“Everything is different,” says Melissa Sanzaro, Providence Housing Authority Executive Director, who has a special passion for the intersection of health and housing. She reiterates, “We are tiptoeing back as safely as we can, but things will not and cannot be the same. This pandemic has forever changed how we see our role in the community and how we keep our communities safe.”
PHA Issues Phase 3 Emergency Operations Update to Residents and the Community
The Providence Housing Authority released its latest set of updates for the community on its COVID-19 response with its Phase 3 plans. While PHA has had significant ongoing communication with its public housing residents and Section 8 participants during the COVID-19 crisis, it also wants to ensure that the broader community that visits PHA developments or otherwise engages with the PHA are aware of the ongoing restrictions and changes.
LIMITS ON VISITORS
The PHA is continuing to limit visits at its high-rise properties to essential purposes only, including delivery of food or medicine, performance of home-based medical services, and wellness checks. All visitors must wear a mask anytime they are at a PHA development, and residents must wear masks when in public and shared spaces of the developments. Cloth masks were provided to all high-rise residents earlier in the pandemic and family developments have recently been mailed packets of cloth masks as part of our Phase 3 Operations Plan, and thanks to partnerships with the Central Providence and West Elmwood Health Equity Zones. Physical distancing and mask wearing restrictions also apply to visitors at our Family Development buildings as well, especially those that have joint stairwells and entryways.
No group gatherings are allowed at high rise buildings, and family development residents are reminded of the state’s limitations on any social gatherings of more than 15 people.
PHA limitations on visitors also apply to vendors and partner agencies. Julie Piccolo, Director of Resident Services, stressed “We are asking that all partners wishing to deliver products or provide services on site, particularly at our high rises, contact us ahead of time to plan for safe distribution and visits to our properties. This includes taking temperatures, certifying health, wear masks and other preventative measures to maintain the health and safety of our most vulnerable residents.” The agency is working with partners such as Family Services and the US Census Bureau to determine the best and safest means of reaching residents. Partners can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
MOST BUSINESS BEING CONDUCTED VIRTUALLY
The PHA’s Maintenance and Security teams remained onsite monitoring our developments throughout the pandemic. In addition to in-house services, the PHA has made investments in vendors, who have been contracted to provide additional security and disinfecting services since March. High-touch common areas at our high rises continue to be disinfected twice daily, seven days a week to protect the PHA’s most vulnerable.
The PHA Maintenance team continues to assess and prioritize all work orders, focusing on emergency work and health and safety requests, as well as exterior grounds work. Residents are encouraged to continue calling in work orders, so the PHA can best address resident non-emergency facility needs once it is safe to do so.
Aside from the Facilities and Security teams, many other PHA departments have returned to work on site, as space safely allows and based on operational need. Despite a return to work on PHA property, all appointments – and related services (other than maintenance) – are being provided through telephone and online communications. Property management offices are not open to residents, though all staff are available during normal business hours.
“It is very challenging and disheartening for the PHA management staff, as we have had to take a step back from a very strong, long-standing connection to our residents but this pandemic is real,” states Michelle Rocchio, Director of Property Management. “The PHA team is working very hard to make adjustments that will allow us to continue serving our residents and connecting with them while working to keep everyone safe.”
The team has started testing the feasibility and measuring success of “pop-up” outdoor office hours for those who need assistance, utilizing similar safety protocols to the emergency food distribution. Drop boxes and drop slots remain outside of offices for residents to leave rent payments and paperwork as needed, as they are practicing social distancing and stringent health and safety protocols to keep everyone safe. If residents would like to meet with Management staff, they should call their office to set up an appointment for the next “pop up” event at their building.
The PHA Board of Commissioners and its subcommittees also continue to meet virtually. Meeting information is posted monthly on the PHA’s website (www.ProvHousing.org) and the RI Secretary of State’s site.
EMPLOYEE SAFETY PROTOCOLS
All employees working on site must take their temperatures when arriving to work each day and certify that they do not have symptoms or recent known exposure to a COVID-19 positive individual. Vendors are being kept off site whenever possible, and those who must work on site are required to follow similar protocols. Policies such as conference and vacation requests have been modified to address travel to high risk areas and quarantine upon return if required by the State of Rhode Island. Office spaces have been moved or reconfigured to provide staff with safer workspaces that meet social distancing protocols. Masks are required and work areas are being disinfected more frequently.
The Human Resources team is also monitoring trends and community environments closely so that the Agency can respond nimbly to changes – specifically, looking at things like infection rates and also school reopening plans. To address individual employee needs more holistically, the agency implemented a new Employee Assistance Program whom staff members can contact to get information on a variety of needs from stress reduction to credit counseling free of charge.
As mentioned previously, the PHA Facilities Management team has returned to full-time on-site employment in recent weeks. Their focus is on exterior work and vacant units wherever possible though they remain responsive to emergency health and safety issues within tenant units.
Major facility improvements by outside vendors are slowly being allowed to resume as well including elevator renovations at Kilmartin Plaza. Nearly completed sprinkler system upgrades at Hartford Park Tower will resume over the next month or so, and planned sprinkler upgrade projects will also begin at Carroll Tower, Parenti Villa, and Dexter Manor, as well as elevator modernization projects at Dexter Manor and Hartford Park Tower. Vendors must follow strict safety protocols when on-site including taking temperatures and certification they are not sick or nor have they been exposed to a COVID positive person prior to entering buildings.
