Typically, homeless shelters are in need of food, money or resources to serve their clients, who in turn are in need themselves.
The shelters usually have limited staff and funding sources, and an ever-growing population of people to serve: the homeless, the jobless, the people who lack a social support structure. While most nonprofits around the country are struggling to find fiscal stability, some charitable homeless shelters in the Northern Shenandoah Valley are doing OK financially after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a good year, despite the challenges,” said Randy Brown, executive director of House of Hope, a homeless shelter for men in Front Royal.
“We’re very, very blessed,” said Sheila Orndorff, executive director of the Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter in Shenandoah County.
“We’ve been really fortunate,” said Sherry Arey, executive director of Family Promise of Shenandoah County.
According to a recent Associated Press article, a study on the monetary impact of the coronavirus from the research group Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy found that in the worst-case scenario, 38% of 300,000 nonprofits would close due to financial needs.
Among the most vulnerable nonprofits, the study states, are those involved in arts and entertainment, which cannot significantly reduce expenses and don’t typically hold much cash, the AP reported. They depend on ticket sales for most of their revenue.
Orndorff acknowledged how arts organizations have been put on the backburner compared to organizations like hers, which deal directly with providing basic needs to people.
“People, when there are things like this, tend to really focus on the nonprofits that work with people and basic needs,” Orndorff said, noting that nonprofits like the arts are “just as important to our kids and the community.”
While the area shelters have been fortunate to have donors and fundraising results remain level, if not increase a little bit in the last year, they all have seen operations and expenses change.
At the start of and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia limited in-person gatherings of churches or faith-based organizations, and some of them ended up closing. When the church closed, there went the shelters used by the Family Promise of Shenandoah County, Arey said.
“Up until the pandemic, we had a sheltered model system,” Arey said, with volunteers providing overnight hosts and breakfast in the morning at the shelter. During the daytime, families being helped by the organization would return to its center, which is based in Woodstock.
With the pandemic, more of an effort has been made to keep people housed where they are by helping them pay rent or car payments, or for food while providing case management services to help them work and save money, Arey said.
Unable to say what her organization’s total budget is, Arey said her team of two full-time workers, three part-time workers, and an intern from James Madison University don’t use government funding assistance. A van driver position is vacant with no need to take families to and from shelters, she said, but it is still in the budget.
The group did receive about $20,000 in Coronavirus, Aid, Recovery and Economic Stability (CARES) Act funds, Arey said, which went directly toward client needs. But the group relies on grants from foundations, like the Shenandoah Community Foundation, and the three electric utilities – Dominion, Rappahannock-Electric Cooperative and the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative. Student groups, like the Strasburg National Honor Society, and Interact Clubs, also have helped her organization, she added.
In 2020, the organization aided 13 guest families, put five families in transitional housing, assisted 181 families in various ways, like providing food, and helped 14 families move in, Arey said, while noting the last group was a significant increase.
“We get a lot of bang for our buck around here because we really do work with each family individually,” Arey said. “Sometimes just having them just be able to talk through things, and we can give them options and ideas, sometimes that’s all they need. It’s not always a monetary response.”
Working closely with Arey’s group is the Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter, which is also in Woodstock.
With the faith-based organizations’ shelters shut down and thermal shelters being full and operating at 50% capacity to adhere to social-distancing precautions, the alliance has transitioned more to providing transitional housing through motel vouchers to what was less than 50 people before the pandemic to over 100 during it.
“We need to get people off the street, get them safe so we can get (them) into permanent housing,” Orndorff said.
Part of the reason for using motels for transitional housing is the moratorium on evictions causing the housing market, especially for affordable housing, to be low, Orndorff said. The action has prevented people from being forced out onto the streets but limited the number of homes people can move into, Orndorff said.
Confounding the issue, with people not being evicted from their homes and being able to stay in their residences without paying rent, tenants are collecting rent in arrears sometimes in the amount of two, three or four months, Orndorff said. No shutoff for utility services have lead to a similar issue, with some people coming forward with $1,000 or $1,500 in unpaid utility bills.
Another part of the increase in motel vouchers is due to the need for people to quarantine for 14 or more days because they were ill or had a COVID-19 exposure, Orndorff said. That in turn lead to people not being able to work and earn a paycheck, and then further not being to pay rent, while in some cases some had children at home in need of food while learning remotely.
“The fear was tremendous,” Orndorff said of people taking precautions during the pandemic.
About $120,000 has been spent on motel vouchers, Orndorff said. Her group received about $300,000 in federal grants to help with expenses, while still meeting a $60,000 budget requirement in fundraising. The group has been able to attain a small surplus of funds, which Orndorff said likely will be needed to cover an expected increase in the costs of covering back pay due for unpaid rent and utility bills.
In Front Royal, the House of Hope has benefited from physical updates to its facilities, including a $10,000 hardwood floor renovation that was done in-kind. The entire 1,300-square-foot building was painted, and doors and shelving were installed, also done by the men living there or made available through a donor.
“This has been a year of abundant resources for us,” Brown said.
The shelter had almost all 14 of its beds filled going into the end of March 2020 but has seen only nine men this year so far, Brown said. A requirement to have men show a negative COVID-19 test, which can take about four days before joining, has made it more difficult for people seeking help.
The men are allowed to stay for six months, up to nine if they need an extension, and are required to save money, like $300 of their $750 disability check every month. The goal is to save enough money to get them into permanent housing on their own, while Brown meets with them every seven to 10 days and works with them for about an hour and a half on finding a job and other needs.
“We treat each man as a person with dignity,” Brown said.
Last year up to this point, six men had issues with alcohol use and seven with drug use, Brown said. This year, nine men had issues with alcohol and three with drug issues, and a man had to leave the house for failing a drug test, which didn’t happen last year. Men were working last year, as this year, and the cases have been more complex with disabled and retired men, the latter not having as much vigor as a young man.
“It’s just not easy for them,” Brown said.
Some government funds for coronavirus-related efforts were obtained this past year, as well as funding from Warren County, Brown said. But government funding is largely avoided due to how difficult and time-consuming applications for it can be, with also the chance of not being awarded it, Brown said.
Instead, donations and fundraisers are relied on for the $75,000 to $80,000 budget the group has. The funding goes toward food, which has been fresher and more abundant this year, and basic household items for the men so they can focus on saving.
“They just got behind the effort...” Brown said of people once they become aware of his shelter’s need. “That’s reason to be grateful.”