Buckhead Christian Ministry was already near capacity in its mission of helping people in need across metro Atlanta avoid the loss of homes. Now in the pandemic economy, it’s found a way — with help from local governments and churches —  to triple its daily emergency assistance applications as demand skyrockets.

“The demand on our helpline was more than we could handle before this crisis. It’s just that now we’re being asked to do even more,” said Keeva Kase, president and CEO at the nonprofit, which is based on Piedmont Road but works through the metro area. “…I think that what’s been illuminated is that the social safety net was already in bad shape, so people are coming around to shore it up right now as best they can.”

Keeva Kase, president and CEO of Buckhead Christian Ministry. (Special)

Founded in 1987 by a group of local churches, BCM is known for providing emergency assistance in the form of a food pantry — now temporarily closed — and money to cover rent, mortgages or utilities. But its real speciality is offering long-term financial planning and support to make sure households at risk of homelessness stay stable.

According to its annual report, BCM in fiscal year 2019 served 5,952 individuals, including 1,885 people who avoided eviction. Kase says the nonprofit was on track to help 8,000 people this year.

Noting that about 25% of the metro population falls below the federal poverty level, Kase said, “They were in need before this happened.”

As school districts began announcing pandemic closures in early March, Kase said, local assistance nonprofits took notice and predicted that a shock to the system was coming. On March 13, leaders of several organizations, including the Sandy Springs-based Community Assistance Center, joined in a conference call to strategize.

One conclusion was that a lot of food assistance programs would be ready, while BCM’s version was in a low-use time of year. BCM decided it would close the pantry and focus on its programs to keep people in their homes. “We recognized that what we do best is direct financial assistance,” he said.

BCM also realized that shutdown of its own office was likely coming. “We got ourselves virtual very quickly,” he said. “If you think about it as wartime, we secured the fort. We got our people in their positions, and then we continued to do what we do best.”

The challenge was large and involved retraining staff and volunteers for new roles and new ways of doing the work on an upgraded website. In the end, Kase said, the effort paid off by increasing intake capacity. Formerly, BCM could handle eight client appointments a day under the largely in-person system. Now it can handle up to 24.

But the shutdowns also came with costs to BCM. A major fundraiser was canceled. Its popular Buckhead THRIFTique thrift store on Miami Circle had to close just months after a renovation doubled its size and tripled its income. “We had a grand opening and a grand closing in a matter of six or seven weeks,” said Kase of the store closing, which he estimates would have brought BCM $40,000 a month.

That’s in a time when BCM is not only trying to meet the pandemic demand, but also has long-term commitments, including 15 families on 12- to 18-month rental assistance as part of its “Budget for Life” financial coaching program.

On the other hand, help has arrived in forms ranging from money to moral support. “There’s some artillery that’s showing up,” says Kase. The Fulton County Board of Commissioners provided $250,000; the small Sardis United Methodist Church in Buckhead, a BCM partner, gave $2,500.

Buckhead’s Northside Church, another BCM partner, gave $25,000 as part of more than $62,000 in donations to charitable nonprofits. Lynette Brown, the church’s director of missions, said in a press release that the focus is on housing and hunger “at a time when resources have been suddenly and drastically stretched trying to meet the needs of those in our community most impacted by the economic fallout of the pandemic.”

And while the THRIFTique isn’t making money, it also isn’t costing rent, thanks to landlord Alex Davis, said Kase. “He was just like, ‘Man, don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out. You’re doing great work in the community and we need your resources now more than ever,’” Kase said.

Kase said he’s also inspired by the nonprofit’s hundreds of volunteers and by such board members as Dr. Patricia Meadors of Buckhead’s Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. Meadors, an emergency room physician, showed up for a board vote via Zoom conference still clad in her personal protective gear, he said. “She’s a board member and she’s dedicated to the mission because she knows who we serve,” he said.

Now BCM is using those resources to try to keep pace with a demand where “nearly every call for assistance is COVID-related,” Kase said. “Job loss and lack of childcare for those still working are leading barriers for households in need.”

And it’s just the beginning, he noted, as such impacts as eviction hearings in court have yet to come back online. “The bills are stacked way up against the people. That’s a reality that’s maybe coming at us in a way I hope we can get prepared for,” he said.

BCM’s approach of long-term support is one that has to be kept in mind with the pandemic crisis, Kase said, “because this not just about a Band-Aid covering up a wound. This is a full recovery that we’re looking at. This is 30, 60, 90 days at a minimum that we’re looking at. We need to start talking about recovery at this point.”

For more information about BCM and its programs, see its website here.

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.