UU congregations partner with housing, food nonprofits amid pandemic

UU congregations partner with housing, food nonprofits amid pandemic

Kansas and Arizona churches serve as emergency shelters; California and New York churches provide groceries to people in need.

Volunteers assemble grocery bags for a COVID-19 emergency food bank, run by Urban Partners Los Angeles’s Groceries For Our Neighbors program. UPLA shares a close relationship with First Unitarian Los Angeles, whose building is home to the food bank.

Volunteers assemble grocery bags at First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles for a COVID-19 emergency food bank, Groceries For Our Neighbors, run by Urban Partners Los Angeles. (Courtesy UPLA)

courtesy UPLA


By early March, when the local libraries closed, Barb McEver knew the coronavirus could do much more than simply make people sick. “During the day, we have several people that [go] to work,” said McEver, who is co-founder of Project 1020, a nonprofit in Johnson County, Kansas, dedicated to housing and feeding individuals experiencing homelessness. “But for those people that weren’t working, there was just nowhere to go. There was just no place to conveniently use a restroom, to charge their phones, to get a meal . . . People were calling me all day long saying, ‘I don’t know where to go.’ You can only hang out at a convenience store so long before you’re asked to move on.”

The new virus’s spread in the United States since March has led to social distancing and extra sanitation measures for communal spaces and has triggered a staggeringly swift and deep economic downturn. Food insecurity is on the rise and 12 percent fewer households paid their rent in April than in March. Nonprofits dedicated to feeding and housing are needed more than ever, but have had to change their operating procedures to incorporate masks, distance, and rigorous hand cleaning.

In several cases, Unitarian Universalist congregations—which have suspended all in-person gatherings and switched to online worship—have been part of the effort to house and feed people, learning new protocols or building new programs catered to current guidelines.

In Kansas, coronavirus-related closures were a difficult development for Project 1020. In December 2019, the nonprofit began hosting its seasonal cold-weather overnight shelter at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church (SMUUCh) in the city of Lenexa for the first time, after the church sued the city for that right. In mid-December SMUUCh agreed to the city’s request to settle, securing the right to host the nonprofit’s guests. The settlement agreement stipulated that the shelter close between April 1 and December 1. With libraries, restaurants, and other businesses shutting down, Project 1020’s thirty nightly guests would be left with extremely limited options if the city held SMUUCh to its April 1 close date.

As McEver began worrying for Project 1020’s guests, Trinity Donovan grappled with related concerns nearly 1,200 miles away in Chandler, Arizona. Donovan is chief executive officer of AZCEND, a social services nonprofit. Among its programs is the Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program (I-HELP). Seventeen local houses of worship participate in the program, including Valley Unitarian Universalist (VUU) in Chandler, which has hosted the program three weeks per month for about six years.

I-HELP’s model is fundamentally the same as Project 1020’s: I-HELP staffs and runs a shelter where people experiencing homelessness can arrive near dinnertime, have a hot meal, stay overnight, then get another meal before leaving the next morning. The houses of worship provide the space, and volunteers make and serve the food. Some host sites provide showers.

But with the pandemic coming in, it wasn’t clear if partners could, or would want to, keep participating—or what would be needed to keep guests, staff, and volunteers as safe and healthy as possible.

When Sue Ringler, VUU’s congregation administrator and social action coordinator, understood in mid-March that AZCEND needed to reconfigure I-HELP, she hoped VUU might step in. Sunday services had migrated to Zoom, leaving the campus nearly empty. VUU’s set-up felt ideal: I-HELP would operate in the congregation’s sanctuary, which is in a different building that the congregation’s offices. “They really are pretty much out there by themselves in the sanctuary building across the parking lot from the office,” Ringler said.

