‘Rug Pulled Out From Under Us’: As County Sends AmeriCorps Members Home, Travel Safety Looms Large
For Alex Davies, a 23-year-old from New Jersey, working for AmeriCorps Cape Cod has given her a sense of purpose.
“We’re here helping out the community,” she said. “We're the people that go out and help with trail maintenance. We clean up stuff. We cut down the trees. … We help when there’s an emergency on the Cape with taking calls and whatnot.”
In exchange for housing, an academic scholarship, and an $8,000 stipend, corps members on Cape Cod have worked full-time for nine months to clean, protect, and preserve the region for the last 21 years. Though most members rely on food stamps to get by, Davies said she’s loved the work.
“We're just about helping where people need help,” she said.
But on a Friday evening in mid-May, this year’s class of 20 corps members received an email from Barnstable County and program supervisors explaining their service year—scheduled to end in late July—would instead end almost two months early, and their housing would be taken away in two weeks’ time.
Even for those with somewhere to go, this has meant booking flights home, or cross-country drives, risking exposure to the virus while travelling. Speaking with WCAI, several AmeriCorps members say being asked to leave the program in the middle of a pandemic has left them anxious and deeply uncertain about how to reach or find safe housing.
“It’s a stressful and terrifying thing. I mean, it's still not a set plan,” Davies said. “I don't really know what I'm doing once I get back to New Jersey and I'm at my friend's house. … Like what could be next? What job [am I] going to get? Where [might that] take me? Where [am I] moving next?”
Davies has been living in one of three houses operated by AmeriCorps since September. In March, she tested positive for COVID-19, and was sick for over a month, while her housemates also showed symptoms of the virus. She has since recovered.
“Having gone through being sick and beddridden for a while in my house, where I’d become comfortable, and now to be asked to leave from my safety, is kind of hard to comprehend,” she said.
Barnstable County administrator Jack Yunits says the decision to close the residences and end the program on May 31st started with fears about the virus infecting the other two houses, as it had in the Pocasset house where Davies lives.
Then, Yunits said, corps members in the Wellfleet house reported feeling mentally exhausted, after months cooped up.
“Out in Wellfleet, we have a really tough situation because we have 10 people living in a very small house,” Yunit said.
At that point, service members were told they could take a COVID-19 test and leave as early as last month if they chose.
Many stayed, so this month, Yunit worked with county health officials to develop the new plan.
“I'm putting myself in the place of our AmeriCorps partners, fathers and mothers. And I'm thinking that they're probably thinking, ‘keep them safe and get them home.’ And maybe I'm just being too paternalistic with this decision,” he said. “But it was recommended to me strongly by my health team and based on that, I feel confident it was the right thing to do.”
While Yunits was thinking about their safety, several service members recall being told by AmeriCorps staff in a March Zoom call that they could remain in the houses through the end of the program, which was slated for late-July.
Now, Yunits said, he understands why some feel they’re being put at risk by having to travel back home, but he’s concerned that those who stay could be endangered by the Cape’s summer visitor population.
“So you weigh everything,” he said. “You weigh the close proximity, potential harm to other members in that small house. You weigh the fact that the tourists are coming. ... And the risk of exposure is going to go up.”
AmeriCorps Cape Cod representatives declined multiple interview requests, but program coordinator Kayla Baier wrote in an email that, “AmeriCorps Cape Cod staff support the difficult decision made by Barnstable County officials.”
She added that the two bodies are working with members to, “ensure a smooth and safe transition out of the program residences.” Yunits emphasized the county will work to support individuals who can’t leave for one reason or another and test each individual for COVID-19 before they leave the residences.
For Kelsey Leahy, a 32-year-old corps member, who’s been serving in Dennis, the news was overwhelming.
“It was a shock,” she said. “It felt like the rug was getting pulled out from under us.”
She says soon, she’ll make the drive back to her dad’s house in Tennessee and try to start on some freelance music gigs.
In an email, AmeriCorps told service members it’s unclear whether they’re eligible for unemployment benefits because they’re not technically employees of AmeriCorps or Barnstable County.
“It's just been a bit of a whirlwind having to wrap my head around the fact that we are in the middle of this pandemic,” Leahy said.
Earlier in May, the Massachusetts congressional delegation announced that it would provide $506,152 for the next of class AmeriCorps members on Cape Cod.
The county expects to welcome them in September.