Tampa Bay nonprofits fear lengthy recession will overwhelm their ability to help

Christopher O'Donnell | Tampa Bay Times

Apr 16, 2020

Volunteer Lisa Keenan, Seminole, fills boxes with grocery items at the Florida Dream Center food warehouse in Clearwater on Tuesday. The warehouse provides 300 people with food, once a week, in Lealman. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Even in the best of times, nonprofits struggle to find the money to help Tampa Bay’s neediest families.

How then to keep people afloat in a crisis that has seen 16 million people across the country lose their jobs, the demand on local food banks rise by 400 percent and an estimated 16 percent of tenants already behind on April’s rent?

That tsunami of need is stretching local nonprofits to the breaking point. Metropolitan Ministries last week suspended its financial assistance program in the face of a “staggering” demand for help with rent payments. More than 80 percent of Tampa Bay nonprofits have canceled or cut programs or are planning to do so, according to the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay.

An outpouring of support has helped in the short-term. Feeding Tampa Bay scooped up big name donations from the Tampa Bay Rays and Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen. United Way Suncoast received $1 million in donations in just the past month.

But United Way Suncoast has received funding requests totaling $4.5 million from partner nonprofits trying to feed, house and care for families and provide internet access for children in school.

The concern is that the economic fallout from the coronavirus shutdown will outlast donors’ enthusiasm, leaving nonprofits overwhelmed. About 80 percent of local nonprofits have been forced to cancel fundraising activities. Some have applied for emergency loans through the federal Cares Act so they can continue to make payroll.

“We’re walking two lines of being responsive to a crisis and facing a crisis in our sector to make sure (nonprofits) have the resources to provide those services,” said Jessica Muroff, United Way Suncoast executive director. “This will have impacts for years to come. I worry about the sustainability of some of our smaller programs that serve tremendous needs in our community.”

The crisis also has exposed a longstanding weakness in Tampa Bay’s economy: too many people living paycheck to paycheck.

About 1.8 million people in Tampa Bay live in households making less than $52,000, or twice the federal poverty rate for a family of four, Muroff said. Many of them work in the retail, tourism and restaurant sectors devastated by the coronavirus lockdown.

More proof of that vulnerability came in a 2019 United Way study that found 43 percent of Tampa Bay area households struggling to afford child care, food, transportation, housing and health care.

“Families don’t have the income to weather these kinds of interruptions,” Muroff said.

The 211 telephone line at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has been a bellwether of the coronavirus’ impact. At the end of February, just 14 calls were labeled as COVID-19 issues. By the end of March, that had risen to 704, the vast majority from people asking for assistance to feed their families or keep a roof over their heads.

It’s impossible to help them all at once, said chief executive officer Clara Reynolds.

“Everybody wants a fix right now,” she said. “Because of the gravity and breadth of this crisis, we have to help folks understand and manage their expectations.”

About $1.7 million of the center’s annual $15 million budget comes from donors. It raised half of that at a fundraiser in February before the shutdown began. It is using emails and telephone calls to stay in touch with donors.

“We would be in such hot water if we had waited even a month longer,” Reynolds said. “I know fellow nonprofits; they are just dying on the vine.”

A Publix semi-trailer dropped off much-needed grocery items at the Florida Dream Center in Clearwater on Tuesday.

The center, with a staff of about 17, serves Lealman, an unincorporated, high-poverty area in mid-Pinellas.

The center suspended a craft class for victims of human trafficking because of social-distancing rules. Its focus now is on maintaining its food bank so it can feed families and seniors.

Last month, it gave out 91,000 pounds of food and expects to double that in April. The number of people seeking help has risen from an average of eight a day to about 40, said executive director Steve Cleveland.

But it’s been a struggle to keep up with demand, especially since donations from grocery stores have included less meat. Fearful of a food shortage, the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County has given out a total of $300,000 to four Pinellas food banks, including the Dream Center.

The center has sent its own staffers to Palmetto, Ocala and Lakeland to get food.

“If we had more food, we would be giving it out,” Cleveland said.

The center has applied for federal help. It is waiting to hear if it will get the $60,000 needed to make payroll for the next two months.

And they have seen familiar faces among those asking for help.

“The people who usually help us are now asking for our help, and that is hard,” Cleveland said.

Metropolitan Ministries had planned to suspend its financial assistance program for just a week. But on Monday, the group was still working to reinstate the program that had received 1,700 requests for help with rent and utility bills totaling about $1.5 million.

Chief executive officer and president Tim Marks said the stimulus payments hitting people’s accounts this week will help. And he welcomed Tampa’s announcement of a program for residents who need help paying the rent.

But he is worried about donor fatigue and that the strain on nonprofits will take a toll on its workers. The time of greatest need may still lay ahead, he warned.

“We think that the tsunami that is coming is still three to six months away when jobs maybe don’t reappear,” Marks said. “I don’t know how many people will fully recover and their job be there when it’s time to get back to work.”

Want to donate?

United Way Suncoast: unitedwaysuncoast.org/

Feeding Tampa Bay: feedingtampabay.org/

Crisis Center of Tampa Bay: crisiscenter.com

Florida Dream Center: floridadreamcenter.org/

Metropolitan Ministries: metromin.org/