The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated just how fragile, and how essential, Baltimore’s safety net is. Even before the pandemic exposed extensive needs for food, shelter, and access to health care, many in our city struggled to meet their own, and their families’, basic needs. During fiscal year 2019, United Way of Central Maryland’s 211 information and referral line received more than 51,000 calls from individuals in Baltimore City seeking assistance with a variety of needs. Requests for assistance with housing, utility expenses, and food represented three of the top four needs of Baltimore City 211 callers. Moreover, according to the Maryland Food Bank, 21.3% of Baltimore residents are food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity is highly stressful for families, forcing many to make impossible choices between purchasing food, paying the rent or utilities, refilling needed prescriptions, purchasing diapers and other baby supplies, or obtaining health care.
Fortunately, Baltimore has many community-based organizations that are dedicated to helping families in crisis meet their basic needs by distributing food, supplies, and flexible financial assistance. The Abell Foundation has a long history of supporting these organizations, which play a vital role in sustaining Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents. Here we highlight three such organizations.
Founded in 1968 by the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, the Franciscan Center is an emergency outreach center that serves individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, including many who are employed but don’t earn enough money to cover their household expenses. The center provides a hot, mid-day meal Monday through Friday and dinners on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and provides counseling, financial assistance, and related services to low-income Baltimore City residents. Financial and support services include utility assistance and eviction-prevention grants, procurement of birth certificates and identification cards required for government benefits, prescription assistance, transportation assistance, and dental assistance. In addition, the center’s social workers make referrals to other agencies, including health care and housing agencies, to address client needs that cannot be met at the center.
With a staff of 12, assisted by an extensive network of volunteers, the Franciscan Center served an average of 350-500 meals per day during 2019. In addition, the center’s responsive services department provides case management and financial support to individuals and families facing a variety of challenges, with the goal of stabilizing clients and addressing the underlying problems that led them there. The center utilizes a case management program called Steps to Self Sufficiency, which guides participants through a process of goal setting with an eye toward achieving independence.
Founded in 1970 as a soup kitchen sponsored by the Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, the Samaritan Community’s services have expanded over the past 50 years to meet the evolving needs of low-income residents in crisis. Current services include a food pantry, clothing shop, emergency financial assistance, individual and group counseling, and referrals to other agencies for services that the Samaritan Community does not provide. The center’s staff works with each client to address the issues that led to crisis, whether unemployment, addiction, mental health disorders, or education barriers. Flexible financial assistance is available to address client needs, which may include paying rent or utility bills, purchasing prescription medications, or paying for employment-related expenses. The center also offers a variety of support groups, including a weekly “breakfast club,” in which clients, staff, and volunteers share a meal and support each other in addressing personal challenges.
In 2019, the Samaritan Community served 320 households, with an estimated impact on over 1,000 men, women, and children. The center provided $33,000 in emergency financial assistance; 8,835 bags of food; and thousands of hours of individual counseling, case management, and group support. The clients seeking services reported a range of needs, including 83% who were unemployed when they came to the center, 59% who have a chronic physical illness, 43% who have a mental health disorder, and 27% who are in recovery from a substance use disorder.
ShareBaby is part of a national network of “diaper banks” that distribute diapers and other essential baby supplies to families in need. Diaper need, or the inability to purchase an adequate supply of diapers, is a hidden problem faced by many low-income families. Diapers are not an allowable expense under any public safety net programs, and families who lack access to large grocery stores or “big box” stores often pay inflated prices for diapers purchased at corner stores. Diaper need negatively impacts families in several ways: It increases health risks for babies, causing diaper rash and urinary tract infections; it can prevent parents from accessing child care because many child care providers require parents to supply a minimum number of diapers on a weekly or monthly basis; and it is a leading cause of parental stress and depression.
ShareBaby addresses this problem by soliciting donations of diapers, wipes, clothing, and other essential items from community members, corporations, and national partners, and distributing these items through a network of 50 community-based partner agencies, which in turn distribute the items to families in need. During 2019, ShareBaby distributed more than 1 million diapers and other items, which reached nearly 16,000 children. With just three staff members, ShareBaby relies on a network of over 3,000 volunteers who assist with soliciting donations and sorting and packaging items for distribution. ShareBaby works with a broad range of partner organizations in Baltimore, including homeless service and domestic violence programs, Judy Centers, home visiting programs, and programs serving refugees and asylees, to provide these essential items to families for whom the cost of diapers can be an insurmountable expense.
Information published March 2021.