Neighborhood organizations focus on connection

A Wedge Neighbors flyer at 29th & Aldrich encourages residents to contact neighbors if they need assistance during the pandemic. It's one way the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association is trying to provide services at this time. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

As the reality of the pandemic set in, neighborhood organizations in Southwest Minneapolis started to seek new ways of reaching their residents.

In neighborhoods like Whittier and Lowry Hill East, mutual aid spreadsheets and Facebook groups were established and distributed across the community online, with people able to enter any needs they had or any services or goods they could offer to others.

“This really does justify a lot of the work that we’re here to do,” Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) executive director Paul Shanafelt said.

To help people connect, LHENA put up flyers all over the neighborhood before the statewide stay-in-place order went into effect and is sending out a postcard to every address in The Wedge letting residents know they can contact the organization for help. More than 100 neighborhood residents told LHENA they could help others during the crisis and dozens of people called in to ask for help with errands.

To organize volunteers, LHENA has split the Wedge into seven geographic areas and signed up leaders for those regions. Those leaders have been helping coordinate volunteer efforts and neighbor check-ins in their areas.

“This has really shown the value of neighborhood organizations. This is the type of on-the-ground support that maybe the city and county can’t offer,” Shanafelt said.

Whittier Alliance executive director Kaley Brown said they have seen many requests for help with food insecurity, rental assistance and bills. Many of those issues have been present in the area for years, she said, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

“People are in crisis right now,” Brown said.

Neighborhood organizations like Whittier Alliance generally refer residents to partner organizations or to departments within the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County. But the places they normally send people to are already inundated with those seeking help during the crisis.

Because Whittier has a large immigrant population, they are concerned about neighbors who won’t be receiving stimulus checks or businesses that may not qualify for federal loan programs.

“There’s a lot of community members left out by the system,” Brown said.

When the stay-at-home order began, the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council (LHiNC) worked with the Minneapolis Police Department to contact all the block leaders in the neighborhood, asking them to try to check in with their neighbors to see who might need some assistance, according to executive director Becky Allen.

“Don’t forget your neighbors can help,” Allen said.

During the crisis LHiNC has stopped print publication of its bi-monthly newsletter, but it is continuing to update its residents about local businesses and park news online.

There have been small ways for neighborhood organizations to help. Whittier Alliance has been printing off documents for a handful of residents each day, a helpful service with libraries and offices closed.

“That’s something easy we can provide for people,” Brown said.

Connecting without gathering

For many neighborhood groups in Southwest, the biggest annual task is organizing large gatherings to bring neighbors together. With social distancing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 likely to be in place through the summer months, those groups have had to refocus.

Linden Hills has postponed its annual festival scheduled for June 14.

“Our function as a neighborhood organization is very event heavy,” Allen said. “We had to stop and figure out what we do next.”

To help formulate some social distance-accommodating activities, LHiNC is working with staff from the Linden Hills library on potentially organizing neighborhood scavenger hunts or outdoor or virtual story-time events for kids.

This year marks LHENA’s 50th anniversary and the organization had been looking forward to celebrating that milestone at its annual meeting, Shanafelt said. That meeting is traditionally where new board members are elected, so to ensure business can continue the group is going to remotely appoint two new board members on May 20. Those members will serve for a few months until real elections can be held.

The Wedge is hosting its board and committee meetings via Zoom. On May 1,
the organization is hosting its first remote bingo game to try to establish some connections for neighbors.

“To fulfill our mission, we have to bring people together physically, so we’ve had to adjust,” Shanafelt said.