Sister Jennifer Gaeta, SSS, LCSW, is on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. For 27 years she has been the Executive Director of the Los Angeles House of Ruth where today she navigates the coronavirus pandemic for an at-risk population of homeless and abused women and their children in the Los Angeles community.

She holds a Masters’ Degree in Social Welfare from the University of Southern California and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Additionally, she has a certification in Art Therapy from the College of Notre Dame, a Masters’ Degree in Feminist Spirituality from Immaculate Heart College Center and a Doctorate Degree in Ministry from The Graduate Theological Foundation.

Her earlier nonprofit management experience includes positions as the Executive Director of the Chris Brownlee Aids Hospice and the Executive Director of the Regis House Community Center. She has also held supervisory, direct-service and clinical positions at St. John’s Child Study Center, Los Angeles County Mental Health Clinic, Stella Maris Adult Day Treatment Program, and Camp Mariastella.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to visit with Sister Gaeta for this Conversation during the initial chaos of the virus outbreak in Los Angeles and learn about her critical humanitarian work.

STAY THIRSTY: At this time the United States is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. How are you and your organization keeping your staff and your residents safe? If a resident gets the coronavirus, what practices and procedures are you employing not only for that resident, but also for their family and your staff?

JENNIFER GAETA: We are terrified as most human beings are right now. Our facility is always very clean, and it is more so now. Each resident has her own bleach and water bottle. Our staff participates in the cleaning and disinfecting on an hourly basis. 

Our staff works with the residents to ensure that the cleaning is done. These bottles of cleaning products are hidden on a high shelf to avoid kids getting into it.

We have restricted our residents to stay home, not use any public transportation as I see the buses and metro trains as virus caring systems. We drive the residents anywhere they need to go.

Our staff members have to come to work we are an “essential service.” Like others, our staff are also very afraid of the virus and are being extremely careful and trying to not go anywhere other than work and the grocery store.

Los Angeles House of Ruth website Home page

If a resident becomes ill, we are keeping one room vacant in each house to be able to separate out and quarantine that person or that family. To add some humor and incentive, I have told the residents to be extremely careful because if they do get sick, they will have to stay in their room, and we will cook and serve them. Some of our staff are renown for not being very good cooks.

If there is a serious illness, we will call 911 and transport the person who is ill. The moms know that if it is their child who gets sick, they will not be allowed to go into the hospital and if it is a mother, we will keep their children at the shelter and care for them.

Our board has approved an increase in the hourly rate for the staff most directly working with our residents and an additional amount of vacation time for those that do not miss work unless they are really sick. For most of our staff, we are aware that we are lucky to be employed where we will not be losing our jobs and income during this horrid time in history. But the temptation to stay home with kids and family is real and we need our staff to come to work.

STAY THIRSTY: Your organization serves a very vulnerable population. How is that population coping today vs. six months ago? What additional stresses have been placed on your facility and your staff because of the virus?

JENNIFER GAETA: Coping now vs. six months ago ... there is no comparison. Schools are closed for both children and parents. Parents are having to try and help their children with their schoolwork, and many did not finish school themselves. Families are forced to stay home and mostly indoors due to the cooler weather. Futures are not talked about daily with case managers as we do not know when this will end.

We are trying to stay calm and create different activities that are still within the best social distancing as possible. We have ordered adult coloring books fine-tipped pens colored pens for the mothers to keep occupied while the kids are doing their homework. Each family now has a DVD player in their rooms as well as one in the shared living rooms.

We have received confirmation that the requirements the agency faces in terms of numbers, keeping our status up and keeping families moving through the system are slowed down. We are finding that landlords are not making appointments to see potential residents. Section 8 certificates are having the time extended to find a living space. So, these are good things that has lessened the usual anxiety that the mothers face. Finding a low-income apartment or one that the manager will accept Section 8 is difficult in the best of times.

I am meeting more with staff and residents as well in an attempt to give as much support as possible.

Sister Jennifer Gaeta

STAY THIRSTY: How are you dealing with the mental health of the women and children you serve? How does this time of fear and anxiety from the pandemic change the behaviors and thinking of the homeless and the battered?

