New Bethany Ministries Takes on Covid-19

Like most organizations faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, New Bethany Ministries had to address the challenges of restructuring their day-to-day operations. However, because of the nature of their work, New Bethany also faced added pressure from the increasing need demonstrated by the community members that they serve. In this interview with J. Marc Rittle, the Executive Director of New Bethany Ministries, Southsider explores the ways that the pandemic has impacted many people in our community in terms of eviction, food insecurity, and homelessness, and how New Bethany has gone above and beyond to help the community members impacted by these issues. Rittle describes the scope of New Bethany’s mission and normal operations as well as how the organization has had to adapt to the challenges prompted by the pandemic. He also describes the new partnerships and initiatives they have taken on to address this pandemic-shaped world.

HP: Can you start off by telling me a little bit about New Bethany Ministries’ mission and your role there?

MR: New Bethany Ministries provides food, housing, and the wrap around services in between. For food, our primary service is emergency food. Our food pantry serves food 5 days a week and by appointment, so really any time 24/7 if you really need food and you call us, we can get it to you. Then we have our meal center or soup kitchen, which is also open 5 days a week. Before Covid, we would have volunteer groups come in on weekends who were not our staff on Saturdays or Sundays and serve often a brunch or lunch. Our food services reach 9,000 people per year. It is a lot of south side residents, but also people from Bethlehem generally. We turn no one away however, so it also can be people from the entire Lehigh Valley.

In terms of housing, we have a transitional shelter and permanent housing. We are a landlord. We have two independent single family residents where we have tenants paying us rent, though they are not our clients. Then we also have seven units of subsidized housing, subsidized by the city of Bethlehem, and all of the people of those seven units were originally clients of New Bethany and now live in this permanent housing. We also have single-room occupancy, which is congregate living, with shared living space, kitchen, and shared bathroom space. We have a Bethlehem site which has 16 units, a building in Coplay which has 20 units, and we also have a site in Allentown with 7 units.

We also have transitional housing here on the southside of Bethlehem, with 12 units for families. We are one of the few in the Lehigh Valley that take men as caregivers, which is not very common in the homeless sheltering field. We will take single fathers. We will take mothers and fathers. We will take same-sex couples. Whatever combination of parents there is, they are welcome here. All of our referrals come from either Lehigh or Northampton county children and youth. So it starts with homeless youth, and usually the parent is in crisis in some manner, and then they are referred to us.

We also do wrap-around services, so we will help clients with job placement, writing a resume, or financial counseling. We don’t do mental health counseling but many of our clients need it, so if they will take the referral, we will refer them out to counseling services.

The final thing is actually kind of new during Covid. We were leaning towards this before, but now Covid demands it. Homeless prevention. All of our housing and food services over the last 35 years have been done on site. So our clients come to us with a need, and we help them. But now if community members are worried they are going to be kicked out of a rental unit, we can help them with rent arrears, and we can also help them with counseling to help them keep that unit, or moderate with the landlord to come up with a plan to keep the housing. This is the eviction prevention program, and it is unique for us because it can be done from afar, or not on site.

I am the executive director, so my role is to ensure that we have the capacity and resources to perform all of these programs. This means a few things. One is that we have the right staffing in place. Secondly, making sure we don’t creep off of our mission. And three, fundraising so that we can pay our staff. So I am here to make sure if there is a resource we need, we can find it and are prepared.

A garden on the New Bethany Ministries Campus.

HP: What has the pandemic changed for the operations of New Bethany Ministries?

MR: If I really go back to March, we had many of the same struggles that other organizations and even corporations had, where off and on a staff member had to take 14 days off to quarantine. So we did have staff working inconsistently. We applied for the paycheck protection program and we did miraculously get into the program, and so we were able to keep paying our staff during that time through the Cares Act. For a while we had limited our hours and were largely working from home. Now we are largely a mixed model. We still don’t let clients into the building unless they are a resident. We did stop intake in the beginning, but now we are filling up our rooms again in the single-room occupancy and transitional housing sites, leaving here and there rooms empty to decrease the amount of contact risk.

Program wise, now we are looking towards the eviction moratorium which is set to end August 31st. Despite the recent executive order, there is no evidence that the eviction moratorium will be enforced and continue past September 1st in PA. So, we are preparing for an onslaught of issues regarding rent and evictions. We have already been helping people with rent arrears, getting people up to date now so they don’t get further behind. This program is a partnership between 8 different organizations, 2 counties, and the municipalities of Bethlehem, Allentown, and Easton. We are constantly collaborating between these organizations. We had a strong relationship before, but now in the light of Covid, we are really working together to help the low-income families or homeless in our community.

