Gladys Vega Interview - Full Transcript

March 2021

May 4, 2021

A number of funders and community leaders are focused on a just and equitable recovery, in keeping with President Biden’s “build back better” initiative. What do you think a just and equitable recovery looks like? Do you think this is a point in time when we really do have that opportunity?

When I think about the pandemic and when I think about an equitable recovery, it’s hard to put my hands around it, because all I do—read, walk, think about—are the people that I’m not able to serve, the people we are leaving behind, the people who are forced to move out of their houses because they are evicted and can’t get into their apartments to get their possessions because the locks have been changed. I place them in a hotel and then I go on to look for a room, so that they can share a room with two other families in an apartment that doesn’t belong to the master tenant, knowing that a landlord might find out that those people are there and they all get removed or evicted all at once.

An equitable recovery doesn’t seem to be anywhere near what it means to provide people with just housing. The access to housing is not a privilege. Housing to me is a human right that is so far behind where we are. I think of young people who have given up their own room—and moved in with their older sister and mother-in-law—because the mother has said she needs to rent their room to pay the bills. So, can you imagine: You’re separating families in a pandemic era when resources are very, very limited, where access to the internet, or hot spots, may work or may not work—at the same time that young people need to be taught at home, with very limited space for a quiet time.

You think about the work that we’ve been doing in Chelsea. People feel that we are doing an amazing job, but at times I feel that I set people up to fail because placing people with someone else is contributing to the expansion of the pandemic because they have to share a room and share the same bathroom. And I feel that I’m not being very supportive of that young person that needs to be focused on their classroom time. Or the autistic child that can’t even log into a computer because she doesn’t know how to read or write in her own language. 

We try to launch an upscale program in response to the pandemic to help save their lives, but at the same time, we have very limited resources. I don’t foresee a recovery plan within a year; maybe I could imagine seeing the light at the end of the tunnel three years from now, but not any time soon.

We have tried to do whatever it takes to raise our community up from the ground, but I also have to say that it’s picking them up from a community that has been totally neglected and that was before the pandemic. That is why our situation is worse than ever for every individual and family in this community. We have people who come to us in waves of 20 at a time who have lost everything. You have to understand that when you kick someone out of an apartment because they owe you rent, the landlord or the master tenant might hold your belongings until you pay the past rent. So, they don’t give you your clothes back or your mattress… So, at times, we have to call the police department and get a police detail to go with our team. As soon as we close the food pantry, our team will get in their cars and within 20 minutes, we have to move all of their belongings with that police officer. People want to get paid their rent and if they feel the tenant hasn’t paid the $6,000 she owes, they think have a right to hold onto their things, but it’s against the law. We have to say to the landlords, kicking her out of her apartment was your right, but keeping her clothes and other belongings is her right. 

We have dealt with so many crises; taking people who are sleeping on a couch and placing people in hotels with some cash assistance. But this is not sustainable. I think that having a job and housing is not a reality for years to come. 

La Colaborativa began this food pantry in March of 2020, starting from the backyard of my house… We then began to do it in a more organized way in buildings, but our food pantry was also a way to keep people informed about what is happening in our community and to try to save our community members from the spread of the pandemic, from being homeless, from being in situations of domestic violence. I have female staff tell me, “I’m in a hard situation with my partner, but I can’t leave him because he’s the only one working and I have a part-time job here.” 

That is the reality and you can multiply those stories by the thousands. The census in Chelsea has always been an undercount because people are afraid of sharing information with the federal government. The year 2020 was the worst year for the census to happen because so many people are afraid of who was in the White House and his stance on immigration. I know that we were not able to count everyone and especially in a pandemic year. Based on the census numbers, I would say that out of the 60,000 people who live in our community, 20,000 are completely poor, with no income or a small income through random jobs, like 10 hours this week or 20 hours next week and no job the next week. 

I am appalled that we still have people knocking on the door, after we have run out of food. In the height of the pandemic, we were feeding 11,000 households on a weekly basis with meals, meat and fresh produce. We had to pull our staff from their offices, when they were doing case-management work or staff meetings, because we have a line of people waiting for food or looking for donations of used clothing. 

The rollout of the vaccination program was not equitable. It was completely wrong. Equitable would have been acknowledging that Chelsea, Massachusetts was Ground Zero for the pandemic. We should have vaccinated everyone in our community. They did it in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Why weren’t we able to do it?
With the diversity and the levels of poverty we have in Chelsea, why weren’t we a priority? Why weren’t people of color a priority? And these aren’t just people of color; these are people who have hit rock bottom. 
It has been a very sentimental week because it marked a year of closing down. And then there is the generosity I see. One woman said, “I’ve been coming here every week. Can I volunteer so that I earn the food that I’m taking home?” I thought that was a beautiful gesture. 
When we got donations from the amazing people in this Commonwealth, we were able to tell people we will give you a job, we’ll give you a stipend. Join our team, because you’re already doing this as a volunteer. 

