Is The City’s COVID Helpline Directing Callers to DC Mutual Aid?

Local Volunteer Group Reports Calls Routed to Them From DC Gov. Hotline

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Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks at the Monday, April 13 press conference. Screenshot: DC Granicus

1:08 p.m. April 16: This story has been updated to reflect comments from the Mayor and the Mayor’s Office.

Some callers to the District’s new hotline for District residents afflicted by COVID-19 and in need of essential items are being routed to the DC Mutual Aid Network, the groups organized by community members to support their neighbors through the health crisis, according to the activists.

Launched by Mayor Muriel Bowser on April 13, the COVID-19 Hotline was billed as a way that “residents who are homebound because of COVID-19 can request support from the District.”

On social media, members of the DC Mutual Aid Network reported that Ward organizers were getting calls routed through the Mayor’s hotline. Others who called the line said they were directed to the Capital Food Bank.

Some callers to the hotline were directed to the Office of Aging and Community Living, which rather than providing DC Government aid was referring callers to the Mutual Aid groups.

On social media, organizers were infuriated that the city might have taken these steps.

“That really is a problem if the city is referring callers but not investing resources in the volunteer effort,” one organizer wrote. The city might actually be hampering volunteer efforts by causing the public to assume the government is providing support, she added.

“I was actually happy to see the city was stepping up,” she continued. “It would be good to know if those were outlier incidents or if this is part of the practice.”

City agencies reached out to mutual aid groups prior to the creation of the hotline. Maurice Cook, Executive Director of Serve Your City which is serving as the organizational infrastructure hub for the Ward 6 Mutual Aid Network, said that even prior to the hotline the Ward 6 group had received calls from residents referred from city agencies and representatives, including the Department of Human Services (DHS), the Office of Aging and Community, the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Office of Council Member Charles Allen (D).

“We’re just a group of volunteers,” Cook said in an interview Saturday. “We’re not getting paid to do this. We’re not getting official support to do this from the city, or really from the private side. We are being supported through individual donations and some foundational grants.”

A representative from Allen’s office said they had promoted the Ward 6 Mutual Aid Network together with other organizations, such as the DC Diaper Bank and an effort out of the Table Church, mostly to support and help connect volunteers, rather than as a widespread referral, noting that they hear from many people wanting to how they can help.

A separate organization, was organized through hrough the Table Church DC by Hill Residents Allison McGill and Amber Seyler. That large volunteer corps has also been asked to provide assistance to the Office of Aging and Community Living and other organizations.

McGill said she had reached out to representatives at the Mayor’s office via email after she heard about the hotline to see if they would be getting referrals. She said she was told that the hotline is supported by government employees and they were not using community-led groups.

“We were happy to partner, but wanted to be prepared,” said McGIll, adding that she was not sure if the organization was getting referrals from the hotline, but that they noted a jump in requests Monday. She said she had been told that DC Mutual Aid and Capitol Hill Food Bank have had definite referrals.

“It’s very disappointing,” she said. “Not only does it make it an additional unnecessary phone call for DC residents, it’s incredibly misleading.”

UPDATE: WAMU Reporter Martin Austermuhle asked Bowser if the hotline was referring callers to the Mutual Aid Network at her Thursday, April 16th press conference. “We’ll take them off the list,” Bowser quickly replied to Austermuhle’s request that she respond to concerns expressed by the mutual aid groups that the government is ‘off-loading responsibility’.

“If the community resources don’t or can’t serve them, then we won’t send anybody there.” She said the hotline delievers food and essential items residents quarantined medically or homebound for reasons related to COVID who can obtain these by no other means. Operators have been referring callers that don’t qualify for the aid offered by the hotline to community resources such as the mutual aid network, she added.

A representative for the Mayor’s Office added that in addition to those not directly affected by COVID-19, some callers were unclear on the intended purpose of the hotline. Those callers were being connected with organizations that assist them, she said.

The representative was unable to immediately confirm whether the Mayor’s office had reached out to the organizations or to the Mutual Aid Network before making referrals through the COVID-19 Hotline.

The Mayor had characterized the hotline as a ‘new service’ at her April 13th press conference, where she also announced that an associated web portal was open for residents to request assistance online. The hotline number is 1-888-349-8323. The website for requesting assistance is coronavirus.dc.gov/gethelp. It is not made clear where the online requests were being directed for response, or whether that is within or outside District Government agencies.

The Hill Rag is awaiting comment from the Executive Office of the Mayor. This story will be updated.