Outside, the PHA continues to prohibit use of playground equipment at its developments, even postponing the unveiling of a new tot lot at Hartford Park, due to the difficulty in disinfecting the equipment regularly enough to maintain safety. The Agency has however re-opened most basketball courts.
Several other exciting outdoor projects are slated to begin during Phase III including new siding on several Hartford Park and scattered site units, the start of construction on a new bike and walking path at Manton Heights that would connect the development to the Woonasquatucket Greenway, a mural at Hartford Park designed with community input by a local artist-in-residence through an award from the City’s Arts, Culture and Tourism department, and a new basketball court next to Codding Court installed by the City of Providence.
SERVICES FOR RESIDENTS
Protocols have been developed to conduct regular wellness checks on all residents and participants via phone and mail and communication now includes mass texting, emails, robocalls and regular monthly mailings with important updates and information. The PHA’s COVID Hotline is also in place for residents/participants to self-report COVID diagnosises and be connected to services and supports as needed. We have been connecting in new and different ways and this is allowing us to deepen our connections to those we serve.
In addition, PHA is now in its sixth month of delivering shelf-stable boxes of food to residents in all of its elderly/disabled high rise buildings, thanks to funding from the RI Foundation and United Way COVID-19 Fund and the City of Providence’s Community Development Block Grant program. The once monthly boxes are delivered outside using a safe delivery protocol established by the organization early in the pandemic. To date, over 3,000 boxes of food have been delivered using this system with partners such as Family Service of RI also providing items such as the Be Safe boxes of household supplies during these distribution events as well. The Agency hopes to continue delivering food and critical supplies to its elderly and disabled residents for as long as possible to help our most vulnerable.
Perhaps most critical to assisting our most vulnerable populations is the PHA’s on-site COVID testing at all high-rise buildings. From May to late August, the PHA successfully arranged on-site COVID-19 testing sites at seven locations. More than 780 residents have been tested outside of elderly/disabled developments, with testing at one site conducted by the RI National Guard and the other five by the Lifespan Community Health Institute. PHA provided other partners with training and assistance using its testing model and connected partners to the Lifespan Community Health Institute to conduct their own testing so that they can continue multiplying assistance and prevention efforts beyond its public housing developments.
The PHA continues offering many resident services virtually. From home buyer education and recovery support groups offered via Zoom, to one-on-one meetings conducted via phone and email, our Resident Service department continues to maintain a high-quality approach to serving the community. Our summer programming through the One Providence Youth Internship program may have looked different this year, in that the training was provided virtually, but 15 youth successfully completed the program. At least three have already found employment and all remain in contact with the PHA team to continue career coaching and development with our programs.
WHAT IS NEXT?
Finally, the PHA will continue its on-site COVID-testing and emergency food program for its most vulnerable households. It is currently looking into resources and partners that would allow for additional on-site testing – including at its family developments and possibly second rounds of testing at its high rises. The agency believes that knowing if you carry the illness is one of the ways it can target interventions to prevent the spread of the virus, connecting those diagnosed with resources and support during quarantine and recovery.
Another avenue the agency is looking into is how to continue serving youth living within its housing. For over 14 years, the agency has run a Youth and Police Initiative and in recent years began offering youth employment opportunities through the City’s summer programs. The pandemic highlighted the opportunity for our agency to provide additional supports to families with children and the agency is researching options to bring these resources into the community. We remain proud of our existing partnerships with organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, Children’s Friend, and others who bring youth programs on site and look forward to expanding those partnerships into the future as we plan for safe reopening of those spaces.
The pandemic has highlighted the deep digital divide and inequities facing low income households across the country and especially to those we serve. The PHA has set an ambitious goal to connect all of its residents to low-cost high-speed internet access within the next 5 years and continues to assist residents in accessing the technology needed to connect. Whether using these new connections for telehealth, homework, job searches, or just to connect with family and friends, the PHA is committed to closing that digital divide.
When ED Melissa Sanzaro is asked about the Phase III Operation Plan and what is next for the organization as the pandemic continues, she replies, “We’ve had low positive rates in most of our testing and there is something to be said about that. While we are being very cautious in our approach to re-opening and with limitations at our sites, our team has worked very hard in the past five months to make sure we were best-in-class leaders as a landlord and a public housing agency, and I have no doubt they will continue to do so going forward.”
“We’ve had low positive rates in most of our testing and there is something to be said about that. While we are being very cautious in our approach to re-opening and with limitations at our sites, our team has worked very hard in the past five months to make sure we were best-in-class leaders as a landlord and a public housing agency, and I have no doubt they will continue to do so going forward.”
Media Inquiries on Phase 3 of our COVID-19 Special Operations Plan
Contact: Peter Asen, 401-709-1102 (o) 401-516-0651 (c) or email@example.com
About the Providence Housing Authority
Founded in 1939, the PHA develops and maintains decent, safe and sanitary housing and addresses the economic and social needs of its residents. They operate 2,606 public housing units in Providence and administer more than 2,600 units of Section 8 rental assistance, that allow low-income families to rent in the private market or project-based units throughout Providence. In total, the PHA serves of 12,000 Rhode Islanders with housing and social services.