MIFA's Response to COVID-19
On March 2, 2020, our leadership team camped out in a conference room, ordered lunch, and sketched out a work plan that would guide our operations for longer than anyone expected. We set organizational priorities: ensuring a supply of shelf-stable and frozen meals for our senior clients, equipping teams to work remotely, and implementing safety measures to protect staff who would remain on site.
MIFA has a long history of adapting and innovating. Our flexibility has allowed us to stay relevant and responsive for more than 50 years. The coronavirus pandemic has presented an entirely new set of challenges, and it has asked a lot of us. But through a commitment to the neighbors who need us, trust in each other, and the support of this generous community, MIFA has found new ways to serve—and even to serve more.
Meals on Wheels
One of the most beloved aspects of Meals on Wheels programs across the country is the opportunity for personal connection. The staff and volunteers who deliver meals also give hugs, shake hands, stay and visit with seniors who otherwise might spend the whole day alone. But in a pandemic, those vital interactions put our clients, our staff, and our volunteers—most of whom are seniors themselves—at risk.
One of our first priorities was to find a delivery model that mitigated that risk but still allowed us to serve these vulnerable neighbors. We reduced hot meal deliveries to three days a week and supplemented with shelf-stable and frozen meals, which can be packed in boxes and delivered less often, stored by clients until they need them. Early in the pandemic, clients received a few extras each week, to help build a meal supply in case our service was interrupted. Our only service interruption came in the form of a snowstorm in February 2021; then our staff managed to get a few meals out to seniors in dire need, and we distributed water provided by the City of Memphis to clients during the subsequent boil water alert.
When a number of volunteers suspended their deliveries due to concerns about their own health, the City of Memphis and staff from Memphis Public Libraries offered their time to pack boxes and deliver meals. Their support kept us going during the first months of the pandemic—they completed nearly 900 volunteer shifts!
When we learned that the city planned to end communal dining at congregate meal sites, where we serve meals to about 800 seniors a day, we shifted to providing a shelf-stable or frozen five-pack to those clients each week too. Seniors still pick up boxes once a week at their regular congregate sites; we’ve increased our clients served at the sites and even opened a new one in Arlington.
For thousands of seniors right here in Memphis, “social distancing” was a way of life long before it was a CDC recommendation. For those who are homebound, the guidelines put in place to protect them from the coronavirus also deepened their isolation. Just like hunger, loneliness can have profound effects on health over time. During our modified delivery schedule—which is in place for the foreseeable future—meals staff and MIphone Buddy volunteers now place weekly check-in calls to our home-delivered and congregate clients.
Like Meals on Wheels, our emergency assistance programs for families have always relied on face-to-face interactions between clients and staff. When we think of Emergency Services, we think of a waiting room filled with parents and children, single adults and seniors waiting to apply for services. But one of the first steps we knew we had to take when coronavirus hit was closing our doors to visitors and moving our application process online.
Staff quickly became accustomed to remote work and coached clients on submitting supporting documentation electronically. In the spring, after a surge of applications, our numbers leveled off again. MLGW enacted a cutoff moratorium, so utility requests lost their urgency. Then a new topic began to make national headlines: a looming eviction crisis like the country had never seen, resulting from income losses related to COVID-19. When courts reopened in June to a backlog of 9,000 eviction cases, we knew at least some of those clients would come to us for help. Eviction bans and other temporary relief programs only delayed the inevitable: tenants would eventually be accountable for all the bills and fees that accrued during the moratoriums.
Some relief came when MIFA was selected to administer $3.5 million in CARES Act funding through the Council Emergency Relief Program. Over three months, this funding allowed us to assist 2,595 additional households with utility, rent, and mortgage assistance.
Since the pandemic began, we have observed and adjusted our online applications. In keeping with the customer service objectives in our current strategic plan, we have made our application process smoother and more accessible, with the goal of serving all our clients with dignity and equity. The Emergency Services team has streamlined their process for reviewing and approving applications to serve people faster; provided a help desk, a document drop box, and translation services to improve access; and coordinated an electronic referral process for clients who need additional support. The need for emergency assistance remains high—we receive 1,300 applications on average per month—as we enter a winter when natural gas prices are projected to rise significantly, increasing the utility burden on a population that already can’t afford it.
Our Emergency Housing program continues to face housing inventory issues that have long been a barrier to these services, including a shortage of emergency shelter beds in our community as well as a severe and diminishing shortage of affordable housing. We continue to use hotel and motel placements for families in need of emergency shelter when shelter beds are not available, and those stays are getting longer as we struggle to find safe, affordable housing and landlords who are willing to work with families with history of eviction.
Our City, Our Story
The pandemic also led us to reimagine annual fundraiser Our City, Our Story as a virtual event, of which we have now hosted two: Dr. Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City in 2020 and a thought-provoking conversation between authors Kiese Laymon (How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) in 2021.
The lessons we have learned during the pandemic will stay with us when we return to “normal.” Our staff have stepped up and stepped out of their comfort zones, taken on new tasks and cross-trained for new roles, and sought new and innovative ways to serve. Our volunteers have learned new skills to support the clients they care about so deeply. And our donors have recognized that a crisis like this means more people will need MIFA and increased their support. Thank you for all the ways you help us continue to serve more.