JENNIFER GAETA: More group meetings are now held outside even though it is cold, with the six-feet distance between us. We are ordering food and supplies from one of the large grocery distributors so that no one needs to deal with the lines and fear of not having what is needed. We are making this food delivery open to our staff for the same reasons so that they can go home from work and rest and not worry about not having the essentials that their families need. It is a little thing to do. My thinking is that anything I can do to reduce the stress on everyone is worth the effort and the expense. We have just increased the capacity of our WiFi to a much stronger system as the kids need this for their schoolwork and everyone is online at the same time.

Today, I met with a Mom who is having a particularly difficult time staying still. She is a smoker and cannot get to the store to buy her cigarettes as she cannot leave her children with anyone because they cause a fuss when she leaves for a minute and she does not want to take them out. So, I went to the corner store and overpaid for three packs of cigarettes. Her four year old thanked me!  

STAY THIRSTY: Your mission statement says that you “provide temporary, transitional and permanent housing for homeless and battered women and their children and provide a caring and safe environment.” How will you carry out that mission going forward as America experiences very difficult economic times?

JENNIFER GAETA: Well we will do it the best that we can. A good thing is that homelessness is such a public issue in California these days that there are more funds available for rental assistance and more low-income units are being built. What will be left of the Federal funds for this type of need no one knows at this point.

My own hope is that now that there is such an effort to get the homeless off the streets and all of a sudden, we are able to rent motels, etc. Maybe that experience of solving the issue at least short terms will stick.

This is difficult on so many levels. It is hard to find the time in the midst of this crisis to give a clear answer.

Los Angeles House of Ruth - An Overview from their website

STAY THIRSTY: You are a member of the Sisters of Social Services of Los Angeles (SSS.). How and why did you join that order and how has it influenced your life and your work?

JENNIFER GAETA: I made the decision to join this community when I was very young and had no idea of how life would play out. I am of that generation that thought we really could save the world and I wanted to do my part. I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but they would only take college graduates and I just did not want to wait. I had met these sisters while working for them in summer camp setting. It seemed like a good short-term commitment and so I did it. Not very deep in my thinking at that point. The years have gone by fast and I have had many solid opportunities to work with different populations. So, I am here after many years, kind of late to change now. This story does not parallel the Nuns Story, sorry. Just not that much drama!

STAY THIRSTY: How have you used the breadth of your advanced education to improve the lives of so many through the actions of the nonprofit organizations you have worked for over the past 38 years?  

JENNIFER GAETA: I have good experiences and solid education. It is hard to say I learned this and put it into practice here and there in these manners. I have often told the MSW students that I have supervised that I learned most of my skills as an 18-year-old camp counselor: Be focused, have a solid plan, have a backup plan and stretch your campers and yourself in as many directions as possible and be safe.

STAY THIRSTY: Have you ever spent a night on the streets with the homeless and how did you come to understand the depth of their problems? 

JENNIFER GAETA: I had insight into the depth of these problems before spending a night on the street. I am amused by those that spend that night on the street to get in touch with the realities, but have a strong backup, like a home to go to, etc. I have a friend who had real guilt of privilege and did this. She felt she needed to feel the fear and the hopelessness of the homeless. She felt the cold and went home after four hours. 

I have walked the streets in the early morning hours looking for teenagers and then Aids Hospice patients looking for them and worrying if they get into trouble and get sicker. I do not need that experience to be able to understand the terror of a 22-year-old mother in a tent on skid row with five children under the age of six. I do not identify from my own experience as I was lucky to have safe and warm and loving and tolerant home to grow up in. For some people the ability to feel the pain of others is just innate. And I think that is my manner of understanding. 

STAY THIRSTY: You have a special focus on the lives of children who have experienced homelessness and violence. What do you do to change the trajectory of their lives and give them hope for the future?

JENNIFER GAETA: We love them; we play with them; we give them cool stuff; we make sure they believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, if even for a minute while they are with us.

We go to places like the beach and camping and the music center (we have a board member who also on the board of the L.A. Philharmonic and they do a kids’ program a few times per year.

We give them opportunities that they otherwise would not have. We live together with our families and the stuff that happens … happens for everyone and it is a natural thing. And when they ultimately transition into their own home, we still do activities with them! We are always there for them, whether they live in our shelter or move onto their own place. Kind of like the favorite auntie.

Urgent Diaper Appeal: To donate diapers, please contact Sister Gaeta here

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.