Back-to-school shopping season is underway, but the annual ritual can be a challenge for low-income families, especially after the financial hardship brought on by the pandemic. Community Services Agency tried to help fill the gap with a back-to-school giveaway event last weekend.

Hundreds of local families stopped by CSA’s Mountain View headquarters July 24 to pick up backpacks, school supplies and $50 Target gift cards. El Camino Health was also onsite offering vaccines, and a representative from Santa Clara County was on hand to help people sign up for food assistance and other services.

Although the back-to-school event is held annually, this year was different because of the pandemic, said Brandi Jothimani, CSA’s homeless prevention services program director. Rather than requiring pre-registration and limiting the event to existing CSA clients, they decided to open it up to anyone in the county.

“Even if they happened to not be able to pre-register, or even if they weren’t clients, we didn’t turn them away,” Jothimani said. “We knew the need was great and we served them today.”

The backpacks and school supplies were distributed early on in the event, but there were enough gift cards for everyone, Jothimani said, with more than 400 distributed. Families could get a gift card for each school-age child.

Maria Villalba came out to pick up gift cards for her four children and said through a translator that the pandemic has been hard on her and her family. Her husband’s work as a landscaper was disrupted, and four members of her household tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s very difficult because with landscaping, you get your money day-by-day,” Villalba said. “Rents are very high here in Mountain View.”

She worked cleaning offices before the pandemic but has had to stay home helping her children with online school.

According to Jothimani, CSA saw “tremendous need” during the pandemic, with big spikes in the number of families needing rental and utility assistance.

“In the last 15 months, we saw our families with children really struggle the most,” she said.

Even among families who didn’t lose their jobs, Jothimani said she saw a lot of mothers quitting to watch their children while schools were closed. COVID-19 cases also disproportionately impacted low-income residents. CSA launched a COVID response team that delivered food and supplies to people’s homes while they quarantined.

Villalba said she was thankful that CSA delivered food and hygiene supplies when the family got coronavirus, as well as providing rental assistance.

“We are very grateful that CSA was there for us,” Villalba said.

‘Incredible’ need

Even as vaccinations have become widely available and things start to open back up, Jothimani said CSA is still seeing a lot of need in the community. Many of CSA’s clients live paycheck-to-paycheck and, in some cases, owe six to eight months of back rent from the pandemic.

“Even if they did go back to work, they have $15,000 worth of back rent,” Jothimani said. “How do you pay that off when you’re making $16 an hour? The need is incredible and it’s just so heartbreaking.”

Part of the goal of Saturday’s event was to connect attendees to longer-term resources and support.

Staff members took down the information of anyone who wasn’t already a CSA client and will reach out to them to follow up.

A representative from the county was also available to sign eligible individuals up for food, medical and cash assistance.

“It’s really important, because the need is so great right now and I think a lot of our families don’t know of all the benefits that are available to them,” Jothimani said. “We want to really highlight that going forward.”

CSA also offers “intensive case management,” where CSA staff work with a family to review their full situation and make a plan for the future. That can include finding ways to increase income, access more affordable housing and sign up for government benefits.

“We try to look at the broader scope of things, to try to get them connected to … services to stabilize them as much as possible,” Jothimani said.

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Staff Writer

Zoe Morgan covers local schools as the Town Crier's education reporter. She also edits the monthly Your Home section, as well as the biannual Home & Garden magazine.