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Technology, innovation let Metro Ministries pivot during pandemic

Margie Manning



Metropolitan Ministries doesn’t have a storefront in Pinellas County, but that hasn’t stopped the organization from helping hundreds of Pinellas County families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Tampa-based nonprofit has pivoted, using technology and an innovative mindset to change the way it offers assistance to families and individuals who have lost income or their jobs, said Tim Marks, president and CEO.

Tim Marks

Metro Ministries has helped more than 2,000 families throughout the Tampa Bay area since the pandemic began, providing about $1.9 million for rent or utility payments, Marks said. In all of 2019, the organization provided about $150,000 in rent and utility help for 700 families.

A federal moratorium on evictions that is in effect through the end of the year is a bandaid, Marks said.

“It doesn’t eliminate the financial responsibilities of individuals who have lost their income or lost their jobs. They’re willing to stand in line for food, but they also have these other needs,” Marks said. “We see this as part of our new normal in how we deliver services to our community.”

Metro Ministries Covid-19 response is now in its 35th week, and the rental assistance the organization is providing was not included in its budget for the year. It was able to expand its services through a $1 million seed gift from the Vinik Family Foundation.

“Early in March and April, people just didn’t know where to turn. A lot of the CARES Act dollars hadn’t flowed out to the local agencies yet. It was an opportunity for the private sector to step up and that’s what happened, first with the Vinik family and then others coming alongside that. That allowed us to have the boldness to do this program,” Mark said.

One of the other private sector companies helping Metro Ministries was Truist Financial (NYSE: TFC), the bank created in the merger between SunTrust and BB&T.

Truist Cares, a $50 million commitment to all the markets served by the company, invested about $700,000 in several Tampa Bay nonprofits, said Jim Daly, West Florida regional president for Truist.

“As an example, Metro Ministries were inundated with food insecurity, shelter, job training and access to technology needs. We worked to provide some general funding,” along with funding to other similar groups, Daly said.

A local advisory council distributes grants to organizations for both programmatic needs and needs related to Covid.

“As we approach year end, at Metro Ministry, we know their needs are going up exponentially — housing, food, job placement and job training — and we’re still strategically talking to them about what else we can help with,” Daly said.

Broader reach

Technology played a key role in Metro Ministries’ ability to expand services.

“If you needed help with utility and rent assistance in the past, you had to bring all your paperwork to our downtown Tampa location, or you could go to our Holiday, Florida location in Pasco County and we would work with the landlord and try to figure out how to help you,” Marks said.

Now, instead of meeting face to face, Metro Ministries is taking rent and utility assistance applications from a Google form on the website. Metro Ministries’ workforce processed the applications while working from home, with applicants taking pictures on their phones of their leases and proof of unemployment.

The pivot gave Metro Ministries a broader reach.

“We’ve had individuals as far south as Sarasota, as far east as Winter Haven and as far north as Spring Hill, and everywhere in between, receive assistance,” Marks said. “We don’t have a storefront in Pinellas but we have helped hundreds of Pinellas families with food, delivering food to Pinellas, and also delivering financial relief to Pinellas and the entire Bay community. And all those 2,000 families, not one of them had to get into a car and drive anywhere to get help. We were able to help them through the use of technology.”

Technology will continue to play a vital role as the holidays approach and Metro Ministries works to make sure families have food. Last year, 29,000 people signed up for assistance with food and toys for the holidays. Metro Ministries expects 40,000 people this year.

The agency has developed apps for holiday assistance signups, and will check people in using tablets donated by Microsoft.

“Instead of making them come to us, we have over 40 partners lined up that are in deeply impacted communities that are struggling. We want to come alongside the agencies and churches in those communities to get the food to people who need it the most,” Marks said.

Housing priorities

Before the pandemic began, Metro Ministries partnered with Blue Sky Communities, a Tampa-based residential developer, to build Sabal Place, a 112-unit affordable housing community in the Mango-Seffner area, just east of Tampa. Sabal Place is expected to open in February, and Metro Ministries expects to start taking applications in January.

“These will be beautiful, what I would consider Class A apartments for people coming out of homelessness and also at the 60 percent of AMI [area median income] mark,” he said. “We’ll have on-site case management, so families will be able to live independently and privately but we’re downstairs if you need us. If a family gets in trouble, or they are paycheck to paycheck and they are struggling, we’ll have support systems and resources right on the ground floor.”

Sabal Place

The top priority, Marks said, is trying to keep people in their homes, then to rapidly re-house people who become homeless, Metro Ministries also has been working to free up capacity on its campus, getting people in and out of its shelter as quickly as it can.

Marks said Covid-19 is likely to remain a major issue for the foreseeable future.

“We see this as a marathon and we’re still in that. As CARE dollars flow into the community, we’ll step back and see where there’s gaps … But we suspect this will continue to be a crisis for our community for months to come,” Marks said.

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