With Atlanta unemployment at a historically low 2.8%, 1 out of 5 residents in 2019 still lived below the federal poverty line of $26,172 annual income for a four-person household, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even with at least one adult employed full-time, these families struggled to cover rent, food, utilities and other basic expenses.
Then came COVID-19. On March 13, 2020, the economy shut down. Families already struggling were clobbered. And even as the economy showed signs of recovery at the end of 2020, those living in poverty remained in crisis.
But they were not abandoned, thanks to a number of concerned nonprofits. One of them was Buckhead Christian Ministry, whose mission is to “keep people from becoming homeless and work to elevate their possibilities for economic empowerment.”
“These families were already stressed out before the pandemic, working for wages insufficient to meet their expenses,” said BCM President and CEO Keeva Kase. “The pandemic complicated everything for them.”
It also complicated everything for the non-profits that help them. In the year leading up to the shutdown, BCM spent $902,134 on direct client benefit. A year later, that number is $2,567,859 — requiring more funding during a time when major fundraisers are not happening.
In response, BCM has streamlined its services to focus on the greatest need and offers both one-time emergency financial assistance and longer-term support and education.
Emergency assistance helps families with the sudden inability to pay rent, mortgage or utilities because of illness or death in the family, loss of job, reduction in work hours or pay, or major unexpected expenses.
Longer-term assistance is more comprehensive, lasting 12 to 18 months during which time families build a foundation for economic stability by finding more appropriate housing and receiving weekly case management, bi-weekly coaching on key issues, money-management education, debt remediation and savings matches of up to $1,000.
And, of course, there’s the issue of simply making more money.
“Warehouses need forklift drivers, HVAC needs repair people, and there are many customer-assistance positions available,” said Kase. “So, we pay for professional training for people to do these higher-wage jobs. We also teach resume writing and interviewing skills.”
For BCM, like all of us, surviving the pandemic required major changes. Everyone immediately began working remotely, but with less disruption than expected thanks to already having moved many functions online. The totally renovated and expanded thrift store closed just two months after its grand reopening. The food pantry closed. And the scramble began for funding to meet the growing need.
According to Kase, some of these changes have had unexpectedly positive consequences.
“We recognized that what we do best is direct financial assistance,” he said. “So, we closed our food pantry and donated 5,000 pounds of food to another nonprofit. Now we focus entirely on rent, mortgages and utilities.”
And by interviewing applicants virtually rather than in person, BCM case managers can handle significantly more appointments a day.
“We were already overwhelmed before the pandemic,” said Kase. “Now we’re spending more money than ever in our history by a factor of three.”
The good news is that the nonprofits that are helping people are also helping one another.
“It’s a truism [that] we can’t do this alone. We’re coming together while we’re apart,” said Kase.
When I asked him what our readers could do to help besides donating money, he replied simply: “Shop.”
He was referring to BCM’s now-reopened thrift store called Buckhead THRIFTique.
To see for myself, I visited THRIFTique, where Director of Retail Operations Michelle Krompegal gave me a tour.
What I saw looked more like a high-end consignment store than a thrift store. The front section was full of quality furniture, lamps, china, silver and crystal, plus jewelry and an ample book section. Beyond that was an expanse of clothing for men, women and children — with business suits for men, copious amounts of denim and all manner of other garments displayed by style and color.
My biggest surprise was the selection of dreamy, like-new wedding dresses — a definite wow.
“We have great donors,” said Krompegal, who accepts only the best items and sells or donates the rest to other charities.
THRIFTique is located at 800 Miami Circle, Suite 160, in Buckhead. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. The store follows strict Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pandemic safety guidelines, accepts credit cards, and provides delivery for a fee. For information, call 404-365-8811 or go to buckheadchristianministry.org/thriftique.