Burnout plus up-and-down donations: How some LA mutual aid groups are faring more than a year into COVID

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Volunteers of Water Drop LA prepare for a day of service in 2020. Photo by Angel Carreras.

Several mutual aid groups popped up around the city during the pandemic to help their fellow Angelenos. They included college students delivering water on Skid Row, and South LA volunteers delivering groceries, meds, and more for those hit hardest by COVID-19. These groups provided such services thanks to donations from their communities.  

Now more than a year later, with most pandemic regulations lifted and Angelenos returning to in-person work, KCRW checks in with how these groups are doing. 

Water Drop LA

Water Drop LA got big donations during a hot summer last year.

“You might remember a couple days in September that were over 110 degrees. … We raised over $100,000 per day. It was definitely overwhelming,” says cofounder Aria Cataño.

They’ve since hired an accountant (who Cataño calls a lifesaver), became a nonprofit, and scaled up.  

Those large donations have allowed them to beef up their services. That means bigger trucks, more water, and new destinations.

“We also started working with campesinos (farming communities) in Coachella Valley and in Oxnard because a lot of their water is tainted by pesticide runoff. We've actually been able to blow through a good amount of the money that we raised last year, and it worked out because we had those massive fundraising spikes.”

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Cataño says it’s too early to tell if they’ll reach the heights of $100,000 per day again. “Honestly, I'm pessimistic,” she says. 

But she notes that donations spiked during a recent heat wave.

As for volunteers, some have moved out of LA, but other Angelenos are filling their void. 

“We're getting a lot more volunteers who wanted to volunteer in the past, but who were too scared to because of safety concerns. So overall, it's balancing out,” Cataño says.

Going into this summer, the group advises that if people can’t donate or volunteer their time, then freeze water bottles and bring them to their unhoused neighbors.

“It is just so integral that every person, if they have the capacity, goes in and takes those first steps to check on people. Every single person can make a difference.” 

Care Packs LA

East Hollywood resident Zara Bloom, who founded Care Packs LA last August, has been delivering PPE, hygiene packs, and more to her community with help from fellow volunteers. 

“It was supposed to just be a one-day thing,” Bloom says. “Once I went out there and was distributing my packs, I realized that there were a lot of people, a huge need. So I started fundraising for the packs. It just grew from there.”

She was getting enough donations to make and give out some 200 packs a week and partner with other mutual aid organizations. 

When pandemic regulations were lifted, donations slowed. There was a one-time spike before the Echo Park Lake closure, as she and other groups advocated for the unhoused residents of the park. Since then, funds have been up and down. 

Bloom plans to keep doing this work until she can’t, but she wonders why donations increase or decrease. Does social media make people want to donate? Does burnout make people stop?  

“We're trying to figure it out,” Bloom says. “I don't know if it's going to be inconsistent because with mutual aid, you don't know. … I think a lot of people are super burnt out, burnt out because of the pandemic itself. Burnt out from politicians saying they're going to do stuff and they don't do it.”

Still, Bloom remains optimistic about the future of mutual aid in LA. 

“There is a lot of compassion. A lot of us in this community do this for free, and some of us have lost our jobs during the pandemic, or we're trying to rebuild our lives. And people are still out there helping other people.”

People for People LA 

This hotline delivery service had members bringing the grocery store and pharmacy to communities of color and people who were elderly, undocumented, and/or immunocompromised.

They easily got help during the pandemic. “We had a lot of folks wondering what they could do based on their capacity,” co-founder Thabisile Griffin says. “Our roster built up pretty quickly. We got over 300 people on our runner list within months.”

People for People LA didn’t experience many peaks and valleys with funds.  Griffin notes that they get by on word-of-mouth and have a small but steady stream of donations. 

However, they did get stressed out by the pandemic’s effects on their surrounding communities. The group members are from working class backgrounds and needed to take care of their families, neighborhoods, and themselves. 

Griffin, who worked a strict schedule last year while pursuing her doctorate, got exhausted and took a break from the group two months ago. Last month, the entire organization paused. 

“We were going strong in January and February,” Griffin says, “And I personally was very affected spiritually and emotionally by the new Black colony of houseless folks that we saw in this city. I've been living in LA for a long time, and it's always been devastating to [see] the stark social stratification in a city. Because of evictions (illegal evictions, mind you), because of people losing their jobs, because of the state’s failure to support their people, hundreds of thousands of people have to live outside.” 

Griffin says People for People LA 2.0 will return, widening its reach to assist unhoused folks too. 

“The narrative neglects to see them as residents of Los Angeles because they're not property owners, and because they don't have landlords. It’s a colonial frame of thought and we want to really break through that.”