Officials with Marietta-based MUST Ministries say construction crews start turning earth Wednesday on their “consolidated campus” project, which will greatly expand their ability to house those without a place to stay and bring a number of other functions together.
The expansion comes at a crucial time for the nonprofit agency. Providing food and various forms of housing for the struggling became a vastly increased need as the COVID pandemic accelerated last spring, said MUST President and CEO Rev. Dwight “Ike” Reighard. The result: MUST wound up serving about five times the number of clients it normally does from January through December.
The numbers are staggering.
Reighard said MUST usually aids 32 to 34 thousand unique individuals during a calendar year. In 2020 that ballooned to more than 170 thousand as both individuals and families coped with illness, lost jobs and other outgrowths of COVID.
Some 2 million pounds of food were distributed through various programs and more than 1500 people were housed at the Elizabeth Inn shelter since the onset of COVID in Mid-March. In addition, the agency served 13,827 unsheltered who sought help through their Outreach Services and placed 740 in hotels/motels.
That translates into such efforts as housing those needing apartments along with tenant rental assistance and hotel vouchers.
The new building will expand nightly shelter capacity from 72 to 136 with three dozen additional “flex beds” available for such challenges as inclement weather, said spokeswoman Kaye Cagle.
She said the 44,000-square -foot shelter is being constructed first and from
from the ground up. She said that’s a rare thing in the world of such projects, which are almost always put into converted space.
The shelter’s population was frozen for 45 days beginning the middle of March, said MUST officials. They said since then deep cleaning has been done regularly with safety measures in effect. Four COVID cases were reported at the shelter and four more have cropped up in the other housing programs.
The food effort had to be equally nimble last year with 39 mobile food pantries in schools morphing into 26 distribution hubs in churches and other spots, with the distribution model switching from families coming in to get food to provisions being boxed up and taken out to vehicles.
A major wild card involved schools deciding to go virtual, spiking food needs because children weren’t getting school breakfasts and lunches.
Another 2020 highlight involved an expanded workforce development program, with a hotline added as well as a web portal to help those struggling with employment issues schedule appointments and get other help.
The new consolidated headquarters gives a boost to that employment program with expanded workforce and training areas, as well as containing a community kitchen and a chapel.
MUST officials said the year ahead will also find them utilizing additional funding to help with housing issues, including money from county government and a $5 million grant from the Day 1 Families Fund, a nonprofit launched in 2018 by Amazon President and CEO Jeff Bezos. Cagle said $1.5 million of that will be applied to the new shelter with the rest used to house families.
The agency looks to make increasing use of volunteers this yea. At one point last year, the nonprofit operated with no volunteer help due to COVID safety concerns. They were later brought back on a limited basis.
One of them is Butch Niccum of Woodstock, who once a month helps cook food for homeless shelter residents and also spends two days a week filling food donation boxes.
The relatively recent retiree plays down his role, telling the Courier “I do this for God, not for Butch Niccum.” But he allows that role will be increasing with the new expanded shelter debuting early next year.
“I guess I’ll have to take more than 25 pounds of ham,” he said of the monthly purchase he brings, along with large allotments of green beans and rolls.
MUST officials said such volunteers and staffers will adjust with a “soft opening” of the new building in January of 2022.