Life on the edge

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Samaritan House, Open Door Mission’s homeless shelter with 48 beds, is consistently overbooked.
(Photo by Mike Constanza)

The nonprofits that serve Monroe County’s homeless and hungry depend upon a patchwork of funding to continue their work. Though they appear to be holding their own, there could be problems on the horizon.

Anna Valeria-Iseman

“A large portion of our donor base is aging,” says Anna Valeria-Iseman, executive director of the Open Door Mission, which offers emergency housing, hot meals and food to the needy. “Our biggest challenge is evolving into the next generation of giving.” 

Nonprofits like Open Door have their work cut out for them. Partners Ending Homelessness, which coordinates U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding in Monroe County, says an average 849 of adults and children in the county each day are homeless.

“Those are people who are in shelters, or in places that are not meant for human habitation,” says Connie Sanderson, executive director of Partners Ending Homelessness. “They’re living on the street or in a vehicle—that kind of thing.”

Hunger stalks some county residents, as well. 

“In Monroe County, there are roughly 92,000 people who are living in a food-insecure household—that’s about one out of every eight persons,” says Emily Diaz, member services manager at Foodlink Inc. The nonprofit supplies provisions to slightly more than 200 emergency food providers in Upstate New York.

Stretched thin

Under such circumstances, those serving the county’s unhoused and hungry can find themselves stretched very thin. The House of Mercy Inc. offers a number of benefits for the needy, including the use of its 82-bed emergency shelter, which fills up most nights.

“We serve anybody that needs a place to stay,” says Kelly Finnigan, director of operations. “It’s really about a handful of days that we’re below 82 beds.”

When the weather turns cold, the House of Mercy sets up cots in its common areas and takes in as many as 110 people a night. Such high numbers can tax the facility.

“It’s just a strain on everything—on the facility, on the staff, on the volunteers, on our ability to help people and get them to move on to permanent housing,” Finnigan says.

In addition to sheltering the homeless, each day the nonprofit’s food pantry gives about 20 individuals or families some of the sustenance they need, and its soup kitchen serves about 450 meals. Both programs carry their own price tags.

“We get a lot of donated food, but we also have to purchase a lot of food to supplement that,” Finnigan explains. “It’s fairly expensive for us to run our kitchen.” 

Samaritan House, Open Door’s homeless shelter, also is consistently overbooked.

“We have 48 beds, but we’ve been sleeping an average of 65 to 70,” Valeria-Iseman says.

During the cold months, it’s not unusual for as many as 100 adults to stay in the shelter. The influx is partly the result of an executive order that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed in 2016. Under that order, localities must select facilities to which the homeless can go when the temperature falls to or below freezing.

Corinda Crossdale

“Any qualifications for emergency placement are waived,” says Corinda Crossdale, deputy county executive for health and human services. “If you’re homeless, you get placed.” 

Open Door is one of the two nonprofits that the county’s Department of Human Services pays to function as those shelters. The nonprofit also offers a transitional housing program for women and children, addiction recovery programs for men and women, and other services free of charge. As many as 100 people head to its soup kitchen each day to fill up.

Monroe County’s needy also can turn to the stand-alone soup kitchens and food pantries that are scattered around the area. Those living in two Penfield ZIP Codes, 14526 and 14625, or whose children are attending Penfield schools, might head to the Penfield Ecumenical Food Shelf. Qualified residents can shop there for staples every two months.

“Staples would include canned goods, cereal, rice, pasta, beans, applesauce, ketchup, mustard,” says Kathy Cummins, who heads the nonprofit’s board. “They would also receive some milk, eggs, chicken, hamburger, butter, cheese—that type of thing.”

The Penfield Ecumenical Food Shelf also dispenses additional food each Wednesday, and full holiday dinners at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

“For Christmas, we just provided food to about 185 families,” Cummins says.

Altogether, the all-volunteer organization gives food aid to about 110 families each week.

At Cameron Community Ministries in Rochester’s Lyell-Otis neighborhood, the number of people heading to the soup kitchen has remained relatively stable in recent years—about 26,000 sat down for meals there in 2019. At the same time, usage of the 35-year-old nonprofit’s food pantry has skyrocketed. 

 “Eight years ago, the pantry served about 250 people,” Executive Director Jennifer Muniga says. “Last year, we served over 2,000.”

Tending to needs

The overall cost of tending to the needs of the hungry has also grown over that time. 

Jennifer Muniga

“We used to have a pantry (budget) of about $10,000,” Muniga explains. “It’s been continuously rising.” 

Altogether, Cameron Community Ministries’ soup kitchen and food pantry account for about $25,000 of its $550,000 annual budget.

Outside help is essential to the operation of local nonprofits that provide direct services to those who lack a place to stay, food, or both. Foodlink takes in donations from food retailers, food manufacturers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and buys food when necessary. All are dispensed to emergency food providers—soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters and the like—at very low cost, or for free. 

