A basic needs forecast from nonprofits serving those who struggle the mostFeature: Nonprofit Journal Project

At the turn of the new year, area nonprofits and those they serve are facing a host of challenges: inflation, rising housing and utility costs, the lingering effects of COVID-19. The work ahead is daunting, but the nonprofit sector tends to attract optimists.

Here, leaders from four area nonprofits specializing in food security, utility assistance, affordable housing, and healthcare share their forecasts for the coming year. The obstacles are many, both for their clientele and their organizations, but these leaders are prepared to meet them with a range of creative solutions and a spirit of collaboration.

Food Security

Founded in 1990, Forgotten Harvest collects surplus food from area grocery stores and restaurants, combines it with donations from government programs, and distributes it to more than 250 emergency food providers in the Detroit area — around 720,000 pounds of food per week.

Chief Operations Officer Mike Spicer says that compared to this time last year, the overall number of clients has increased by 17 percent. The number of seniors requesting food assistance is up 14 percent.

Meanwhile, donations from the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the USDA have dropped by more than half: from 25 million pounds in 2021 to less than 9 million last year. In addition, avian influenza has set egg prices soaring and impacted the availability of poultry, and the war in Ukraine has sent a ripple effect through global food supply chains.

Forgotten Harvest is pivoting to address these challenges. In response to decreased food donations, they’ve established a budget to purchase food. With the completion of their new warehouse, they’re planning to streamline their supply chains to ensure their clients aren’t just getting enough food, but enough of the right kinds of food.

“We're not the whole grocery store,” Spicer says. “But we're trying to combine and ship products based on household counts that we're getting from our agencies and building a more equitable, complete plate so we can meet the nutritional needs of the customers that we serve.”

Forgotten Harvest’s core competency, Spicer explains, is food distribution. But on a secondary level, they’re collecting aggregate data about overall need — valuable information they could potentially share with other area nonprofits.

“We could, as an example, send information to THAW on certain zip codes where we know there's a high population struggling to meet their utility bills,” he suggests.

Utility Assistance

The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW) has distributed $216 million in energy and utility assistance to nearly 300,000 Michigan households since it was established in 1985. The organization also provides assistance with energy efficiency, weatherization, and “deliverable fuels like wood, propane, and my favorite, cherry pits,” says CEO Saunteel Jenkins with a warm smile. That smile fades when she talks about the need for utility assistance in the coming year.

“The cost of food, housing, everything is more expensive,” she says. “And wages have not kept pace with inflation, so I think that families are still going to need a lot of help in 2023.”

Part of that need stems from an unexpected effect of the pandemic: Spending more time at home — whether it’s to quarantine, avoid the virus, or telecommute — translates to higher utility costs.

“When you’re home more, you’re using more electricity, you’re using more gas, you’re using more water,” Jenkins says.

In response, THAW is expanding its energy efficiency assistance program to include water assistance and home repairs. Jenkins says this change is made possible through partnerships with DTE, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and money from the $20 million Detroit Home Repair Fund.

THAW also partners with Accounting Aid Society, which helps low-income households file taxes — and connects them with resources such as the Home Heating Credit that they might otherwise not know about. These creative collaborations illustrate another unexpected effect of the pandemic.

”One thing that COVID did for everybody, I believe, is force us to consider different approaches,” Jenkins says. “As a result, I think the nonprofit sector is becoming more agile, more innovative, and we’re starting to pivot.”

Affordable Housing

Silver linings notwithstanding, COVID-19 continues to destabilize vulnerable populations — particularly when it comes to housing.

“So many people are asking why people are still struggling paying their rent?” says Kirsten Elliott, vice president and chief operating officer of Community Housing Network (CHN). “It’s because COVID is still a very real and persistent issue facing folks in our community.”

Founded in 2001, CHN, serving primarily southeast Michigan, provides an array of housing services: everything from homeless outreach and prevention to rapid rehousing, homebuyer education, and property management. Looking forward, Elliott expects to see an uptick in rent arrears and evictions. She attributes this in part to the shortage of affordable housing — rents across Michigan rose by 8 percent just last year— and in part due to the effect of COVID-19 on essential workers.

“If they get sick, they still have to take time off, and a lot of them don’t have paid time off anymore,” she explains. “You get COVID, you have to quarantine for five to ten days, your kid then gets COVID, and it just goes through your house.”

For those living paycheck to paycheck, losing ten days of income could lead to eviction. Furthermore, as CHN resumes in-person visits to clientele, Elliott says they’re also seeing the mental health effects of the COVID-19 response. She shares the example of a CHN client with delusional disorders who refused to leave his apartment or allow any visitors.

“He’s okay now,” she says. “But it took a lot of work, and it took a lot of our staff time and partnerships with CMH.”

Community Mental Health is just one of CHN’s many collaborators. Their partnerships with Lakeshore Legal Aid and the Michigan Works! Association help their clients avoid eviction through education. In a climate of scarce resources, Elliott points out, it’s important for nonprofits to address issues holistically.

“We’re working with the same people,” she says. “So we all absolutely have to work together.”

Since 2003, the team of volunteer medical and dental professionals at the Gary Burnstein Community Health Clinic (GBCHC) have provided uninsured residents of Oakland County with free medical, dental, and behavioral care, as well as medications. These services may be increasingly necessary. With rising inflation, CEO Justin Brox foresees low-income individuals making budget cuts that could impact their health.

One example is opting for health insurance plans with low monthly premiums and high deductibles. These plans have their place, Brox says, “but that doesn’t help with simple, chronic issues, like anxiety, depression, hypertension, diabetes.”

Using diabetes as an example, he explains that with the spike in insulin costs, diabetic individuals may have to make cutbacks on other items necessary to safely manage their condition.

“Are they going to spend $5 on a box of alcohol swabs, or are they going buy two cases of Ramen and help their family go to sleep for the next week feeling like they ate something?” Brox says.

Like other nonprofits, GBCHC is feeling the effects of inflation. “As the stock market fluctuates,” Brox explains, “the residual that’s available to be donated to organizations like ours is diminished.” However, even with decreased donations, the clinic’s partnerships allow it to continue providing care to vulnerable populations.

“We’ve got a generic pharmaceutical company here in Pontiac that gives us ridiculously low rates on our medications,” Brox says. “[Trinity Health] donated to us a license for a group called Dispensary of Hope. And through Dispensary of Hope, we’re able to get close to $300,000 or $400,000 worth of insulin each year.”

Brox has observed that there isn’t necessarily a lack of resources for vulnerable populations; the issue is one of access. In a perfect world, he says, local nonprofits would be networked in such a way that people who request aid from one sector could easily be referred to another, tapping into the spectrum of resources available to them — before it’s too late.

“There’s a patient that keeps me up at night,” Brox recalls. “The hospital called to see if they could set up continuity of care for this patient who had just come in and had their lower leg amputated because of their uncontrolled diabetes. … We’ve been around for 15 years, and so if that patient had found us [earlier], we could have helped them control their diabetes, and they never would have gotten to that point. They would still have their limb.”

Even in light of such challenges, Brox remains optimistic. Near the end of our conversation, I ask if there’s anything I neglected to ask, or that he’d like to add.

“People are good,” he says after a thoughtful pause. “I feel like far too often we focus on the negatives of the world. That’s one of the things that I really love about being here: I get a constant reminder that the world has many wonderful people in it.”

Powerful partnerships and generous donations are essential to the continued success of the nonprofit community. But Brox’s story illustrates that one of the most powerful ways to help is to ask for help.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work—and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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