Public Health

Public defender's office delivers Easter lunches to homeless people amid coronavirus crisis

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Homeless people housed in two Woodland, California, motels during the COVID-19 pandemic were treated to hot Easter lunches, thanks to the Yolo County public defender’s office.

The office packed and delivered more than 50 meals of ham, sausage, macaroni and cheese, scalloped potatoes, rolls and cookies, according to Tracie Olson, the Yolo County public defender. A child living at one of the hotels also received Easter eggs and toys.

“This was really a team effort,” Olson told the ABA Journal in an email. “Attorneys, social workers, paralegals and secretaries purchased items, heated them up at home, and then delivered them to the office. We created an assembly line to pack clam shell boxes with food and then dispatched a smaller group to deliver the meals. We purposely kept numbers low, so that we could abide by social distancing as much as possible, which meant we had to turn volunteers away.”

All the food was pre-cooked and store-bought to minimize the risk of food-borne illness, Olson said.

The homeless people are in the hotels as a result of Project Roomkey, which aims to provide hotel rooms for up to 15,000 homeless people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 in California.

The state was the first to win approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the project, which means that state and county governments will receive up to a 75% federal reimbursement for the rooms.

The Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency is implementing Project Roomkey locally, but it needs additional staffing to carry out its responsibilities, Olson said. County departments and community-based organizations are helping, including the public defender’s office.

Olson’s office acts as a liaison for residents at one of the Woodland motels, addressing needs such as medicine, transportation to appointments, food and clothing.

“We deliver supplies directly to residents to allow them to shelter in place, as the Project Roomkey residents are among the most vulnerable in the county,” Olson says. “We also have staff assigned to make check-in phone calls to motel residents, so that the residents have a designated advocate that will make sure their daily needs are met and to provide a friendly conversation during what can be a very lonely time.”

The lead people on the project are social worker Emily Kochly and paralegal Sara Johnson, both of whom helped Olson provide the answers to the ABA Journal’s questions. Runners and callers are attorneys, investigators, social workers and secretaries.

The Yolo Food Bank provides food boxes to Project Roomkey residents in the county, but it is limited by donations that come in. “We quickly realized during this project that now more than ever, people might appreciate a warm meal,” Olson said.

That led to the idea of Easter meal deliveries. “Everyone who answered the door was very appreciative and particularly thankful for a warm meal,” Olson said.

“The general public expects to see public defenders in court, but most probably don’t understand the full scope of the services we provide,” Olson told the ABA Journal. “The Yolo County public defender’s office practices holistic defense, which means we are committed to addressing our clients’ most pressing legal as well as social support needs. We are better advocates when we understand our community. If there is a need, our goal is to fill it; there is no such thing as ‘that’s not our job.’ It’s what we in the county affectionately refer to as doing things ‘the Yolo way.’”

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