May 27, 2020

Hope Counts: In L.A., a Housing Organization Wearing Many Hats Adds First-Responder Role

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This post is part of our Hope Counts series. Others include Rising to the Occasion: Advice From a Disaster Recovery Veteran and Online SNAP Access, Plus a Quick Pivot, Bring Health Equity to Brooklyn

As a fundraiser, Nikki Kealalio Sutton’s job is to tell a good story. Yet she often wondered if the tale of her Los Angeles nonprofit was perhaps a little too all over the place. Then the coronavirus emerged, toppling any notions about the organization taking on too much or running too many programs.   

Nikki Kealalio Sutton prepares to deliver groceries to seniors with low-income
Nikki Kealalio Sutton prepares to deliver groceries: “We found out what people needed and we figured it out.”

“Suddenly, as we're all in emergency-response mode, we realized we are the community’s first responders,” said Kealalio Sutton, fundraising director for Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC). “All of our departments are working together. There's cross-over amongst everyone's programs and, collectively, we're able to support nearly every corner of the Little Tokyo community.” 

Downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo is a five-block enclave where LTSC has been an anchor for more than 40 years. Created to provide social and cultural services, this longtime Enterprise partner branched out to build and manage affordable housing, beginning in the late 80s and early 90s, when rising real estate values left many residents facing eviction. 

To date, LTSC has helped develop over 1,000 affordable homes in properties in Little Tokyo as well as Koreatown, Chinatown, Thai Town, Historic Filipinotown and South Los Angeles. And while still rooted in preserving and elevating the neighborhood’s Japanese American culture, LTSC now serves a growing Latinx population. 

Small business support is another service LTSC offers – and one that  has never been more vital, particularly to some of the community’s legacy restaurants

Margaret Shimada, Congressman Jimmy Gomaez and Takao Suzuki delivering meals to seniors with low income at Little Tokyo Towers
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (Calif.) joins Little Tokyo Service Center’s Margaret Shimada, director of social services, and Takao Suzuki, director of economic development, to help deliver meals to seniors.

A Culturally Responsive Food Pantry  

Food security emerged as the first order of business in mid-March when LTSC set up a food pantry to serve seniors and families of modest means. Within two weeks, property managers, resident services staff and social workers had reached 1,000 clients and residents of LTSC-managed apartment buildings. 

Many of the older non-English-speaking residents don’t watch local news so they didn’t know about the pandemic. “Many had no idea what was going on and they were shocked when they found out they weren’t supposed to go outside except for essentials,” said Kealalio Sutton. 

While the food pantry stocks macaroni and cheese and other staples, it also offers Japanese noodles, seaweed and sesame oil as well as rice and beans and other international foods not found in mainstream pantries. To supplement these shelf-stable items, LTSC also provides weekly deliveries of eggs, produce and other fresh food. 

“This is hard enough, so we want to make sure people are as comfortable as possible while they shelter in place,” said Kealalio Sutton. 

Delivering groceries to a resident at Little Tokyo Towers
Rep. Gomez goes door-to-door to deliver meals made possible through LTSC’s Little Tokyo Eats program

Beyond seniors, food deliveries also have supported families of children who attend a pre-school that LTSC operates, along with families living in a housing site for victims of domestic violence, also managed by LTSC. “We have different clients with overlapping needs. So, we said, let’s make sure everyone is taken care of,“ said Kealalio Sutton. 

LTSC’s business counselors have stepped up their support, helping Little Tokyo’s small retailers tackle complex paperwork, gain online sales capacity and embrace social media. The organization launched a new effort called Little Tokyo Eats to generate business for local restaurants while ensuring seniors with modest means have access to hot meals. Three times a week, seniors can purchase dinner from participating restaurants. LTSC helps subsidize the cost and staff from across different departments have stepped up to join volunteers in hand-delivering meals. 

“Our staff has never bagged, labeled and provided fresh groceries. And we’ve never delivered take-out before,” said Kealalio Sutton. “But we found out what people needed, and we figured it out.” 

Promoting Staff Wellness  

As staff has stretched and adapted in ways they never imagined to support Little Tokyo, they’ve had to navigate major changes in their personal lives – social distancing, homeschooling children and caring for elders. Recognizing that everyone is working longer and harder, LTSC gave each staff person 12 additional days of sick leave once L.A. schools closed. 

“We didn’t want people to feel burdened if they had to take time off to care for their children or other family members, or themselves if they got sick,” said Kealalio Sutton. 

Kealalio Sutton said she and her colleagues feel extremely fortunate to be employed as so many people have faced layoffs – and to work at an organization able to support its staff and the community during the pandemic. That solvency reflects LTSC’s diverse funding stream as well as the support of committed donors who recognized the need for emergency funding assistance. 

The longer the economy remains closed, the harder it will get to remain operational. But Kealalio Sutton believes LTSC has the grit and stamina to weather this storm, saying, “While we’re a big organization, we’re not a fancy organization.”

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