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When the pandemic struck, Kent Taylor, 80, was at a loss for how he would get groceries. Taylor didn’t own a car, and given socialization restrictions the friends he had relied on to take him shopping were no longer an option.

Help came in an unexpected form: A flier on his doorstep advertising the Sunset Neighborhood Help Group, offering neighbors aid such as grocery delivery and rides to doctor appointments.

Now, nine months later, he receives weekly help from volunteers who coordinate grocery deliveries. Volunteer Lily Mok has even helped Taylor, a poet, access books from the library. The neighborhood support has been an “unbelievable godsend,” Taylor said.

Taylor is one of thousands of Bay Area residents who have connected with other neighbors through mutual aid groups during the pandemic.

In all, more than 90 mutual aid groups have formed in the region since the pandemic began. Most organizers said they expected they would only be needed for a few weeks. But nearly one year into the pandemic, they are grateful for the communities they have created, and many are ready to continue for the foreseeable future.

“The idea behind mutual aid is that everybody who requests support can also provide something,” said Sarah Cadorette, who helps coordinate SF Mutual Aid. “Maybe this month, they need rent assistance, and next month, they’ll be able to give back and provide aid to someone else.”

New twist on an old concept

The practice of mutual aid is not new. Groups have sprung up over the years in response to disasters such as earthquakes and floods, as well as to address areas where they feel the government has fallen short.

In 2005, the Common Ground Collective launched mutual aid efforts in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Other groups date back decades.

A flier for Oakland At Risk promotes the services the group offers. (Image courtesy of Oakland At Risk)

For example, in 1969, the Black Panthers created a free breakfast program for families in Oakland that was later expanded to include programs like drug rehabilitation and classes on politics and economics.

The need for mutual aid during the first weeks of the pandemic seemed obvious to many organizers. For some groups, the impetus was seeing people with disabilities unable to get groceries, or seniors stuck alone in their homes. For others, the pandemic unearthed more systemic issues with the economy and the government.

David Peattie, who helps coordinate Berkeley Mutual Aid, said the group grew out of the understanding that the pandemic represented a true disaster.

“In times of large-scale emergencies, people stepping up to support each other is what happens naturally,” he said. “Government organizations can’t show up for everyone.”

Many mutual aid groups started out offering a limited range of services but have now grown. Paige Fleury, co-founder of Oakland at Risk, helped launch the organization with the expectation that it would only be needed for a few weeks. Now, in addition to helping match about 450 households in long-term volunteer relationships, she has taken on other roles such as installing stoves and negotiating with PG&E for home services.

“In times of large-scale emergencies, people stepping up to support each other is what happens naturally. Government organizations can’t show up for everyone.”

David Peattie, Berkeley Mutual Aid

Neighbors Helping Neighbors in San Carlos began as a spreadsheet on Nextdoor where people could list their needs and volunteers could agree to help out. Now, the group takes on jobs like collecting donations for those affected by wildfires, running blood drives, conducting biweekly food distributions, and writing greeting cards for seniors.

One divide in the mutual aid community is the question of whether to facilitate direct financial assistance, with no strings attached. Some mutual aid groups take a “radical trust” approach to supporting people financially, working off the assumption that if someone asks for help, they need the help. The Basic Needs Coalition, a student-led group at Stanford University that facilitates mutual aid, has dispersed almost $100,000 to students and their families with this assumption.

Other groups have stayed away from giving unconditional sums of money, preferring to attach conditions to the cash if they donate at all. Sunset Neighborhood Help Group in San Francisco has mostly avoided financial assistance, according to volunteer Janis O’Meara.

“Our Facebook page would just be flooded with people looking for financial help. It would turn into just one big GoFundMe page,” she said. “We’d rather our volunteers do something like deliver groceries and not be expected to help out financially, since they might be strapped for cash as well.”

Volunteers with West Oakland Punks With Lunch offer mobile outreach services where they provide “syringe access, food, narcan, and whatever else we can fit into our cars.” (Photo courtesy of West Oakland Punks with Lunch)

Support groups support each other

Having so many groups across the Bay Area helps coordinators and volunteers cater to the communities they are already familiar with. Some groups take a geographic approach to aid, including El Cerrito Mutual Aid and East Richmond Heights Mutual Aid. Others help underserved communities, like the TurnOut, which serves LGBTQ+ people, and West Oakland Punks with Lunch, which serves the homeless.

Of course, the work of mutual aid groups is not without challenges, including figuring out how to coordinate a network of volunteers and juggle volunteering with a full-time job. But the most heart-wrenching situations for many organizers involve people who need more than the group volunteers can provide, such as women trapped in domestic violence situations or undocumented immigrants thousands of dollars behind on rent.

“Some people need a whole village, and when only one or two show up, those one or two people get burnt out,” said Ted Lee of Mutual Aid El Cerrito. “We haven’t been able to fully show up for people in the way that I would want to.”

In times of need, mutual aid groups turn to each other for support. Nearly all mutual aid groups in the Bay Area are members of the Bay Area Mutual Aid Coalition, which holds regular meetings where groups share documents and strategies and address the unexpected, like how GoFundMe fundraisers impact taxes.

Support also extends nationwide: Fleury, of Oakland at Risk, has helped college students in Huntington Beach set up a mutual aid site, and El Cerrito Mutual Aid has worked with the Town Hall Project’s mutual aid hub to connect with groups across the country.

After the pandemic, some aid groups plan to file for nonprofit status. Others want to strengthen their outreach, expand services to monolingual non-English speakers and get in touch with other community groups.

“As long as we have people requesting services, and we have volunteers who are willing to help, we’ll continue to do what we’re doing,” said O’Meara of Sunset Mutual Aid.

Many groups hope that the connections people have made through mutual aid continue. Fleury said she has received several emails from seniors who deeply appreciate the work of the volunteers they’ve been matched with.

“‘I can’t wait to go meet them for coffee on Piedmont Avenue,’” Fleury recalled one saying.