Yesterday I was thinking about a young man who was standing in the rain waiting for food. The supplies promised to our food pantry had not arrived, but people continued to wait and were getting drenched. We told everyone to give us their addresses and promised to deliver food by 11 p.m. that evening. One young man continued to stay. He said he didn’t have money for a bus back to East Boston and he was responsible for providing food for his mom and his sisters. He said, ‘Please don’t send me home empty-handed.’ I have hundreds of heartbreaking anecdotes like that—about people who have hit rock bottom.”I tell you: those kinds of conversations are so ongoing. I probably have 50 anecdotes of people that hit bottom and we were able to lift them up and we continue to be their support system—hundreds and hundreds of people. 

I feel guilty that I have to put people in housing conditions that are not ideal. We know that, in order for this pandemic to end, people need to be isolated. You shouldn’t have 15 people in a two-bedroom apartment.

Are some of the collaborations with community people encouraging to you? People volunteering to help in exchange for food… Do you think that this could be a model for the future?

We have people here who bring me donations. Yesterday, a woman who works cleaning offices, came to ask for clothes, and she brought with her things that didn’t fit her daughter anymore. That gesture, collecting the few things she had and bringing them here so that other people can benefit was such a blessing. And I think that also speaks to the resiliency of our people. With all of the bad things that have happened in the city of Chelsea, the best thing for me was that in the worst of circumstances, people would want to help. The best thing is the response of strangers that came and supported our movement. They didn’t think about the fact that they were feeding undocumented immigrants. They were just being human beings. 

I never thought I would live to see that kind of generosity—that desire to heal other people. In this pandemic, that was my only light. What I have missed the most during this pandemic is the lack of ability to be able to save people’s lives. Neighbors. Family members when we couldn’t be with them. 

When you think about priorities, going forward, would housing be at the top of the list? 

Yes, sustainable housing where people have access to a kitchen so they can have their own meals cooked by themselves. It’s key to figure out how we are going to sustain our community in terms of housing, how we are going to put cash in their pockets so that they can begin to transition out of the poverty they are living in. 

We would never survive another pandemic or a disaster like the one we are surviving now. I feel at times that I can barely stand to do the work that we are doing, like I’m hanging on by my fingernails. It’s hard. And then I have to put this face of hope on and be there for our community. I am their leader. I have to be strong with them. I cry with you because I can’t cry in my community. I have to be that strong woman that everybody thinks can handle everything. 

But God doesn’t give you anything that you are not able to handle and it’s the people in the community that give me hope. I get out of bed in the morning because people line up at 7:30 in the morning looking for food and clothing. One man, Mauricio, lost his house and the landlord would not give him his items. When we went, she told the police officer that she had thrown it all out. So we put him in a hotel. He only had a bag with an extra pair of pants and he was sleeping in the hallways of buildings that he used to clean when he had a job. A pastor sent him here, and he said, “I don’t have a place to sleep and I haven’t taken a shower in three days.” 

The staff of La Colaborativa wrote about Mauricio in a story called, “From Homeless to Employed, A Story About Resilience and Determination in the Face of adversity,” repeated below:

From sleeping on hallways to becoming fully employed and housed, this is the story of the resilience displayed by members of the community that are up against all odds. Mauricio Pinedas came into La Colaborativa looking for transportation assistance to get him to a job opportunity that was outside of Chelsea. After paying for his transportation, our housing team noticed he left behind a small bag of personal belongings. Mauricio was homeless and sleeping in random hallways and basements around Chelsea. His sobriety was being challenged by his homelessness status but he never gave into the challenges faced. He was desperate to find employment but was stuck in a loop of instability, unemployment, and homelessness. Immediately, our housing team met with him and established a plan to get him employed and into a safe housing environment. 

 After months of sleeping on hallways, Mauricio got his own room and just entered his second week of employment. To continue working toward a brighter future, Mauricio enrolled in English and Citizenship classes at La Colaborativa. He continues working on his sobriety by attending a local church and being engaged there in his free time. We celebrate hardworking families and individuals like Mauricio. It is through his resilience, dedication and hard work that Mauricio was able to climb out of a hard life situation and rise to be better for himself and for his family.

 Unfortunately there are many stories like Mauricio’s. A Community Impact Survey found that 83 percent of families in Chelsea were impacted by job/income loss that affected their ability to afford necessities such as rent and food. Homelessness and overcrowded housing are public health concerns that many families are currently facing, on top of being unemployed and experiencing food insecurity during a global pandemic. 

 We believe in our community's ability to change their lives and believe in helping them—no strings attached and no hoops to jump through. La Colaborativa finds local and holistic wraparound solutions for anyone facing hardship and looking for help. To achieve this, we are calling and advocating for: Affordable Housing and Rent Control.

The edited version of this interview appears in the Spring 2021 TBF News in a story about local leaders stepping up during the pandemic.