Facebook group kickstarts a grassroots response to COVID-19 in Allegheny County

(Screen Capture via The Pittsburgh Current)

By Tom Lisi

PITTSBURGH — As local institutions scramble to react to a fast-changing situation regarding the coronavirus, one Facebook group of concerned residents, including plugged-in social service leaders, has quickly emerged as a destination for information and action.

Shanon Williams, a Pittsburgh-based social worker, created the group Allegheny County Resources & Support Amid COVID-19 on Tuesday to bring together involved residents to spur a community response to the pandemic that has already disrupted much of daily life. A day later, the group had 3,000 members.

Leading up to this week, Williams said she was expecting to hear about a call for community action that usually comes amidst a local tragedy.

“Something tragic happens in and around the city, there’s a call to action, someone sends out some massive email for community leaders to get together, plan and strategize.”

That didn’t happen this time, Williams said. So she started an effort herself by organizing a virtual meeting for Sunday at 2 p.m. for volunteers, social service providers and government officials to start a coordinated response to disruptions in services and goods for vulnerable populations.

“Anyone who’s doing things and being proactive” is encouraged to join the meeting, Williams said. “This is the first of many, so we plan to do it as a series” intermittently.

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In the Facebook group, many posters have shared links to information on unemployment benefits, hotlines for assistance programs and neighborhood initiatives to raise money for those in need. But Williams said she hopes the Sunday virtual meeting will get a more coordinated, all-hands-on-deck response for the region that also analyzes what resources are available and how comprehensive they are.

“We don’t actually have a clear view of what’s available,” Williams said. “We may think that we have enough, it could be that the resources just aren’t stretched out long enough, or that people don’t have access to it.”

The group is both an encouraging example of residents rallying together in a crisis and a reminder of all the many logistical challenges that are certain to emerge for vulnerable families across the county and beyond.

Many unanswered questions remain for social service providers, who are worried about their clients and how they will manage amidst the economic disruption.

Tammy Thompson, executive director at Circles Greater Pittsburgh, said she has sent out surveys to clients asking what needs they may have going forward. Circles’ retail incubator in East Liberty is now closed, Thompson said, and many of the emerging small business owners in the retail space are already losing income.

“It feels so early in this thing, that people haven’t quite understood what their needs are going to be and are not really able to anticipate what their needs are going to be,” Thompson said.  “They have access to the grocery store, they have a house full of food, they have what they need right now, but what’s going to happen in the next seven, 10, 15 days?”

It’s also unclear how much capacity various benefit programs and services may have, Williams said. On Wednesday, she said she was unable to reach anyone at Pennsylvania’s Office of Unemployment Compensation to get more information for people who are having trouble filing a claim online.

On Monday, state officials expanded unemployment compensation eligibility to workers who have seen their hours reduced or eliminated temporarily by the coronavirus. Since then, the unemployment office has received 121,000 claims, according to Jahmai Sharp, deputy communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Sharp said the website was running slowly, but the office is still encouraging people to apply online. “It’s going to run a little bit slow, but we are just encouraging people to keep trying.”

Tom Lisi is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.