Crisis Assistance Ministry adapts to crisis

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On Sept. 1, Crisis Assistance Ministry volunteers took 35 Katrina evacuees to a local discount retailer and helped them shop for basic necessities ranging from toothpaste to underwear.

And three days later, based on a request by the local chapter of the American Red Cross, Crisis Assistance staff and volunteers in the middle of the night loaded a truck with similar personal items from its own Home Essentials Store for 300 Katrina evacuees who were in a shelter at the Charlotte Coliseum.

Charged with providing local residents with emergency assistance that include payments to prevent eviction or the cutoff of utilities, and donated items such as food, clothes and furniture, the agency before Katrina already was turning away clients and looking for ways to help clients become economically self-sufficient, says Carol Hughes, CEO.

Katrina not only spoiled those plans, but has forced Crisis Assistance to take a hard look how to fulfill its mission in extraordinary times, she says.

With a $9.5 million annual budget, up $1 million from last year, Crisis Assistance serves 72,000 clients.

While that number has not changed in the five years Hughes has headed the agency, the value of emergency financial aid it distributes has grown to $6.8 million from $4.9 million.

And since 2001, the number of clients turned away because the agency already was operating at maximum capacity has grown to 7,800 from nearly 4,300.

“Every day I come to work, a fourth of the people can’t get served,” Hughes says.

Before Katrina, Crisis Assistance was planning to launch a new five-year campaign to increase its annual private fundraising of nearly $3.5 million by roughly 10 percent a year to pay for the economic self-sufficiency initiative and a new effort to reduce the number of people it turns away.

The United Way agency also has helped spearhead creation of a new alliance of more than one-dozen health-and-human-services groups that are working to help Katrina evacuees make the longer-term transition to the Charlotte region.

The new group, known as Transitional Assistance to Survivors of Katrina, or TASK, has team up with Mecklenburg County and aims to provide a one-stop shop for services that evacuees will need.

Those services include transportation, food, utilities, clothes, rent, health services, phone and counseling to help make connections to health and social services.

Key to the effort are thousands of volunteers, many of whom have come of local religious congregations, Hughes says.

A key challenge for Crisis Assistance, she says, is honoring the intent of its donors while adapting quickly to the needs of evacuees who have come to the region.

“Donors give to us with the intention that we will prevent people from losing everything,” she says, “and that includes helping people who have already lost everything.”

Now, as Crisis Assistance looks for ways to continue serving evacuees and to add self-sufficiency services, it also faces the job of asking donors to dig deeper.

“The challenge I’m faced with is how to absorb the new need without reducing the amount available for all who face financial crisis in this community today,” she says, “and without putting the economic self-sufficiency on hold.”

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