In the early days of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, there were numerous concerns that communal living spaces were not prepared for the dangers to come. But for Federation Housing, which took an early and proactive response to the crisis, it has proven just the opposite.
Federation Housing provides affordable living communities for more than 1,500 older adults (ages 62 and older) at 11 locations throughout Greater Philadelphia. The organization is unique in the extensive support services it provides to residents, including meals, transportation, on-site social workers and a broad array of social, recreational and intergenerational enrichment programs. That also made the response to COVID-19 even more challenging.
“We simply took an immediate and proactive step to curtail all community programs and settings in our building,” explained Eric Naftulin, the executive director and CEO of Federation Housing. “We did not hesitate in taking immediate steps to not allow residents to come together, no matter how difficult that would prove to be. And I think this played a major role in preventing the growth and spread of the virus in our buildings.”
Federation Housing’s quick actions indeed proved effective: At all 11 properties, there have only been three cases of the coronavirus, two of which were a husband and wife. Those affected were immediately transferred to a local hospital, where they are recovering well, and a third-party cleaning company was brought in to sanitize and disinfect all surfaces to keep a lid on the growth.
With all residents confined to their apartments, the centers became a vastly different kind of place for those that live and work there. Every Federation Housing center is usually bursting with activities — from communal congregant meals to programs and exercise classes with Golden Slipper Gems to bingo games and art classes. To ensure his residents had access to food and continued to be connected to their community, Naftulin knew they would need to get creative, and get some help.
The first step was to ensure residents were getting food and meals brought up to their apartments safely and efficiently. For those who shopped for groceries themselves, there was no longer a van service to drive them to the stores. Naftulin and his staff reached out local markets and delivery services, who set up drop off appointments and generously waived delivery fees so residents could still get the groceries they needed.
For those residents who relied on discounted meals, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia stepped up to the plate. Federation Housing receives an annual grant from the Jewish Federation to aid its programming, and in April it was announced that all program grants would be unrestricted so recipients could instead use the funds to help with emergency and operational needs.
This solved a major challenge for Federation Housing.
“Having the grant flexibility allows us to help with our overall operation and alleviate the burdens for our residents,” Naftulin said. “For example, we would normally source meals for our residents from Philabundance and reduce the cost to our residents to $1. We are now using the Jewish Federation grant to waive the cost completely and make it a free meal for anyone who wants or needs one.”
The Jewish Federation also assisted Federation Housing with securing protective gear such as masks and gloves, as well as toilet paper from a generous donation from the Jewish Federation’s Immediate past Board Chair Bud Newman. Naftulin noted that basic supplies were increasingly hard to come by and having access to the necessities was a huge relief for staff and residents.
Other organizations in Federation Housing’s network also stepped up to help. The Jewish Relief Agency manipulated its protocol for delivery from the local food pantry and reduced number of volunteers in the building, but kept the food coming. And Golden Slipper came up with new, creative programs to engage and stimulate Federation Housing residents. Naftulin noted that a weekly art competition had become immensely popular on many floors, giving resident something to look forward to. Golden Slipper is also helping building staff to call every resident daily, extending kindness and friendship for residents who may be lonely or feeling isolated.
The reaction to this response from Federation Housing’s residents and their families was overwhelmingly positive. Appreciation has been shown not just for their quick actions to contain the virus, but also for their steady and open communication about the situation and what they were doing in response.
For Connie Berkowitz, a longtime resident at the Miriam & Robert M. Rieder Apartments in Northeast Philadelphia, she’s deeply grateful to be living there. “They are doing a heck of a job keeping us safe,” she said. “Of course, I’m just sitting in my apartment most of the time, but maintenance and our janitors are working and keeping the building very clean. I have lived here 15 years and I’m very happy here, even though everything is locked down. They’ve done a super job.”
Keeping Federation Housing staffers safe and healthy was another major concern. Because they are an essential business, all staff are working, with some adjusting their hours or shifts to maintain safety. The staff is cleaning daily, distributing food and supporting residents while maintaining social distancing practices. Naftulin considers them frontline heroes. “Our staff seamlessly stepped up to the plate to help those they serve. I could not be more proud and thankful for their service and their dedication to our mission and our residents.”
With constant communication from the Jewish Federation, along with expert guidance from the Philadelphia Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Naftulin said he and his team always know what’s happening and are comfortable with the actions they are taking. He is thankful for the support from the Jewish Federation and all supporting agencies, and from his board.
“Everyone is busy, but all have been incredibly supportive of what we can do to support the residents who feel isolated or scared. They have cleared the way to let us do the work and do it well.”