Turning crisis into success

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Connecting people in financial crisis with community agencies that can help them address the roots of their problems is the focus of a new initiative at Crisis Assistance Ministry.

With a $25,000 seed grant from Myers Park United Methodist Church, Crisis Assistance plans by November 1 to hire a full-time caseworker who will work with 550 people a year.

“The outcome will be reduction in their need to come again to Crisis Assistance Ministry for support, and greater financial stability for the family,” says Carol Hughes, CEO.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, Crisis Assistance interviewed nearly 22,000 people needing emergency financial assistance while turning away another 6,500.

Only in the previous year, at the peak of the recession, did the agency interview more people, nearly 24,300, and turn more away, 6,700, since it was formed in 1975 by the Charlotte Clergy Association to serve people in tough financial straits.

People facing eviction or cutoff of their utilities because they cannot pay their bills typically turn to Crisis Assistance, which works with landlords and utility companies to prevent the eviction or cutoff, distributes donated clothing, household goods and furniture, and refers clients to other agencies for support.

Still, “they don’t leave here with in-depth knowledge of community resources,” Hughes says. “We give them connections and referrals, but due to the complexity of their lives, follow-up is not always possible.”

While caseworkers now interview clients for about one hour each when they visit Crisis Assistance, the caseworker it will hire for its new “Client Success Project” will work with each client for up to 90 days to connect them to community resources.

“Our nonprofit partners tell us they need us to help identify people who are appropriate and ready for their programs,” Hughes says. “So we actually become an intake resource for our partners.”

Last year, for example, Crisis Assistance referred nearly 14,500 families to at least 40 programs at more than 20 partner agencies.

Now, based on the more intensive focus it plans to give to clients, Crisis Assistance will try to identify their individual needs and problems, which often are interconnected and can range from health and housing to family violence, job-training, credit and banking.

A family without health insurance, for example, might be referred to Physicians Reach Out, a program that assigns each client to a physician who works on a pro-bono basis and becomes that client’s personal doctor.

Crisis Assistance also might refer the same family to separate family counseling, job-training and financial-literacy and savings programs it has concluded will best meet the family’s needs.

The agency also will keep in touch with the family, monitoring its progress and needs.

Hughes aims to secure more funding and hire a second caseworker for the new program in the current fiscal year and increase its staff to three to five caseworkers within three to five years, with each casework serving 550 clients a year.

Private donations to the agency grew to nearly $2.4 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2004, from nearly $2.2 million a year earlier, with the number of donors growing to nearly 6,800 from just under 6,000, and the average gift growing to $221 from $193.

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