A volunteer delivers food to a family’s home in Pontiac. Lighthouse’s Thanksgiving food distribution provided food boxes to 2,000 families.
A volunteer delivers food to a family’s home in Pontiac. Lighthouse’s Thanksgiving food distribution provided food boxes to 2,000 families. (Courtesy of Lighthouse)

The need for emergency food and emergency shelter services has increased dramatically.

Local nonprofit Lighthouse, which helps the fight against homelessness and poverty in the community by providing food, shelter, transitional housing, affordable housing developments and other services, has pivoted and expanded to accommodate the increase in the local community’s needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, emergency food distribution shifted from being supplemental to being entirely essential, not only needing to provide to more families, but also providing them with everything they need all at once in a safe, no-contact manner. 

“That meant home delivery for some people, working with a broad base of volunteers to coordinate delivery of food boxes to households across the county,” said Ryan Hertz, the Jewish president and CEO of Lighthouse. “It also meant expanding the number of sites where we distribute food and partnering with other pantries to distribute our food boxes through them.”

Lighthouse CEO Ryan Hertz
Lighthouse CEO Ryan Hertz Courtesy of Lighthouse

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Lighthouse’s emergency food efforts have increased tremendously, from serving about 300-500 households a week to around 5,000 a week. 

Before the pandemic, Light-house provided emergency shelter out of churches and synagogues with guests moving week-to-week to different congregations to provide those services. That immediately became unsafe, and the agency realized it needed to pivot.

The emergency shelter program moved to hotel rooms to keep clients, volunteers and partners safe. Shelters became unsafe due to potential COVID exposure.

Through Lighthouse’s crowdfunding platform, HandUp, a campaign was created to raise $25,000 for unanticipated costs associated with moving its shelter into another format. 

United Way for Southeast Michigan committed $50,000 to try and push the campaign’s goal to $100,000. Several other groups then provided a match as well. Between governmental, corporate and foundation support, plus individual donations, the campaign raised about $3 million by the end of 2020.

“All of that funding went to purchasing food wholesale and for our food distribution work, to renting hotel rooms and providing meals to our shelter clients, and equipment and logistical support around those initiatives,” Hertz said. “We were very lucky to have a community surround us with support to make all this happen.”

Lighthouse volunteers work on the holiday Adopt-a-Family program, which helped more than 500 families celebrate the holidays with some level of normalcy, warmth and joy.
Lighthouse volunteers work on the holiday Adopt-a-Family program, which helped more than 500 families celebrate the holidays with some level of normalcy, warmth and joy. Courtesy of Lighthouse
A Long-Term Approach

On any given night, Lighthouse is serving four times the number of households with emergency shelter services during the pandemic. 

Lighthouse is also in the midst of renovating a building to create the only homeless emergency shelter in Oakland County specifically designated for families.

“The way I describe it to our staff and board is we’re building a plane in the air, and now we have to build the landing gear,” Hertz said. “We need to figure out more sustainable approaches, moving out of crisis mode into a longer-term approach to continue to zero in on the most acute needs in our community.”

Starting to run out of hoteling dollars and 2020 campaign funds, Lighthouse had to figure out its longer-term plan for families. The answer was adapting one of its legacy transitional housing facilities into an emergency shelter facility.

“The rationale was that we took the grants for transitional housing and worked to convert those to transition-in-place grants, meaning instead of people coming into our building for two years and then moving out, we work with them to secure an apartment in the community, provide them with rental assistance and supportive service for two years, and then they can transition-in-place and take over their lease at the end of the program so they’re not displaced,” Hertz said. 

That decision opened the way for the legacy transitional housing facility to be converted into an emergency shelter program for shorter-term crisis situations, with 18 apartment units and 54 beds, all designated for families. 

Hertz said he believes it’s going to be a long community conversation to figure out, not just at Lighthouse, but globally, how to address issues that were there pre-COVID more sustainably for the long haul. 

“One thing I’ve come to learn in my 13 years of being in homeless services and anti-poverty work is society is willing to accept, in most cases, quite a lot of folks going without, without necessarily taking action and resolving those problems,” Hertz said. “The pandemic changed that; it was a real wake-up call. People in fairly well-off communities, regardless of financial situation, felt very vulnerable. And in feeling that level of vulnerability, I think it created a level of empathy for others who have been vulnerable and were now even more so.” 

Hertz believes that’s part of why they saw such an influx of resources allowing them to meet more needs than ever before. 

“So coming out of this and into the future, the question becomes: ‘Are we going to be able to sustain that?’ That’s where we’re at, trying to solve for that,” Hertz said. 

Lighthouse has worked diligently in the housing assistance side of things as well. As a partner in the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance program, Lighthouse has provided more than $7 million in rental assistance to prevent more than 800 evictions in the local community since March 2021, the end of the eviction moratoriums.

Lighthouse has also continued to work on the systemic side of the problem and solving the problem at its source, such as how to address affordability so there are fewer people facing eviction in the first place.

Like most nonprofits, fundraising efforts are critical right now to address the dramatic increase in the community’s needs. For ways to help, receive help and further info, visit lighthousemi.org. 

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