She raised the question with the congregation’s minister, the Rev. Dr. Andy Burnette. “I had said, ‘Look, here’s what’s going on, can we do this?’” Ringler said. Burnette green-lighted a two-week trial period. About a week and a half later, the board of trustees approved the shelter’s stay through April, later extending that through May via email vote. Some board members were concerned, initially. There was “just fear of the unknown, because we’ve never done anything like this before,” Ringler explained, adding that Burnette answered board members’ questions ahead of the meeting.

Since then, I-HELP has been operating at VUU. Instead of hosting once a week, VUU hosts every night, and guests can now stay during the day, too. “They never leave, actually. It’s like an in-person shelter. They’re there, they sleep overnight, some of them work nights, so they sleep during the day,” Ringler explained. “It’s I-HELP on steroids.”

A bed set up at Valley Unitarian Universalist in Chandler, Arizona, May 2020 during the Coronavirus pandemic.

A bed set up at Valley Unitarian Universalist in Chandler, Arizona, as part of AZCEND’s I-HELP program, which provides overnight shelter, food, and services to locals experiencing homelessness. In March, I-HELP shifted from rotating among seventeen houses of worship to staying at Valley UU. (Courtesy AZCEND)

courtesy AZCEND

In Kansas, government officials were in no hurry to close Project 1020’s shelter. On March 25, ten days after SMUUCh’s services moved online, congregational Vice President Dale Trott, the Rev. Rose Schwab, and McEver participated in a call with Johnson County officials and social service agencies to address homelessnes during the pandemic. “They looked at us as the low-hanging fruit, in that we already have an operating shelter, [and wanted to know]: Would we be willing to extend our arrangement with Project 1020 beyond April 1st, if it would be allowed by the city?” Trott recalled.

They were willing. The SMUUCh board approved the extension, making clear that the nonprofit needed to follow coronavirus-specific safety precautions. Seeking approval from the Lenexa City Council, Trott fielded detailed questions from council members, who on March 31 approved the extension seven to one.

From there, Project 1020 guests were welcome at SMUUCh 24/7, with more food on offer. McEver focused on the nitty-gritty of keeping people healthy. “I’ve had quite a bit of contact with the health department, because I was so concerned when it very first started as to what we should be doing,” she said. Staff increased the distance between sleeping cots, wiped down counters more, shifted away from self-serve coffee, and tracked their efforts meticulously.

Instead of bringing meals into SMUUCh, volunteers must now drop them off outside and can no longer sit down to eat with Project 1020 guests—a change also adopted by I-HELP in Arizona. “They’re really used to coming in the building, serving the folks, and then sitting down and eating with them,” said Ringler, noting the sadness of pausing those relationships.

It’s all to keep COVID-19 from spreading. McEver and Donovan both worry about shelter staff and volunteers. Many volunteers are 60 or older, the highest-risk age group, but the organizers are perhaps most concerned for their guests. McEver worried that volunteers, who are “maybe a little more social,” could put guests at greater risk. Donovan added that guests “could have additional complications if they became exposed and infected with COVID-19. As people experiencing homelessness, they may have less access to medical care.”

To minimize risk, when I-HELP and Project 1020 moved to the one-location model, they stopped accepting new guests.

In Kansas, McEver had doubled down on placing Project 1020 guests in more permanent housing, even when it became clear that the shelter would stay open. As the weeks went by, the shelter became emptier. When occupancy dipped to fewer than ten, McEver arranged for seven to stay in a hotel in a neighboring town. The shelter closed for the season on April 25.

Beds have been emptying in the VUU sanctuary, too. I-HELP can house up to twenty-five people. By early May, that had dwindled to about twelve. The overall need for AZCEND’s services is on the rise, but I-HELP residents have found housing in recent weeks. Now, as states consider the particulars of easing pandemic restrictions, AZCEND is considering how to re-open the shelter to new guests in conversation with VUU. “For us, it’s a balance of how do we keep our existing guests safe, and how do we maximize our ability to serve those who are experiencing homelessness in our community safely as well,” said Donovan. She said they are working with Maricopa County to test people currently experiencing homelessness. “Once they receive the negative test through a rapid result, those who are interested can be transported immediately to VUU to participate in the program. We were able to add five new people to the program last Friday.”

