The Pandemic Took His Job, But His Neighbors Gave Him Hope

Victor Moreno, 55, stands in a socially distanced line to receive food at Street Level Health Project in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood on Sept. 1, 2020. 'If I was insecure or a little shocked in the morning, I'm not anymore,' Moreno said. 'They put a smile on my face and food in my belly.' (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Victor Moreno strapped on his backpack and walked half a mile from his apartment to a food pantry in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.

The weekly trek to pick up fresh produce and prepared meals has become part of Moreno’s routine in recent months. The 55-year-old, who proudly describes himself as a hardworking man, said he hasn’t been able to find a steady job since March.

“At the beginning, it wasn't so easy for me to stand in line to get food because I was able to provide for myself in the past,” said Moreno, who shares a studio apartment with a roommate. “But now, that’s the only way that we can stretch the money, pay the rent and eat.”

Moreno used to bake pastries and prepare organic salads at a restaurant frequented by tech employees working in offices in downtown San Francisco. But after shelter-in-place orders were issued, most of those office workers stayed home and the restaurant abruptly closed.

Moreno said his last paycheck went to cover rent. He had hardly any savings.

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“I ended up with probably less than $20 in my pocket,” said Moreno, an immigrant from Mexico who has worked in the U.S. for nearly two decades. “I started thinking, how am I going to survive next month?”

The restaurant industry has suffered greatly during the pandemic. Between February and July, the state lost nearly 350,000 food service jobs, about a quarter of the positions in the industry, according to the most recent estimates by the California Employment Development Department.

Advocates and industry insiders believe job losses may be much higher, in part because many workers are undocumented and are paid off the books. The California Restaurant Association, for instance, estimates that up to 1 million workers have been furloughed or laid off since March.

In some California counties with lower risk for COVID-19, restaurants may now reopen for limited indoor dining, after an announcement by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month. As of Tuesday, restaurants in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Napa counties could open indoors for up to 25% of their capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer.

But restaurants in the rest of the Bay Area and most of the state must continue surviving on takeout, delivery and outdoor dining for those establishments that can manage it.

When scarce restaurant jobs are posted, competition can be fierce. One manager in San Francisco reported that more than 100 applicants replied within hours for a newly advertised server position, said Amy Cleary, a spokeswoman with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

Victor Moreno said he has applied for more than 10 openings in restaurant kitchens and delis since being laid off. Some employers told him dozens of people applied for the same positions.

“You have the hope that everything is going to be OK. But now, after seven months, we are running out of money, we are running out of food, we are running out of patience,” Moreno said. “It's just terrible.”

Shirley Pablo Perez helps Victor Moreno check in at a food pantry that Street Level Health Project opened up during the pandemic in Oakland. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Maria Moreno, a community organizer for Restaurant Opportunities Center of the Bay Area (who’s no relation to Victor Moreno), said unemployment remains severe since restaurants that have reopened or stayed open are not operating at full capacity.

“Tons of people who were laid off don’t have a big pool of employment to tap into,” she said. “We’ve had some of our workers apply to other industries like construction ... but a lot of them have been unemployed for months on end, with not a lot of choices for jobs.”

As an asylee who has received work authorization, Victor Moreno is eligible for unemployment insurance. But he has not applied because he fears the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule could hurt his ability to become a permanent resident.

The rule, which was finalized earlier this year, penalizes green card applicants if they use certain public benefits. But it wouldn’t affect Moreno as asylees are exempt and unemployment insurance is not considered, because workers pay into it from their paychecks. The rule is currently being challenged in the courts.

To earn his share of the $1,000 rent he splits with his roommate, Moreno said he has found occasional odd jobs. He even spent a couple of days traveling 60 miles by bus each way to Napa to fertilize and irrigate vineyards.

But without a stable job, he worries constantly about paying the rent, especially as his roommate is moving away soon, he said. Moreno is one of about a third of California renters — nearly 4 million adults — who report low or no confidence they will make next month’s rent, according to a household survey on the pandemic’s impact by the U.S. Census Bureau.

A woman looks through a box of fresh produce and groceries at a food pantry that opened up during the pandemic in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

In the midst of this crisis, Moreno has found unexpected support from people in his neighborhood, a place where many struggle financially and which has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in Alameda County.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Moreno is well known at local nonprofits for donating his time and effort over the years, said Gabriela Galicia, executive director at Street Level Health Project.

“I think he has provided a lot to the community,” said Galicia, who first met Moreno when he volunteered his restaurant skills to cook nutritious lunches for day laborers and others who sought services from the organization.

“He's always been socially justice oriented. And I feel like that also just comes from his own experiences as an immigrant,” Galicia added. “Victor knows how to talk to community members in a way where they feel heard and understood.”

Street Level Health Project now offers the weekly food pantry that Moreno has relied on since April.

Victor Moreno holds up prepared meals he received at a food pantry. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Moreno has also received help from a friend he met while volunteering at Peralta Hacienda, a nearby historical park and museum. He used to prepare meals for fundraisers and community events at Peralta, said Shadé Cortez, a staffer there at the time.

“We became really good friends,” said Cortez, 27, who now does administrative work for an artisanal bread shop in Oakland. “He’s a person that I really trust and I’m really thankful for his friendship.”

When they heard Moreno was struggling financially, Cortez and her mother decided to drop several bags of groceries by his door. The pair also tucked $100 in a carton of eggs, so Moreno would find the money only after they had left.

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“I knew that if I gave him the money in his hand, he wouldn't take it. So my mom and I came up with the idea of hiding it in the groceries,” Cortez said. “If we can come together as a community and help one another, then I think we can make things at least a little better.”

Moreno said Cortez has repeated the generous gesture at least four more times in the past months. His eyes teared up as he spoke about his friend’s kindness, which he compared to a flickering light in the darkness.

“My faith in humanity was renewed,” said Moreno, his voice trembling. “I’ve never had anybody bring me food to my house.”