Through the support of the Department of Health, we opened up the Comfort Suites to house the homeless in our community. The city secured the Comfort Suites and worked out a funding source, and partnered with New Bethany to house homeless individuals in the hotel in our community so that they were safe during the pandemic. The hotel is not too far from the New Bethany campus. So, those staying at the Comfort Suites could walk to our food pantry or meal center if necessary. We also had a really generous community supporter who made sure those staying at the Comfort Suites had suppers for almost two months straight. And it was a symbiotic relationship in a way because we were paying normal rates to the Comfort Suites at a time where they weren’t operating normally during the pandemic. In total, we were able to house 27 people there through this initiative. The agreement was that if you were going to come into the Comfort Suites, you were going to have a case manager from New Bethany that was going to help transition you into permanent housing afterwards. 

And so far, we have had zero cases of Covid-19 across New Bethany clients. Across the homeless community in the Lehigh Valley, we really have not had that many cases, maybe 0, but definitely less than five. None of our staff have contracted it either this entire time. 

HP: Can you speak to the ways community needs have changed because of the pandemic?

MR: Refusing people a place to live in March and April was really difficult. We had a small rental assistance program before March, but we stopped it because of the eviction moratorium. Instead we offered education on the legal status of the moratorium. But we didn’t know what the future meant. So, we halted giving rental assistance immediately because we didn’t know how bad it was going to get, and if it would be more helpful later, once the eviction moratorium was over. We closed our day shelter, we converted the food pantry to only staff, everything is now picked up curbside. That was a big change.

More subtle changes include increasing use of the internet across our facilities. And I’m so glad I did this. Only last year did we even get wifi at all. And I did have a couple people laugh at me then when I insisted on it so much, but I am so happy we did that then, because we could not get on now without wifi. Some of our transitional shelter residents have been working from home, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the wifi. Also student residents have needed to access their schooling. Wifi has been essential.

In-person meetings are the cornerstone of our work, and that still is a really big challenge, to meet with our clients during this time. Even having staff space that is Covid-safe is really difficult. I had to hire five new staff to meet the new need presented by the pandemic. I have also hired a grant manager to work with the finances for our new rent assistance and eviction prevention program that we are scaling up. This was also partly a result of a lack of volunteers. We had about 900 volunteers in 2019, most of whom assist with our meal center. Many of the groups that come in to assist monthly have actually been volunteering with us since 1985, when we started. But the pandemic meant it wasn’t safe for volunteers to come work for us because of the small spaces they would have to work in, but also because most of our volunteers are on the elderly side. So one of the greatest challenges has been the shift in who can get the work done. 

Another thing that has been different this year, that is ultimately positive, is how much fresh produce we have been getting. Plant a Row is a program we have had for a while where gardens, residents, and farms donate food that they grow for us at New Bethany. Taproot Farms is one generous farm that is giving us a large portion of fresh produce weekly. Liberty Gardens used to exclusively sell their food to NYC restaurants. Now that is off the table because of the economy. So, the farmer started a program where he is selling to individuals, and those community members can also buy or donate to the portion that Liberty Gardens gives to New Bethany, while Liberty Gardens is able to not lose money doing so. So the food distribution network has changed too, among the other things I have mentioned. 

An outside view of one of New Bethany’s buildings.

HP: How do you see the continued pandemic precautions that are necessary affecting your future operations as PA goes to the green phase?

MR: Well, I am worried about the technology and being able to see clients successfully. When 2020 started, even before the pandemic, I had two staff without desks. That’s normally okay because we do direct service, but now with the new employees we have 7 staff who need office space. We are leasing a building on the south side, the old LEPOCO building, which will be our new housing assistance building. It will be designed with Covid in mind, where we can meet with clients, but we can also socially distance and have a shield to protect the staff. 

We have done intake interviews over the phone before, but we have mostly done in-person meetings at the insistence of the staff. Working together with other organizations is a big next step, like the Hispanic Center (HCLV), to problem solve how to work with our clients. 

HP: From New Bethany Ministries experience adapting to this crisis, what do you think governments and other nonprofits can learn from this situation?

