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With fewer volunteers and resources, Baltimore County nonprofits adapt to serve vulnerable groups

As restrictive measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic in Maryland continue to disrupt social spaces, the economy and labor market, nonprofits in Baltimore County — and the state — are scrambling to change the way they serve vulnerable groups.

Some are struggling to adjust as they lose donations and volunteers who aren’t able to show up as demand rises.

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“For some nonprofits, their revenue has gone close to zero [dollars] overnight,” said Heather Iliff, president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, an advocacy and networking organization that connects more than 1,000 nonprofits in the state with financial resources. “It’s a range of [nonprofits] hitting a brick wall, or they’re on overdrive, and everywhere in between.”

Locally, groups like Catonsville Emergency Assistance have had to adjust to comply with social distancing edicts under the strain of fewer donations and canceled fundraisers.

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“We serve a very vulnerable population,” said Bonnie Harry, Catonsville Emergency Assistance executive director.

They are “the first to feel the effects and be left out” during national crises, she said. “We’re striving not to let that happen.”

“All the ways that nonprofits sustain themselves are all being severely affected.”


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The nonprofit shuttered its doors in March amid escalating mandates from state and local officials urging residents to socially distance by avoiding close contact with others to prevent disease spread, and following orders closing restaurants, malls and other businesses deemed “non-essential.”

In that time, donations dwindled, Harry said. Food drives that typically bring in 3,000 pounds of food were canceled. Local churches are no longer meeting for worship, nixing a large portion of money and hundreds of pounds of food usually collected from congregants and given to Catonsville Emergency Assistance each week.

“There are a number of people who don’t have jobs right now,” Harry said. “Those folks that would either go to church or that would come by and, you know, drop off 20 to 30 pounds of food because they went to the grocery store and they thought about us … they’re not going to be able to do that for a while. And we recognize that.”

Maryland nonprofits receive about 12% of their revenue from donations, with more than 40% of funding brought in by fundraising events and programming, Iliff said.

Government funding for nonprofits accounts for 32% of their revenue, she added.

“You would think that the government funding would be able to be steady during this time, but a lot based on contracted deliverables that might be impossible during the outbreak,” Iliff said.

That means nonprofits whose grant funding depends on delivering services that have been interrupted by the pandemic may not see that money at all.

“All the ways that nonprofits sustain themselves are all being severely affected,” Iliff said.

Catonsville Emergency Assistance needs soup, vegetables, canned meals and canned fruit, cereal, starchy foods like scalloped potatoes and rice, peanut butter and jelly and pasta sauce, according to its Facebook page. Donations can be dropped off Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at 25 Bloomsbury Ave., Harry said.

The organization, which serves more than 400 individuals during a normal month, is reopening Monday with a drive-through service for existing clients at its Bloomsbury Avenue location.

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Instead of handing off food within the building, volunteers inside will handle packed bags for scheduled drive-through appointments, while Harry coordinates traffic and two volunteers outside load the food into clients’ cars.

The Assistance Center of Towson Churches also has changed its daily operations.

The West Pennsylvania Avenue facility closed its doors to the public, reduced its hours and, to adhere to social-distancing orders, canceled its financial assistance programs that required in-person contact, said Linda Lotz, Assistance Center executive director.

It’s hard, Lotz said, "because people will come here if they’re having trouble finding shelter” or need other financial aid.

The center offers meals daily to the homeless and is allowing individual families to receive food every two weeks rather than every three months, and has blocked off the entrance with tables, where those looking for food will be met by a volunteer wearing a face mask. The volunteer collects identifying information before handing off the pre-packed bags.

Lotz said the consortium of 50 churches has not seen waning support.

“I get almost more questions every day like, ‘What can we can do to help?’” Lotz said.

The organization needs monetary donations, bottled water, food items, volunteers and prayers, Lotz said.

Staffing and retaining volunteers for the state’s 30,000 nonprofits has been another hurdle, Iliff said.

For the Catonsville-based Lazarus Caucus, some volunteers — many of them retired and older than 60, considered to be at high risk of COVID-19 complications — have opted to stay home.

The Lazarus Caucus delivers food and provides counseling and financial services to guests at the Westside Men’s Shelter.

Since volunteers generally “are a vulnerable population serving a vulnerable population, they’re not there," said Lazarus Caucus Executive Director Andrea Ratajczak.

The organization can no longer provide supplemental one-on-one support to men staying at the shelter, and is now “being more challenged in everything that we do,” Ratajczak said.

Remaining volunteers are no longer going into the shelter, and must be screened for flu-like symptoms before dropping off food in a Tupperware tub outside. As customers panic-buy and stock up at grocery stores, little is left to redistribute to the state’s most vulnerable groups.

Thousands of pre-packed lunches that would have been made by private and public school students and provided to the shelter will never make it there, given the state-ordered school closures.

Food for the Westside shelter is also sourced from the Maryland Food Bank, but “it’s not enough,” Ratajczak said.

The Maryland Food Bank, which operates a location in Halethorpe, has seen an increase of between 20% and 30% in orders this month, communications director Joanna Warner estimated.

The Food Bank has lost a significant number of volunteers possibly due to confusion over essential versus non-essential businesses, Warner said. The Food Bank is looking for healthy volunteers from 13 years old up to 60 years old to volunteer in shifts, and has extended its work week from five to six days a week to keep up with higher demand, Warner said.

The Food Bank is also seeking monetary donations; Warner said for every dollar donated, the bank can provide enough discounted food to prepare three meals.

“We certainly ask that people who have the means to step up their giving during this crisis to please consider doing that,” Iliff said, not only to nonprofits that are continuing to function, but to those that have had to suspend or cancel services so they may be able to reopen.

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Maryland Nonprofits is joining nonprofits throughout the U.S. pushing Congress to include in its economic relief package $60 billion in emergency funding for nonprofits and to allow their participation in the emergency Small Business Loan program, Iliff said.

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For Harry, while the pandemic is worsening conditions, she hopes it sheds light on the persistent need in the state’s most at-risk communities.

“COVID-19 didn’t start food insecurity, and it didn’t bring about a food shortage. We’re short of food 365 days a year,” she said. “People are hungry and people need to eat.”

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