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Respuestas 2021: Community-Based Organizations Are More Important Than Ever. Do You Know Yours?

Despite limited capacity, local CBOs know their communities well and play a key role in connecting immigrant families with much-needed assistance in the wake of COVID-19.

By Sarah Cartagena, Senior Policy Analyst; and Louisa Silverman, Immigration & Housing Intern

Para leer este artículo de La Raza en español, haga clic aquí.

Latino immigrant families have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, and small community-based organizations (CBOs) have been key players in connecting these families with COVID-19 assistance. They have been helping families find food pantries, employment, and rental assistance, among other essential services during these difficult times. 

“We weren’t all born with this knowledge,” said one participant in a community discussion conducted by the Latino Policy Forum. “This is why these [community-based] organizations are so important.”

Many CBOs are the sole providers of a variety of services for their communities. Several community members in and around Lake and McHenry counties, for example, reported seeking out services and assistance programs exclusively from Mano a Mano Family Resource Center because they knew and trusted the organization. 

They also assist families throughout the laborious application processes. According to another participant in the discussion, “we were lucky to have TCEP [Telpochcalli Community Education Project], MLEA [Mujeres Latinas En Acción], and other organizations that let us know of assistance and helped us apply.”

As another participant reflected about MLEA, “I see myself in the organization. It has been hard to come to a new country, but participating in the organization has been helpful.” This participant was in danger of losing their small business of many years when MLEA connected them with financial assistance. 

The same participant also shared that MLEA provided critical emotional support because, as they said, “it’s scary to go through this pandemic as a business owner.” Fear, depression, and isolation have loomed large throughout the pandemic for many families, and CBOs have been doing their best to mitigate the emotional, financial, and social stressors impacting their communities. 

However, not all community members are fortunate enough to have relationships with their local CBO, due to  these organizations’ limited capacity and limited funding.

Understaffed and overworked, community service providers have seen their workloads double–if not triple–with the impact of the pandemic. For individuals waiting to hear if they will be able to pay rent this month or put food on the table, increasingly long wait times and limited application tracking abilities is a huge source of stress. Some families even reported losing their homes in the time it took for their rental assistance applications to be processed.

Such limited resources mean that not all those in need of assistance can get it. Some eligible families even reported refraining from applying because they knew resources were limited and did not want to take assistance from others who may need it more. The funding is so limited that some families who receive assistance are told not to share the information with others, and the windows of availability for these assistance programs are often quite short.

Still, local CBOs are trusted members of their community, and these organizations are deeply embedded in and connected with the experiences of their communities. They understand how some assistance programs are out of touch with the communities they are meant to reach. Some community service providers, such as Maria Gonzalez with the Spanish Community Center, have been working with funders to negotiate flexibility in eligibility requirements and disbursement strategies that align better with immigrant families’ situations. 

Many funders are not familiar with the lived experiences of the communities they serve, which is why Gonzalez advocates for funders to participate in Q&A forums with CBO advisory groups throughout the process of developing and implementing assistance programs. “Communication is key between the service-providing agency and the funders,” she advised. CBOs should be used as a resource for funders in developing culturally appropriate assistance programs and eligibility requirements, especially in immigrant communities. 

Community service providers are past capacity, and at this crucial moment for so many families in vulnerable positions, CBOs are more important than ever. Small CBOs can fill in the gaps where larger assistance agencies cannot tailor their programs so specifically to community needs. 

Just like the families, small CBOs are struggling to receive funding, according to Maria Velazquez, Executive Director of TCEP. Only one foundation provides them with general operating funds for implementation to meet the specific needs of their communities. Increased funding needs to be allocated to CBOs to hire more staff, reduce application processing times, improve tracking abilities and transparency with applicants, and support community advocacy.



The Latino Policy Forum thanks its partners who helped lead these community discussions and provided such valuable information: Centro de Informacion, Family-Focus Nuestra Familia Cicero, Harris Community Action, Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, Spanish Community Center, and Telpochcalli Community Education Project.

“Respuestas 2021” is a series of weekly articles for La Raza about the needs of the Latino and immigrant community arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, based on community discussions conducted by the Latino Policy Forum. The next topic will be on how COVID assistance outreach can better reach immigrant communities.