MR: If there is any shining light in having to deal with this crisis, it is that we, New Bethany, and other nonprofits, already knew how to help. We had a plan developed for addressing eviction. We’ve always needed the city, county, state, and federal government’s support for these kinds of programs, and their increased support now is important. However, you could argue that if those dollars had been freed up pre-coronavirus, it would be less of an issue now. 

The pandemic response also could be a lesson in raising the minimum wage or unemployment benefits. People say that you can’t raise unemployment benefits because then people won’t go back to a job, but the question is, why aren’t you paying people enough that you can entice them to work for you? I think those types of lessons are getting highlighted more than before the pandemic. There has always been a plan and a way to keep people from being homeless. Now we can share what that plan is and show that it works. My hope is that after this is over, there will continue to be dollars that will continue to support these efforts.

HP: What has been the biggest challenge and what have you been most proud of that New Bethany Ministries has accomplished during this time?

MR: I’ve been really impressed with our team going curbside for meals. From a Friday to a Monday, we were able to get our food pantry to curbside pick-up. On that Friday in March when it all changed, I went to the Meal Center Director, and before I could even say anything she said, ‘I’m doing this through my office window. We did this years ago when we redid the floor. Going curbside will not be a problem. Someone donated thousands of take-out containers to us last year and I had no idea why I kept them, but now we can use them! We’re fine.’

We nailed that in the first week. The biggest challenge has been ensuring that people don’t become homeless, honestly.

HP: How can community members best support New Bethany Ministries to continue the amazing work that you are doing?

MR: We will take volunteers, but they need to be regular volunteers, because our training capacity is only so much. So if someone wants to commit to be a long term volunteer, we would really love that. Because it’s much easier to have volunteers come in and know what they are doing, rather than having to instruct each day on how to make a salad. It would seem like making a salad is easy, but on this scale we have a specific process, and a place for every thing to go. We’ve never had our staff make meals. It’s actually all volunteers. So we definitely want volunteers.

Donating food is a really big deal, especially nonperishable food and especially vegetables. Anything low in sodium and low in sugar. The reason is because it’s not just that we’ve had more people to feed with the pandemic, but we will have a supply issue in the food bank if people come 2 and 3 times per month. Donations come to us through Second Harvest Food Bank, and they are able to get us enough food normally for 1 family getting one batch of food per month. And usually clients combine their source of income and SNAP benefits and only need to come once to us for 5 days of food maybe per month, but we have been seeing families come in 2 to 3 times a month or even weekly. We have the essentials to feed everybody, but not the amount of times they want to be served in a given month, because of the pandemic.

In Conclusion

New Bethany Ministries has been doing amazing work for 35 years in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley, providing food security and housing to community members in need. Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, New Bethany has been forced to be innovative about how they source their labor without their normal volunteer pool. The organization has also creatively shifted their services to curbside or distanced formats, and collaborated with the Health Department of Bethlehem to specifically help keep the homeless population of our city healthy and safe during this unprecedented crisis. With new astronomical needs due to the unemployment rate and the ending of the eviction moratorium, New Bethany has also revamped a homelessness and eviction prevention program that addresses the insecurity of housing and rent before their clients need to seek the other services that New Bethany provides. The team at New Bethany has been adaptive and enthusiastic throughout these challenges, and this interview with Rittle clearly highlights how proud he is of what his team has been able to do. One last takeaway is what Rittle’s reflections teach us about the relationship between organizations that do this kind of work and how hard it always is to get the funding for it, until we arrive at times of crisis. As Rittle reflects, there are proven plans that could potentially have made concerns about housing, food insecurity, and eviction not so serious, if we took these concerns seriously when our society was not in crisis, and financially supported organizations like New Bethany and their work much more consistently. Rittle hopes to see more collaborations and support in the future, and hopes the fantastic partnerships and financial support that New Bethany has found during this time can be a launching point for reinvesting in our community priorities in the future.

Finally, support New Bethany Ministries by donating your time and food! Or, attend a special fundraising event on October 13th! Due to the pandemic, New Bethany has had to cancel all of their fundraising and events, but this October 13th, they are still going to have Souper Day, but an online version. You can get soup made by the New Bethany community and watch this digital fundraising event. They will highlight the collaboration between the city and New Bethany to prevent homelessness during the pandemic, and share more incredible stories of the work they do and the people they impact. For more information about this event, click HERE!

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