gift cards that residents can use for shopping.

“We’re staying in touch with our tenants, the senior tenants and everyone else, through the J-RAB presidents,” she said. “They let us know what the needs are. And if we can assist, we do. And if we can’t, we find a partner.”

‘We’re gonna do this’

Calhoun said CMHA has been keeping her informed about the products that have been ordered, but she hasn’t gotten any information about delivery yet.

In the meantime, the team keeps working. Ultimately, Calhoun said she plans to organize the group as a resident-owned business.

“Situations like this, like COVID-19, we’re out here putting in all of this footwork,” said Vernisha Finch, a J-RAB service coordinator who refers to herself as the millennial in the group. “But what about us when we go home? How are we going to feed our families after we’ve been out here, being essential, risking our lives making sure others have what they need?”

Finch and Calhoun stressed that the women involved in the work wear masks and gloves and practice social distancing as much as they can.

Wardlow said she hasn’t heard of any CMHA residents or staff who have tested positive for COVID-19. But Finch said she and the rest of Calhoun’s group aren’t taking any chances.

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Vernisha Finch

“You got some that’s literally scared to go outside to get tested because they don’t want to become positive because they don’t want to be confined, can’t have visitors, can’t visit family,” Finch said. “There may be some that’s positive, and we may not know. That’s why we wear our masks.”

Calhoun just celebrated her 80th birthday, after all, which puts her in the high-risk category when it comes to the new coronavirus. Several of the other women in her group are senior citizens, too.

Calhoun’s own children worry about her, she said. They check in with her by phone each morning and each night to make sure she’s feeling OK, she said, and she makes sure she cleans up after each time she goes out.

As scary as things are, though, Calhoun said her group will continue doing what they can because their fellow residents need the help.

“Until this virus is over, I’m going to collect as much as I can. I’m going to pass out as much as I can,” she said. “We’re gonna do this.”

More information about J-RAB is available online. CMHA also has an online Resident Resource Page with information about jobs, food and other assistance.

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. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

WCPO 9's ongoing series, Move Up Cincinnati, tracks regional growth and how our community is working to uplift those left behind. To contact the Move Up Cincinnati team, email us at moveupcincinnati@wcpo.com.