Vision Urbana Steps Up Lower East Side Food Pantry Operations During Time of Great Need

Photos courtesy of Vision Urbana.

Photos courtesy of Vision Urbana.

A new report from the Food Bank for New York City indicates that more than a third of the city’s food pantries shut down during the height of the pandemic. Here on the Lower East Side, however, the Vision Urbana Food Pantry, the only established operation of its kind in the neighborhood, actually scaled up its operations during the COVID-19 crisis.

Vision Urbana is a grassroots nonprofit group with close ties to Primitive Christian Church on East Broadway. The pantry has been in operation since 2018, so it was in good position to expand, meeting the needs of some of the LES’s most vulnerable residents during the past three months.

During the Memorial Day weekend, on May 23, a team of 65 volunteers from Vision Urbana delivered groceries to 885 seniors, with the support of the Food Bank for New York City. The stepped up deliveries of both fresh food boxes and hot meals are made possible through expanded partnerships with some of the Lower East Side’s settlement houses and local food-supply businesses (including grocery stores and restaurants). The group says it is serving 1,200 households each week.

Pantry

The City of New York has struggled to address the food insecurity crisis unfolding across the five boroughs. The Department of Education may end up throwing out $800,000 worth of food before the fall, rather than finding a way to distribute it to people in need. Many people in Lower East Side public housing developments have reported that food from the city’s DeliveryTLC program is dumped in lobbies to rot.  Some of the more successful efforts have been launched by groups with deep roots in NYC neighborhoods. An example is the Community First Food Pantry, which has been working in Chinatown and the Lower East Side in recent weeks.

Vision Urbana has been able to draw on several years of experience as a food pantry operator and decades of knowledge about the community. The organization was especially well prepared to serve the LES’s large NYCHA and Section 8 buildings, which have been hit so hard by COVID-19.

Recently Vision Urbana’s director, Eric Diaz was honored as a “LES Hero Next Door.” In accepting the award, he talked about the food pantry’s efforts during the past several weeks and said,  “It just goes to show the absolute importance of grassroots organizations like Vision Urbana, and others, with a 24/7 ear to the ground and able to adapt and respond to crises quickly and without hesitation to address the immediate and critical needs of our residents. I am proud to work with them all and to be a born and bred son of the LES.”

Click here if you would like to arrange for a food delivery from Vision Urbana.

Back to School Festival on East Broadway Today

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With any luck, there will be a break in the rain this afternoon for a “Back to School” Festival on East Broadway.

The event is sponsored by The Primitive Christian Church and the non-profit group Vision Urbana. There will be a backpack giveaway,  activities for the kids, food and entertainment, plus community resources.

The festival takes place on East Broadway between Clinton and Jefferson streets, 4-8 p.m.

Lower East Side Non-Profit Helps Venezuelan Doctor With U.S. Asylum Application

Dr. Luis Laviena, Eric Diaz of Vision Urbana, Oswaldo Chancon.

Dr. Luis Laviena, Eric Diaz of Vision Urbana, Oswald Chacon.

Every day there are stories documenting the Trump administration’s crackdown on American immigration. Non-profit groups, including some on the Lower East Side, are working to help people overcome the new barriers to U.S. residency and citizenship. Just before Christmas, we met a young doctor from Venezuela who has been seeking asylum, with the assistance of the LES organization Vision Urbana.

In the past few years, record numbers of Venezuelans have sought asylum in the United States, as political turmoil, oppression, violence and economic hardship sweep the South American country. Oswald Chacon, a pediatric physician, is one of those who got out. We first heard about his case from Eric Diaz, director of Vision Urbana. We were invited to speak with Chacon and some of the people who have been working on his behalf following an AIDS/HIV awareness event held at Primitive Christian Church on East Broadway earlier this month.

Yudith Ortiz, who runs Vision Urbana’s immigration programs, said the organization is now handling four asylum cases. All of the clients are from Venezuela or Guatemala. Under normal circumstances, these types of cases can take four to six years to process, sometimes even longer. Private attorneys often charge around $10,000 to handle an asylum application. In Chacon’s case, Ortiz said she received a quick response from the Department of Homeland Security. Within two weeks, the government indicated his paperwork was being processed. If all goes according to plan, Chacon will have his papers within a year.

According to Vision Urbana, he’ll be able to stay in the U.S. for four years without risking deportation. A judge will review his case at the end of four years.

In order to stay in America, asylum-seekers must prove they faced persecution in their home countries. Dr. Luis Laviena, a psychologist, has worked with Vision Urbana clients for many years to help tell their stories. “The issue of immigration,”  said Laviena, “is very close to my heart. A lot of the cases we deal with, the people have been abused. They’re victims of violence. People are singled out because they are ethnic minorities in their countries, or because of sexual orientation, or due to political issues.” Governments, he noted, have marginalized them, prevented them from working, taken away their livelihoods.

Laviena helped piece together Chacon’s personal history and, “provided the assessments to prove without a doubt that his is a hardship case.”

When Chacon left Venezuela, he spent a period of time in Spain before coming to the U.S.. Today his family is dispersed, with some relatives in Barcelona and others, including his mother, in Mexico. The Venezuelan government would not allow Chacon to work as a doctor because he refused to support the current regime under President Nicolas Maduro. “I come from a very good family,” he explained during an interview in the church basement. “We lost everything for no reason. We did nothing wrong.”

Chacon said he’s working on improving his English, and then he’ll focus on obtaining a medical license to practice in this country. In the future, he may try to bring his mother to New York. For the moment, however, Chacon is just relieved that his asylum application is on track. “I’m so happy right now. It’s been very difficult.”