Operating under new constraints, limiting volunteer involvement and having restricted shelter capacity has been challenging for the shelters. Nonetheless, for VUU and AZCEND, shifting to first-wave pandemic mode has allowed the congregation and the nonprofit to successfully navigate change together and to continue serving the population they’ve pledged to help. And they’ve done so in time for the summer, the season most threatening to Arizona’s homeless population.

SMUUCh and Project 1020 have come out well, too, but in a more complex landscape. Although Schwab, SMUUCh’s minister, said that congregants are proud of hosting Lenexa’s only homeless shelter, she acknowledges that last fall, some congregants weren’t certain that hosting the shelter was worth going to court. The case left the church and the city with a soured relationship, and with a renewal for the 2020–2021 winter season looming. Because of the terms of their settlement, SMUUCh members worry that regulations the city is working on could prohibit the church from hosting Project 1020 come December. But now, things feel a little different.

“This . . . process with the extension was kind of a dress rehearsal for the process that’s going to take place later this year on the regulations,” Trott said. “I think we did a good job. We told them we closed the shelter on the 25th, and we have a much better relationship with them now than when we sued them last December.” He hopes that will translate into a willingness on the city’s part to look more favorably on sheltering Johnson County’s homeless in Lenexa.

McEver didn’t say much about the city. She talked a lot about phone calls: the twenty to thirty people she turned away daily when the Project 1020 shelter was open this winter, and the people she knows from their time as guests and keeps in touch with. And, as of early May, she’d gotten more calls, from new people. There has been “a definite uptick, especially in the last ten days,” she said, with many from people calling about shelter for the very first time. “There’s definitely going to be more people experiencing homelessness,” she said.

Food bank clients line up to make use of a COVID-19 emergency food bank at First Unitarian Los Angeles, May 2020.

Food bank clients line up to make use of a COVID-19 emergency food bank, Groceries For Our Neighbors, run by Urban Partners Los Angeles and housed at First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. (Courtesy UPLA)

courtesy UPLA

In Los Angeles’s Koreatown, nonprofit Urban Partners Los Angeles (UPLA) started the Our Groceries for Our Neighbors program in 1992. Volunteers with the UU-founded nonprofit distribute groceries from First Unitarian Church, where UPLA is also headquartered. The second week of March, Rochelle McAdam, president of UPLA’s board and Volunteer Executive Director Trinity Tran took a week off to figure out how to keep volunteers safe. They’ve implemented COVID-19 safety guidelines recommended by the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. Regional Food Bank for food distribution.

“For the first time in our program’s existence, people are waiting in line at midnight for our door to open at 7 a.m.,” said McAdam and First Unitarian President Keola Whittaker via email. According to Tran, UPLA’s normal weekly distribution of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of food has grown to 25,000 to 40,000 pounds. “Since the Safer at Home mandates were announced, we have distributed over 214,000 pounds of food, 9,860 grocery bags, to over 5,300 neighbors,” she said in a May 20 email.

While First Unitarian drew on decades of partnership experience to continue supporting its community, a new “Pandemic and Privilege” vision propelled the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern, New York, into food security work. The Rev. Chris J. Antal’s April 19 sermon challenged the “pandemically privileged” to acknowledge their moral and financial responsibility to help “those facing food, healthcare, and economic insecurity.” To do so, the congregation established the UUCRT COVID-19 Task Force, which includes a new food security initiative.

Rock Tavern received a $5,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Orange and Sullivan, a local nonprofit dedicated to benefitting residents and families in the region, which is about 70 miles north of New York City, and is raising money from congregants and members of the community. The congregation stores groceries in the church and delivers them to people who need a food emergency delivery.

An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of UU World (pages 58–59).