This story has been updated.

A Facebook posting about a Wednesday food delivery to the Lewis Chatham apartments on South Flores Street set off a furor over adequate emergency response to vulnerable citizens.

Sixty elderly and disabled residents of the four-story complex had been without electricity since Sunday and without water for several days, according to Alex Vasquez, the son of 68-year-old resident Marlene Phillips.

Food supplies had run short for several residents, and the Wednesday food delivery consisted of two candy bars, five snack bags, Life Savers, and peppermint candies, along with a package of matzoh bread and three 12-ounce bottles of drinking water per package.

Community activist Jolene “Josey” Garcia of Reliable Revolutionaries posted a photo of the contents along with a plea, “can someone prepare or have access to someone who can prepare caldo or something nutritious for these residents. The candy bags won’t sustain them, especially those with diabetes and dietary restrictions.”

Garcia said became concerned when she received the image sent to her by a resident, and posted it to draw immediate attention to the issues residents were facing.

“Basically what happened was about 60 elderly residents were left to fend for themselves during this blackout,” she said.

The issue exposes not only the severity of the winter storm and the vulnerabilities of citizens but also systemic problems in how city agencies and organizations are able to respond quickly and adequately to emergency situations.

The Lewis Chatham apartments is one of 36 subsidized housing complexes managed by the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA). Wednesday, SAHA submitted a request to the San Antonio Food Bank for snack bags and water for its residents to help supplement their resources with ready-to-eat foodstuffs that didn’t require cooking or extensive preparation.

The Food Bank quickly delivered on the request, said Eric Cooper, food bank president and CEO. In repeating the mission of his organization, Cooper said, “right food, right amount, right time.” In this case, he said the snack bags were “wrong food, wrong amount, wrong time” for some families.

SAHA Director of Communications Michael Reyes said, “That’s what the food bank gave us. That’s all they had.”

Cooper said that wasn’t the case, that if the request had been for other foods, the food bank would have delivered as requested. He said he empathized with SAHA for realizing its residents would benefit from food that did not require electricity and flowing water to prepare, and with the difficulties in travel and distribution brought on by the pandemic. But, he said, the order for snacks might reflect a disconnect in SAHA’s awareness of the needs of its residents.

After the uproar, SAHA requested additional water and food, Cooper said. Thursday morning, SAHA picked up a supply of water from the food bank warehouse, but no supplementary staple foods as Cooper would have expected. Later Thursday, SAHA requested food supplies for six of its properties, which Cooper confirmed would be delivered to SAHA Friday. Once food is made available, Cooper specified, SAHA is in control of how the food bank supplies are distributed among its 60,000 residents.

Reyes said the initial request on Wednesday was made after the City of San Antonio Department of Human Services (DHS) notified SAHA late Tuesday that it would not be delivering its Senior Nutrition Program meals.

“That’s when [SAHA] reached out to the food bank, just to find an alternative, to find something,” Reyes said.

On Facebook on Monday at 3:45 p.m., DHS posted its cancellation of Tuesday food deliveries to senior centers around the city. The department followed with cancellations of Wednesday and Thursday deliveries, with distribution to resume Feb. 22.

“In recognition of road safety concerns for our senior members and food service providers, as well as logistical issues related to electric and water outages, DHS, in consultation with our partners, suspended these distributions this week,” said DHS Director Melody Woosley in a statement emailed to the San Antonio Report. “All older adults who participate in the program were advised of the change via phone call notification system.”

The department did not respond to a question about how seniors unable to access food would be affected by the weeklong cancellations. According to statistics provided by the department reflecting the scope of its twice-weekly food services for seniors, an estimate of nearly 7,000 seniors with transportation difficulties would be affected.  

Woosley’s statement also said, “[DHS] continues to make wellness calls to our members and connect any older adults who contact our department for food and other emergency assistance to appropriate resources.”

Cooper said SAHA would work with the food bank to fill the gap created by the cancellations until DHS deliveries resume on Monday.

Vasquez said the lack of emergency food was not the only issue with SAHA, however. The Lewis Chatham site had been without its required security guard since Sunday, he said, which Reyes attributed to transportation difficulties and concerns for the safety of staff and contract staff. He said the site maintains a security system that allows only residents to access entryways and exits but acknowledged that a resident who had difficulty getting to the entryways would be unable to let in a family member or friend seeking to help without assistance from a neighbor.

Texas State Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Campos (D-San Antonio) responded to Garcia’s social media post to see if she could offer assistance. Campos said she first worked to help residents get to City warming centers.

“I also got in contact with SAHA [on Tuesday]. I’ve been talking to them for the last couple few days, just making sure that they’re out there doing what they need to do.”

Campos also mentioned ongoing issues with SAHA’s Fair Avenue Apartments, including an inoperable main entrance door discovered during her Wednesday visit. The door did not allow egress, so residents who left for supplies were propping doors open in order to ensure reentry into the building. Campos expressed concern that If a fire occurred, residents would not be able to get out of the building fast enough without functional doors.

Reyes said the main entrance door was inoperable due to the loss of electricity, but that residents could still exit from inside.

Kerry Jackson, a caseworker with several client residents of the Fair Avenue apartments who visits the site daily, said the door remained inoperable as of 9 p.m. Thursday.

Reyes said a technician had been requested to repair the door Friday and added, “Please keep in mind this is one of about 100 properties we are troubleshooting in this difficult time.”

“I have been in contact with SAHA, and I let them know my concerns,” Campos said. She said seniors in other facilities are facing the same issues and vulnerable elderly citizens should have the same priority level as hospitals. “It’s SAHA’s responsibility, and the City’s, to step it up just a little bit more.”

Garcia said her focus “is just to continue finding help for our elderly and disabled citizens because they’re the most vulnerable right now.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...