Displaced During the Pandemic: Tzu Chi Delivers Relief to Survivors of Hayward Apartment Complex Fire

Northwest  |  June 1, 2020
Volunteers held a relief distribution for survivors of a building fire in Hayward, California.

Written by Chiajung Chen
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

Amid the mandatory stay-at-home orders established to protect communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of 51 apartment units in Hayward, California, have recently been tragically displaced. A two-alarm blaze had ignited inside their three-story complex before dawn on May 4th, sending heat and smoke unfurling throughout the building, which subsequently bore water damage as well when a hose cabinet broke off and flooded it further.

After an evaluation by the American Red Cross, it was confirmed that 36 of these households suffered severe damage, and residents were in need of Tzu Chi’s assistance. Due to the stay-at-home order, however, volunteers are unable to make one-on-one visits with the caseworkers as was customary, and the distribution process faced new challenges under these constraints. That was, until volunteers from Tzu Chi’s Northwest Region proposed the idea of providing aid with a drive-thru distribution method.

First, a Tzu Chi volunteer named Liang-ping Shen teamed up with other volunteers and started making calls to acquire in-depth interviews and complete assessment forms to understand the situation at each household as a basis for issuing cash cards. Volunteers Selena Lu and Sara Tsai then expedited the processing of forms so that the distribution could proceed as soon as possible.

At the same time, volunteers continued their discussions through online conferences. In the past, residents and volunteers sat face-to-face, but with social distancing measures in place and the need to disinfect tables and chairs immediately after each use, the relief might have been delayed.

The idea for the drive-thru distribution was proposed by a volunteer named Ivy Ho. Like a drive-thru at fast-food restaurants, residents stay in their vehicles and provide their ID as verification. Volunteers protected by PPE then confirm the beneficiaries’ information and provide them with a cash card. This method maintains social distancing measures between the two parties, and quickly and effectively carries out the distribution with care.

Residents drive into the parking lot of Tzu Chi’s Northeast Regional Branch office to safely complete the distribution.

The distribution took place at 1 PM on May 17th, and benefited 21 households. Volunteers set up tents by the parking lot, where volunteer Jason Lu was responsible for directing the traffic. After a vehicle was parked, volunteers approached the vehicle to ask for the distribution number, then delivered the cash card to the beneficiary. Once obtained and signatures were collected, the case was completed. The pens used for signatures were also given to the beneficiaries, so no one else would need to reuse the same pen. The quick and simple distribution process was the result of continuous discussions over the phone by Tzu Chi volunteers. During the conference call, everyone proposed various possibilities, and after the repeated brainstorming of ideas, they came up with a solid and effective plan together.

On the day of the distribution, one of the affected beneficiaries had arrived early. Upon seeing their expression, volunteers took the opportunity to comfort the recipient, and the original plan of processing a quick and simple drive-thru distribution also became a time for volunteers to offer their love and compassion to the residents.

An elderly couple described how the fire had occurred when it was still dark out, and not knowing what to do, had sustained an accidental injury in the confusion to get to safety. They are staying at a hotel temporarily, and are still in shock. It’s difficult for them to live at the hotel, they expressed, and they sincerely wish to return home. The couple thanked Tzu Chi for the cash card, and volunteers invited them to come back to visit Tzu Chi after the pandemic ends.

Tzu Chi Northwest Regional branch office was about 30 minutes from the complex, and because some survivors were unable to drive, they came with their neighbors.

Tzu Chi’s Northwest branch office is approximately 30 minutes from the complex, and as some survivors were unable to drive, they came with their neighbors. Volunteer Chiung Huei Liu, who’s fluent in Spanish, happened to serve the affected families who she had contacted over the phone. They connected immediately, feeling like they’d known each other for years. At the end of their heartfelt exchange, the recipient even extended a “Thank you” to the volunteers in Taiwanese!

Tzu Chi volunteers' love and care ease the pain of the fire survivors.

Many of the affected households hadn’t known Tzu Chi and were curious to know more about the cards. Volunteers explained that they work like gift cards, and shared how Tzu Chi’s charity funds come from generous donors all across the globe. The cash cards can be used to purchase essentials with no restrictions on specific stores, except for the purchase of cigarettes and alcohol.

Volunteer Renee Liu assisted with photography, answered inquiries, and introduced Tzu Chi’s mission to the beneficiaries. Renee also introduced them to Tzu Chi’s website to learn more about Tzu Chi’s global humanitarian relief. From the entrance of the parking lot to the designated parking space, the residents were assisted by volunteers along the way. Volunteers made sure that recipients were able to leave happy, easing the burden on their heart, and a cash card in their hand to help ease their financial burden as well.

Volunteers answer the questions and explain how Tzu Chi’s charity funds came from donors around the world.

Hanzel Smart, a survivor from the condo fire explained that her husband was seriously ill and required a wheelchair, but the wheelchair had broken. She plans to put her card toward a new wheelchair. After the fire, her husband’s medical equipment was also destroyed, and now she is staying with her mother-in-law. Another elderly woman, Barbara, said that without a way to secure funds for a place to live, she may soon be completely homeless.

They also delivered a cash card to another elderly woman, Bonnie, who was staying in the same motel. Bonnie was moved to discover that the cash card didn’t need to be repaid, and was a gift from donors around the world. She thanked Tzu Chi and all the selfless individuals who donated, too. The building is planned to be demolished, and a final visit to retrieve items from the condo was set for before 5:00 PM that day.

Volunteers deliver cash cards to survivors on-site as they make their final trip retrieve belongings before the building they called home is demolished.
A fire survivor named Bonnie was deeply moved when she learned that the cash card didn't need to be repaid and was made possible thanks to donors from around the world.

After the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, protective masks quickly became highly-sought items, and thus, became much harder to purchase as shortages became more widespread. In addition to the cash cards, volunteers also provided reusable, hand-sewn cloth masks they’d made themselves, as well as a letter from our founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Volunteers delivered positive energy and their warmest blessings to the survivors, so even if they were unable to accompany the affected residents as usual, they still felt a palpable sense of love and solidarity knowing that their Tzu Chi family is here for them.

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