COVID robs charities for the poor, helpless

A homeless man sits on a bucket and washes his feet on a chilly Sunday afternoon in March. He and his two companions are sleeping outdoors only a few yards from a concentration of charities just north of downtown Knoxville that specialize in providing services to the poorest of the poor. But the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a major drop in charitable giving, threatening the lives and livelihoods of East Tennessee’s most vulnerable residents.

It’s easier to count the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of what’s been lost rather than what could have been. 

Among Knoxville’s many lost opportunities  was The Gateway, a community center with only one goal: fighting the epidemic of drug abuse that’s destroyed the lives of thousands of men, women, and children. 

Officials from the Metro Drug Coalition hope they can get the project back on track someday soon. 

For the moment, however, the mostly unused building at 530 West Fifth Avenue that was bought to house the recovery center is a monument of sorts to the myriad ways the coronavirus has robbed the community of possible futures. 

What $12.5 million means

Charities across East Tennessee suffered a $12.5 million shortfall in 2020 due to the pandemic, a body blow to many of the nonprofits that provide food, housing, medical care, and other services to people around the region, according to a study by the United Way of Greater Knoxville and the Alliance for Better Nonprofits (ABN).

The drop in donations has caused some agencies to reduce the number of people they help, eliminate vital programs and even lay off workers. 

More than 62 percent of the 217 charities who took part in the study were forced to cut programs or services last year, and 114 of them saw demand for their services increase.

“The nonprofits we work with have had to try out many new strategies to mitigate the damage, including finding new revenue streams and new ways to host events,” Tiffani Mensch, ABN’s director of community engagement, said Tuesday.

“I’ve seen a lot of virtual fundraising events, and some nonprofits are working on how to host hybrid virtual/in-person events this summer and fall. I’ve also seen nonprofits shift their focus to individual giving and appeal letters,” she said.

Unfortunately, many agencies don’t really have the resources to launch online fundraisers, said Shelley Wascom, executive director of Community Shares. 

“Nonprofits get their money in a variety of ways, and a lot of those ways aren’t available,” she said. “For agencies who get money from the rank and file, meaning people who are not rich, they don’t have the money to come up with an online auction or virtual events.”

She continued: “I think, when it comes to the middle class, they might go to a dinner or an event or an auction. But they don’t just write a check.” 

Both the United Way and Community Shares are umbrella organizations that help support dozens of nonprofit groups. The two organizations help different groups ‘and raise funds in different ways, but their goals are broadly similar and they generally see the same trends in giving.

“I don’t have the numbers right now because we’re still finishing up the numbers from the last year,” Wascom said. “But every group I speak to is talking about the loss.”

Community Shares focuses strongly on workplace giving, and Wascom said those types of initiatives have been hit particularly hard.

“When you are working from home, you’re a bit disconnected,” she explained. “You might get an email about it, amid your 50 other emails.”

What might have been

Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition, said the agency had launched a capital campaign in late 2019 to fund a  “recovery community center”on West 5th Avenue but then watched helplessly as the plan was gutted by the pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, we had to halt the fundraising efforts around our capital campaign,” Pershing said. “It would have meant meeting one-on-one with many donors, many of whom are elderly. We also had a golf tournament planned, and we first moved it from the spring to the fall and then we postponed it for a year.”

The 22,500 square foot building would have served as a safe place offering numerous programs to support people in recovery from drug addiction, she explained. The 25-plus rooms inside would have been used for support groups and meetings, classes, and computer labs.

“They could use the computers to contact their families, apply for jobs,” she continued. “Most things require technology these days, and sometimes people in recovery have very few assets to help improve health and well-being.”

Plans included space for art and music therapy, which have been proven to help people in recovery, she said. 

“A lot of people with addictions have a history of trauma issues, and a lot of times they are able to express themselves through the Arts,” said Pershing.

The center would also have housed MDC’s offices, which are currently on Lyons View Pike in West Knoxville. It would have allowed the staff to be much closer to their clients and would have meant that visitors would pass through the center’s common areas and see that addicts “are people like you and me,” she said.

Pershing is hopeful The Gateway, which was originally slated to open in late 2020,  will be completed in the near future.

She’s also grateful that MDC was able to avoid layoffs and major cuts to its regular operating budget due to the agency’s dependence on grant money. 

“Normally I hate the fact that we’re operating primarily on grants, but this years because of the pandemic I’m very grateful,” she said. “We haven’t lost any grants during this time.”

“They deserve our respect and support”’

Some charities have thus far managed to escape the crippling financial downturn that has devastated other organizations.

Volunteer Ministry Center, which helps homeless people transition into permanent housing, was actually able to hire new employees in 2020, said Chief Executive Officer Bruce Spangler.

Like the Metro Drug Coalition, VMC relies heavily on grants and was also able to use federal loan programs.

“The lack of ability to do in-person events affected us,” Spangler said. “Also, we had some people who really stood by us during the pandemic. I am amazed by the generosity of many of our donors.

“Without those, it would have been a very difficult year.”

United Way officials issued a press release describing their report’s finding and urging the community to support nonprofits.

“This extended economic downturn has impacted local nonprofits in a myriad of ways, the most devastating being staff layoffs or organizations closing altogether,” United Way President and CEO Matt Ryerson said in the release.

“We hope that conducting these surveys and publishing these reports sheds light on the challenges facing East Tennessee’s nonprofit community and rallies support for the agencies serving our neighbors in need.”

ABN President Jerry Askew described the employees of nonprofits as “heroic” for continuing to work during the pandemic despite the “great risk in doing so.”

“Nonprofit organizations serving children and youth, seniors, the disabled, those experiencing homelessness, the immigrant and refugee community, as well as our arts and cultural organizations, those who care for the environment and for the well-being of animals, and so many more, change lives, enrich lives, and, yes, save lives every day – and they deserve our respect and support,” he said.

J.J. Stambaugh may be reached at 865-243-4768.

Published on March 10, 2021