“Donated product gets a shared maintenance fee put on it to help cover sorting through our product and getting your order,” Diaz explains. “If we’re purchasing the product, that will be going out at cost to our members.”

Foodlink distributes roughly 19 million pounds of food each year to more than 200 emergency food providers in 10 counties. Monroe County is home to 100 of them.

Though local shelters, soup kitchens and the like welcome such aid, they also depend upon a stream of funds to stay up and running. That revenue stream might shrink in the future, due in part to the aging of baby boomers.

According to a 2018 report, baby boomers—loosely defined as those born between 1946 and 1965—constitute the age group that gives the most to charities. In 2017, an estimated 75 percent of that cohort gave almost $60 billion to charitable organizations or causes—41 percent of all donations tendered. By contrast, Gen X, the next youngest group, donated only $32.9 billion that year.

While that might be good news for local nonprofits, the report also states that boomers’ charitable giving has declined slightly in the past few years. Self-reported per-capita donations fell from $1,212 in 2013 to $1,061 in 2018. Boomers’ portion of total donations also fell by 2 percent during that period. 

Making ends meet

None of the nonprofits that spoke to the Rochester Beacon could say how changes in boomers’ giving behaviors might affect their bottom lines, but some are generally concerned about their future revenue streams. About half of Open Door’s $3.3 million current budget comes from donations, most of which came in via direct mail campaigns.

“Our direct mail is what has sustained us, but it’s beginning to plateau,” Valeria-Iseman says. “Folks who respond to direct mail are aging.” 

In the coming years, the nonprofit will seek new ways to reach out to potential donors, while continuing to make good use of its current assets.

“We’re serving more people than we ever have, but we really haven’t grown our budget,” Valeria-Iseman says. “Part of that is because we’re doing more with what we have.”

The House of Mercy has struggled to make ends meet since it was founded 35 years ago. Stephanie Buchbinder, director of development and communications, says the nonprofit will have to take steps to make sure it continues to meet its budget, which currently stands at $1.7 million.

“We can’t rely on the same support of our small family of donors, who’ve given to us for the last 20 years,” she explains. “We’ve got to really look at a younger group of people who believe in our mission.”

Buchbinder hopes to use new ways to reach out to younger potential donors.

“We’re looking at doing some social media marketing, social marketing, digital marketing and some third-party fundraisers,” she says.

Cameron Community Ministries depends on cash donations from local church congregations that support it, and that revenue stream could be in danger of shrinking in the future.

“A lot of our donors started supporting us when we first started,” Muniga explains. “Now, after 35 years, they’re aging out. They’re older, or they’re passing away or they’re moving to Florida.”

Compounding that problem, local church congregations have been declining. Such conditions have prompted Cameron Community Ministries to take such actions as creating a marketing team. 

“We are looking at other ways to engage people,” Muniga explains. “We’re looking at visibility, and starting the support of millennials and new business owners and people like that.”

Facing a threat

There might be help for Rochester’s nonprofits that survive on donations from boomers. Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Rochester, says its donors in some cases have grown more generous over time. 

Jaime Saunders

“As our incredible donors have gotten older, they’ve accumulated more wealth, and they are investing in a wonderful way,” Saunders notes.

Boomers make up 36 percent of the agency’s financial supporters. They also constitute most of the membership of the United Way Toqueville Society, a worldwide organization of donors who take the lead in philanthropic activities. 

“That’s our donors that are (donating) $10,000 and up,” Saunders says. “That has continued to grow.”

Local members of the society gave over $5 million to the nonprofit last year alone. Altogether, 83 percent of all the money that the United Way takes in arrives in the form of individual and corporate donations, most of which are generated by its workplace campaigns. Ninety-two percent of the organization’s annual budget, currently at $29 million, goes to local nonprofits, though the organization does not help fund the local shelter system.

Threats to donation streams aren’t the only potential problems facing local nonprofits that focus on homelessness and hunger. The United Way, ESL Charitable Foundation and the Rochester Area Community Foundation recently came together to help four of them deal with a shortfall in state aid—at least, for now. 

Last October, the Salvation Army, the YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County, the Volunteers of America Upstate New York, and Spiritus Christi Church received word that more than $550,000 in grants from the Solutions to End Homelessness Program would not be coming. 

Faced with a shortfall of about $175,000, the YWCA’s Emergency Housing program, which offers housing and other assistance to single, homeless women and families, was forced to cut three of its full-time staff. Though it managed to rehire one of them part-time, the cut had an effect on the nonprofit.

“That money covered salaries,” YWCA director of housing Phyllis McElligott says. “It also covered security deposits for individuals who were looking for apartments.”

The United Way, RACF and ESL together provided $370,700 to the four nonprofits to help them adapt to the loss of state aid over the long term. Of that total, $83,000 went to the YWCA. McElligott welcomes the breather the aid has given her department.

“They’re giving us a chance to go out and find something sustainable for the future,” she says. “We can’t run with less staff.” 

That will be a task for many Monroe County nonprofits that serve the homeless and hungry. 

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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