Fighting Hunger with Mobile Pantries
For more than 30 years, United Way partner, Forgotten Harvest, has helped fight hunger in metro Detroit by rescuing surplus food from restaurants, grocery stores, caterers and more and delivering it free of charge to local pantries and food banks. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the organization faced a “perfect storm” of surges in demand, fewer volunteers and food shortages that required staff to revamp their overall operating model in a matter of days.
To help, United Way for Southeastern Michigan awarded grant funding to Forgotten Harvest, made possible by the BET COVID-19 Relief Fund. The support targets the city of Detroit, where African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
Nearly 40 percent of the COVID-19 related deaths in Michigan have been African Americans despite representing only 13.6% of the state's population. The grant funding allowed Forgotten Harvest the flexibility and funds to open 17 On-the-Go Mobile Pantries across Metro Detroit, where individuals and families are supplied with 45 to 65 pounds of food each week. The mobile pantries operate using a truck-to-trunk distribution model that allows for safe social distancing.
Omar lost his job at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and was struggling to provide his family with basic needs, including food. “Because of the help I am getting from Forgotten Harvest, I’ve been able to take care of myself and family,” Omar said.
Relief Fund Opens Doors for Detroit
Seniors have been among the hardest hit with many of the programs and services they depend on being affected due to COVID-19. Because of the BET COVID-19 Relief fund grant dollars, Franklin-Wright Settlements (FWS) was able to stay open and adapt many of its services to socially distanced or virtual formats.
FWS is one of nine organizations that received grant funding thanks to a partnership between BET and United Way. Funds received by United Way for Southeastern Michigan were distributed to partners following the BET COVID-19 Relief fundraiser, which aimed to assist in major cities like Detroit where the African American population has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The organization typically helps an average of 570 people each day. Since the onset of the pandemic, that number has nearly doubled and continues to grow.
“The impact of the coronavirus on the Black community is more than physical, it’s mental,” said FWS CEO, Monique Marks. “Everyone knows someone who has been lost to this virus. There are massive numbers of people dying in our community, so it’s important for us to address those issues of grief, loss, and trauma.”
FWS created innovative programs to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, such as a food drop-off program, to meet the real-time needs of the community. FWS held its first outdoor, drive-up movie event to encourage seniors to socialize while apart from others, and weekly Zoom calls are helping the community deal with issues of loss and grief related to COVID-19. Online afterschool programs are also offered where school-age children can participate in fun activities and access tutors who help them adapt to virtual learning.
During the height of the pandemic, Gail Smith, a 70-year-old Detroit resident, sheltered in place and had little communication with the outside world. Without extra money for food, she was forced to eat only peanut and jelly on crackers for two months during the height of the pandemic. “It is hard for seniors,” said Smith. “People just don’t realize that.”
She was able to reach FWS on the emergency hotline that was added through grant funding to address the increased need during the pandemic. FWS was able to coordinate a box of fresh food for her, signed her up to receive a weekly box, and enrolled her in the organization’s Food and Fellowship program, which allowed her to interact with other seniors and increase her quality of life. This was all made possible because of the BET COVID-19 Relief fund.
Providing a Safe Place to Stay
In Detroit, as of early July, more than 80 percent of the 1,722 confirmed virus-related deaths were Black. Statewide, African Americans accounted for 32 percent of all COVID-19 cases and 41 percent of deaths, despite making up only 14 percent of the state's population, according to data from Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“COVID-19 has been especially devastating in communities like Detroit where you have a high prevalence of preexisting conditions compounded by low-wage, service sector jobs, reliance on public transportation (both of which expose individuals to increased infection risk), and the systemic biases that exist in many systems including housing and healthcare,” said Megan Thibos, Director of Economic Mobility Initiatives at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
Homeless populations are already among the most vulnerable to sickness. At Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO), which serves a largely African American population, COVID-19 was a crisis superimposed on another crisis: people experiencing homelessness also lack access to health care or a safe place to stay.
Organizations like the Neighborhood Service Organization have struggled to keep up with the needs of serving Detroit’s homeless individuals while also keeping their staff safe. With funding from United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the McGregor Fund, NSO opened a first-of-its-kind recuperative housing center in Detroit in May. The center offers 50 beds of temporary housing and continued care for homeless or housing insecure patients who need a place to continue recovery immediately after release from the hospital.
The center has been able to help individuals like Eric, who had been diagnosed with a blood clot. Just before being discharged from the hospital, he revealed to a hospital social worker that he was homeless and living in his car.
“It’s not the situation you expect to find yourself in, but I was out of answers and needed help,” said Eric. Instead of going back to living in his car, he was able to stay in NSO’s new Recuperative Housing Center in Detroit and get back on his feet.
After two weeks at the center, where he received meals, access to a nurse and social worker, physical and occupational therapy, Eric was connected to a group home with support services with the hopes of moving on to individual independent housing.
“I really can’t say enough good things about this place,” Eric said of the center. “I was in my car in agonizing pain. They gave me hope in a terrible situation. Now I can start planning for a future – getting better, getting a job, renting a place where my kids can come visit me.”
NSO has provided case management outreach to more than 1,000 families in Detroit as wraparound support to COVID-19 testing sites. NSO was also able to hire additional staff members, purchase cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and add professional deep cleaning and staff screenings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Housing the Homeless in Michigan
On any given night in Michigan, there are more than 8,000 people living on the streets, in abandoned buildings or “doubled up” with family and friends. Under any circumstances, this is an unacceptable way for people to live. And now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these individuals and families are also at a much higher risk of becoming ill.
Support from United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund and BET has helped shelters like Detroit-based Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) meet the needs of over 100 people in emergency shelters during the pandemic by providing support for staff, personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies.
COTS also supports individuals and families transitioning out of shelters and into stable housing. They provide assistance with rent, mortgage and utility payments, basic household necessities, and employment and workforce training.
A single mother and her two children were moving into independent housing, but their unit was not immediately available. Thanks to support from United Way and BET, COTS was able to offer the family an extended stay at no cost until their new apartment was ready.
“People who experience homelessness don’t necessarily even understand the full scope of their own dreams and goals until someone gives them an opportunity to explore them,” said Aisha Morrell, chief development officer at COTS. “COTS does that, and we’re able to continue doing that because of United Way.”