Unfazed Realism, Unwavering Optimism

By Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor

It was Tuesday, November 17, 2020. Our team was on our daily 8:30 am call. Since the pandemic started, back in March, the Directors and leads at Catholic Charities have been meeting daily, discussing any updates or issues any of our programs have been facing. It keeps us all connected and aware of what the different programs face with clients, keeping safe and running programs during a pandemic. Antoinette Fallon, our Director of Homeless Services in San Diego brought up an email she had just sent out that morning. A homeless woman who just had a baby by cesarean was being released by the hospital into our care (under one of our grants with the hospital) to oversee her hotel stay for 2 weeks. This was different, most of the clients released from the hospital were homeless but, this was the first woman with a newborn coming into our care. Antoinette’s request was simple and sincere. Her email read “I’m wondering if we can pool some resources from within our own organization to assist.” It was a quick turnaround; she was to be released later that day. Immediately, responses started coming in, programs could help with baby clothes, some items to help with a newborn, maybe somewhere to stay besides a hotel. I was amazed that by the end of the day the team had found a foster family to host the woman “Urey” and her son for the 2 weeks, baby clothes, diapers and a bassinet were all going to be available. This is just another example of what it means to be a part of a team, working together, trusting each other, and going above and beyond to help our clients.

The more our team worked with Urey, the tougher it was to hear her story.

Brought to a Halt                                                                                                                                                                                               Urey should not—and, save for the coronavirus pandemic, would not—be homeless. After several years working for a friend’s fitness apparel company and competing in bodybuilding shows throughout Southern California, Urey moved to San Diego from New York City in 2016. Recognizing the seasonality of fitness competitions, she picked up a second, more stable job as a rideshare driver.

Urey was living with a roommate in North County when the coronavirus arrived in San Diego. Her work and income evaporated as rideshare drivers took a hit from the lockdown, leaving her without funds to find another place to live after her lease expired on April 1, 2020. At the time, rideshare companies were reporting ride volumes to be down as much as 75 percent compared to the previous year.

“I was working, but no one was outside or getting rides,” Urey said. “I’d work a 10-hour day and make maybe $50.”

Urey went from employed and entrepreneurial to jobless and homeless, almost overnight.

Stuck in a Standstill                                                                                                                                                                                            From March to November, Urey lived in her car. Occasionally, she would rent an Airbnb. All the while, she was pregnant. She explains her circumstances in a straightforward tone embodying the slogan that defined the coronavirus crisis in her city on the other side of the country: New York tough.

“I didn’t think the pandemic would last this long,” she says. “Or that I’d be without a job and without a home. But it turned out that way, so I just try to deal with it the best I can and keep moving forward.”

Receiving Assistance                                                                  Urey gave birth to her son in late November, by C-section. She had planned to stay with an aunt in Northern California, but the surgery left her unable to drive for several weeks. Urey realized she needed a safe place where she could recover while nurturing her newborn. When the hospital put her in touch with Catholic Charities, Urey didn’t know what to expect. Catholic Charities quickly found a foster family for Urey and her son to stay with in Rancho Santa Fe.

“I didn’t know there were organizations like Catholic Charities in existence,” Urey said. “They went above and beyond. Who would you even call in that situation otherwise?”

In the middle of the pandemic, the foster family welcomed Urey and her son with open arms. They ate dinner together most nights, including on Thanksgiving, and the two-week stay allowed Urey to heal enough to be able to drive. The looming downside, however, was that she would return to homelessness.

After her foster stay ended, the family needed the room for their niece who had also just had a baby by cesarean and needed to recover. Circumstances had changed and going to stay with her family in Northern California was no longer an option. Urey found herself at an emergency overnight shelter, unfortunately, Catholic Charities programs do not have shelters for families in San Diego and Imperial Valley was too far to go with weekly doctor appointments for both her and her son. She says she was not fearful in either shelter, but always on her toes.

“It’s protocol not to be comfortable,” Urey said. “Even more so with a baby. I just tried to keep to myself and keep my son safe.”

For the few hours when she would sleep, Urey kept her valuables in a fanny pack secured to her waist, while holding her son.

When Urey was contacted by the team to share her story, she was sitting in her car with a 3-week-old baby. This put the team in overdrive, Urey was not complaining but, our team member on the other end of the line was reeling.

Determined to try and figure out a better solution for her that leaving the shelter at 6:30am not able to return until 5:30pm.

The staff at Rachel’s arranged a second respite for Urey, this time a hotel room, before securing a bed for her at a transitional living center. Urey knows it will not be easy to regain stability, but she is ready for the road ahead. She hopes to eventually go back to school to study psychology. For Urey, managing this trying time is a delicate balance of realism and optimism. Her outlook is one we can all stand by.

“You just deal with things as they come,” Urey said. “Try to stay positive. Everything is temporary.”

As 2020 comes to an end I am hopeful, blessed and very proud of the team I work with here at Catholic Charities. I have always called us a “team” here, and everyone has their role to play on this team. It continues to amaze me as I watch programs working together, helping each other to do their best for all our clients. Our organization is run in a heart-mind combination environment – the heart where the agency’s mission and values lies drives us, and it constantly checks in with the mind where our business needs reside to ensure we have all the required resources before moving forward. Looking back on this year and the stories, the amazing stories of what our clients have faced and overcome, what our team has done, staying present and open to help during this pandemic I know that we will persevere. Succeed in feeding the hungry, helping our clients, working together to help each other, and working towards a better world to live in.

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