For the past 21 years, Mecklenburg County has received federal funding for charitable organizations — food banks, shelters and rent assistance ministries — through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.
The amount, which is given to United Way Central Carolina to distribute to local agencies, has varied over the years, but peaked in 2010 to almost a million dollars. In 2016, the county received $527,365.
This year? Nothing.
According to a FEMA spokesperson, the cut happened because funding decisions are primarily based on unemployment and poverty rates by county. If the county doesn't qualify, then FEMA begins to look at individual cities and towns in the county. In the past, Davidson, Pineville and Stallings — with 2016 unemployment rates of 5.6, 7 and 4.2 percent, respectively — have helped qualify Mecklenburg County, which had an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent in April 2018, to receive funds.
But this year, the recovering economies in those Charlotte suburbs took the county out of the running for the federal funds.
The affected agencies, which serve nearly 130,000 people living in poverty, had “no notice at all” that they wouldn’t receive the funding this year, said Trish Hobson, the executive director for The Relatives, a youth crisis management center and shelter. The center received $11,000 in the last cycle of funding, which was used for pay for 840 nights of shelter beds for children aged seven to 17, Hobson said.
The federal funds were a small portion of each affected agency's budget. But the sudden nature of the cuts at the end of the fiscal year, combined with a decrease in local public funding, was a shock to Mecklenburg charities.
Crisis Assistance Ministry, a rent and mortgage assistance charity, lost the most. They received $230,365 in federal funding in 2016, and give out more than $2 million in rent assistance annually. Other affected organizations include: Loaves and Fishes, Men's Shelter of Charlotte, The Relatives, Safe Alliance’s Clyde and Ethel Dickson Domestic Violence Shelter, Salvation Army's Center of Hope, Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, Urban Ministry Center and With Friends.
Now, the agencies are working together to find new funding sources, searching for donor contributions, grants and state funding. FEMA has helped with the last one — counties that aren't eligible for the federal funds are considered by the State Set-Aside Committee, which receives federal funding that they can grant to areas that they consider "high-need."
On Thursday, United Way Central Carolinas announced that Mecklenburg County would receive $135,975 in set-aside funds. Local agencies will have to apply to receive this funding from the United Way of Central Carolinas.
According to a FEMA spokesperson, their staff has also been reaching out to a Mecklenburg County contact to tell them they can request unclaimed and unused funds from the national organization.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, who has been in contact with the local charities and FEMA, was heartened by the state funding news, but is still looking to make up the remaining deficit. She asked FEMA to consider changing the requirements for the program to include underemployment and unemployed people not looking for work in their reports.
“I just don't think they got the full picture of what's happening in our county," Adams said. “One size doesn't fit all.”
The cut to federal funding coincided with the release of a new budget from United Way Central Carolina that cut emergency service funding in favor of affordable housing and intervention initiatives, creating a two-fold decrease for many organizations.
The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte lost around $40,000 in United Way funding and $88,000 in federal funding. The shelter received more than $4.7 million in contributions and grants in 2016-17, but Director of Philanthropy Randall Hitt said that any cuts in the $10,000-plus range approach “major donor” territory — they’re difficult to recover in small or individual gifts alone.
Tina Postel, the executive director of Loaves & Fishes, called the cuts to EFSP funding “heartbreaking.” She said that the food bank, which provides a week’s worth of groceries to people facing economic hardship, received $35,000 in EFSP funding roughly every 18 months.
They used this money to buy foods that aren’t donated often, but are useful for people with chronic illnesses, allergies or diseases that impact diet: specifically, things like gluten-free foods for people with celiac disease, or nutrition shakes for people undergoing chemotherapy.
While Loaves & Fishes does not receive local funding from the United Way, which publicized its plan to shift their spending more than a year in advance, Postel said the dual cuts are a “double whammy” for the families that her organization serves, as many of these people receive assistance from multiple charitable organizations in the area.
“In the long run, we’re just hurting people,” she said.