Coronavirus hotspots: San Jose neighborhood unites in response
Patricia Casteillo visits Amigos de Guadalupe, which helped her family relocate after job losses due to the pandemic. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Coronavirus hotspots: Top 3 areas hardest hit in Santa Clara County, Part 3

Patricia Casteillo and her husband both lost their jobs because of COVID-19, pushing her into a state of depression.

She says she found hope at nonprofit Amigos de Guadalupe which, among other things, paid the deposit and first month’s rent so her family could relocate. Casteillo said the help she received “saved them.”

But it also placed them in a coronavirus hotspot: Their new East San Jose home is in ZIP code 95116, which had the third highest per capita cases of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County for several months.

According to county data, there were 1,562 cases of COVID-19 in 95116 as of Oct. 21. With a population of 56,481, that’s a rate of 2,766 cases for every 100,000 people.

Although case numbers in this ZIP code continue to climb —  1,742 as of Nov. 10 — the neighborhood recently slipped behind 95110. That ZIP code, which straddles Highway 87 and the Guadalupe River, has 631 cases. With a population of 20,203, the case count equals a rate of 3,123 per 100,000 residents.

ZIP code 95122 in East San Jose is No. 1 with the highest coronavirus case rate, and 95113, which encompasses downtown, is No. 2.

All four areas have higher-than-average number of cases per 100,000 people in California as a whole, or about 2,470, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The 95116 ZIP code includes the Si Se Puede! Collective, which brought COVID-19 testing to the area. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

“Those are the places at highest risk,” said Dr. Sarah Rudman, assistant health officer with Santa Clara County, “and continue to need focused efforts and resources because they’re likely to continue to be a hotspot if we’re not focusing on our most vulnerable residents.”

Despite 95116’s ranking, or perhaps because of it, the move couldn’t have been better for Casteillo and her family. The East San Jose neighborhood  has become an example of how a community can band together in crisis.

In the midst of the pandemic, which has devastated East San Jose, the Si Se Puede! Collective has mobilized.

The collective, focused in East San Jose, includes the Amigos de Guadalupe: Center for Justice and Empowerment, Grail Family Services, School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, SOMOS Mayfair and Veggielution.

“We’ve made our communities better and stronger for the work we’re doing collaboratively,” said Maritza Maldonado, executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe.

The support provided to low-income and immigrant families residing in the 95116 ZIP code has been an essential lifeline, especially during the pandemic, residents say.

The collective launched a COVID-19 public health campaign to educate residents about safety precautions. It also successfully advocated for a local COVID-19 testing site at the School of Arts and Culture and opened a food bank there.

A sign at the Mexican Heritage Plaza on Alum Rock Ave. recommends COVID-19 testing. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Nain Lopez Mota, a SOMOS leader, said paying rent while out of work is a recurring concern for community members. Mota said she felt lost before she came across SOMOS.

At the start of the pandemic, when her husband lost both of his restaurant jobs, her family turned to food banks and food distribution sites.

“SOMOS helps people connect to resources if they can’t provide them themselves,” Mota said.

Through SOMOS, Mota said residents found support and learned new skills, including how to turn on a computer.“This reflects the struggles of being part of this community,” Mota said. “I’m hopeful now parents can feel capable.”

Angie Lopez, a leadership development coordinator at SOMOS, said East San Jose neighborhoods were already struggling to stay afloat and the pandemic only amplified their disadvantages.

“Given that a great number of them are undocumented, there weren’t necessarily any benefits,” Lopez said. “And the idea of unemployment is nonexistent.”

Lopez said the nonprofit launched Diamantes (which translates from Spanish to diamonds), an online network of small groups to support members during the pandemic. Each group includes a mentor who passes on information.

“If SOMOS sends me information, in five minutes, I can pass it to 200 people,” Lopez said. “Emotional well-being is a huge component, and it might make a difference if someone is checking in on you.”

Through Diamantes, information is shared about job openings, rental assistance, essential items and food drives and COVID-19 safety measures.

When a resident lost her job, a Diamante mentor offered to teach her Excel. Another member received a ride to her dentist appointment. Members even share low-cost recipes.

“The Diamantes have resulted in another level of community,” Lopez said. “We see this as an opportunity to provide leadership development. We’re caring for each other, sharpening our skills, deepening our imaginations and building power throughout this crisis and beyond.”

Maldonado was raised in the 95116 ZIP code and says she is no stranger to the difficulty residents face. She has created her life’s work there and said she “understands deeply the pains of the community.”

“The pandemic has heightened the racial inequities that have plagued East San Jose for generations,” Maldonado said. “It’s poverty. People are service workers. We are your nannies, food preparers, gardeners and bus drivers. This is the consequence of that economy.”

“The pandemic has heightened the racial inequities that have plagued East San Jose for generations,” said Maritza Maldonado, the executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Maldonado said paying rent is a problem for many in the area who are typically paid low wages and live in multi-households.

“People rent out rooms in our neighborhood, their garages, even their floor space to make ends meet,” Maldonado said. “People need a pathway to citizenship. With the pandemic, they don’t qualify for stimulus checks or anything else, exacerbating their poverty.”

Amigos de Guadalupe provides rental assistance through funding from Destination: Home, a nonprofit that addresses homelessness, and Sacred Heart Community Service, which focuses on poverty.

“Our work has been telling people they have the right to stay in their homes with the rent moratorium,” Maldonado said. “They do need to pay 25% of their rent, but if they qualify, we can help.”

Maldonado said since March, the nonprofit was able to give more than $500,000 to those in need. The money was primarily for housing but also for funeral expenses.

“They did not have money to bury their loved ones who died from COVID,” she said.

Maldonado said a man employed for 25 years at a local restaurant stopped working when he tested positive for COVID-19. But after recovering and testing negative, he wasn’t rehired.

A woman whose husband had COVID-19 told Maldonado she couldn’t afford essentials such as soap or toothpaste.

“We live in Silicon Valley, a place with the most millionaires and billionaires in the world,” Maldonado said, “and we can’t figure this out for our most vulnerable. We have moms with babies living in cars who can’t afford to buy formula to feed their children.”

Maldonado said poor communities of color have suffered the most from the pandemic.

“We’re losing brown and Black people,” she said. “One of our leaders said, ‘Sometimes I wonder if people even care? Are we that dispensable that people don’t care if we die?’”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

Mauricio La Plante and Sonya Herrera contributed to this report.

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