Britney Underwood, 31 of Detroit, and a volunteer coordinator at Focus: HOPE knocks on the door as she leaves a box of food on the front porch of a senior's home on Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020. (Detroit Free Press photo by Eric Seals)

Senior agencies and nonprofits across metro Detroit that deliver food to homebound seniors are reporting higher demand as COVID-19 cases surge. But fewer donations, volunteers and less government help have made it challenging to keep up with the need. Some organizations are getting close to their capacity or exceeding it, delaying deliveries or putting some seniors on waitlists. 

Nonprofits that have long served homebound seniors say they need more volunteers, donations and federal support. 

“It’s just a struggle trying to meet the demand,” said SaTrice Coleman-Betts, executive director of St. Patrick Senior Center in Midtown Detroit.

The center provides food for about 600 seniors through curbside pickup and deliveries. At the same time, it faces staff shortages due to furloughs, a lack of volunteers and reduced government support, which limits the number of seniors it can serve. 

“There is definitely a lack of resources and services. Some of the governmental support has been decreasing for some of these programs, from federal all down to the state level. Also, there’s not as many organizations that are providing in-kind support,” Coleman-Betts said.

This article was produced in partnership with Outlier Media, which runs an SMS texting service to share information about COVID-19 in Detroit. Text “Detroit” to 73224 for information about food, jobs health and safety. 

Donations needed 

At Detroit Area Agency on Aging, roughly 1,500 people who were previously receiving meals through an expansion of the national Meals on Wheels program through the CARES Act, are now on a waiting list, said DiAnna Solomon, the agency’s director of fund development, communications and advocacy. That funding ended Sept. 30. 

“We made phone calls to all of the individuals … connecting them to resources, such as local food banks,” she said, adding that the agency is still in need of private donations and grants “to help fill the gap.”

Detroit Area Agency on Aging has increased meal deliveries throughout the pandemic serving three times as many people from March to August compared to last year, Solomon said. It delivered about 5,000 meals to seniors Thanksgiving week.

The organization is one of 16 others across the state that run meal delivery programs for eligible seniors, said Sherri King, coordinator of the state’s nutrition and wellness program.

The state distributes thousands of produce boxes and quarantine food packages to agencies and organizations across Michigan, King said. 

“There’s been a huge increase and we can see the increase as our COVID numbers moved and changed,” King said. She estimates that requests for meals doubled during the first six months of the pandemic, compared to last year. 

Short on volunteers

Several nonprofits that serve homebound seniors said they need volunteers to keep up with demand. 

Focus: HOPE saw a 60 percent decline in volunteers this year compared to last. That decline happened as 4,000 people signed up for the nonprofit’s Food for Seniors program this year.

“We are always in need of additional volunteers, particularly as more and more seniors ask for home deliveries,” said Stephanie Maurice, director of annual giving and marketing, in an email.

Seniors living in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties, who are 60 and older and meet income eligibility, can pick-up food boxes curbside or have meals delivered if they are homebound.

Smaller community organizations have experienced a similar decline in volunteers. 

Many of the volunteers at Auntie Na’s Village, on Detroit’s west side, are college students. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they’re no longer able to come by, said Sonia Brown, founder of the organization, who also goes by Auntie Na. 

The organization has 10 volunteers now — down from 15 earlier in the pandemic — who drop off food in and around Detroit but “we’ve got them stretched as thin as thin can be,” Brown said. Those volunteers are delivering meals to about 100 to 120 seniors a week. It’s an increase from the usual 50 to 70 Auntie Na’s served before the pandemic. About 20 more seniors, primarily from Detroit, joined the list for food delivery the week of Thanksgiving.

“While we’re trying to be strong to support the community, there are not enough organizations and programs and funds available to help us help others,” Brown said about community hubs like hers. “And that makes it even difficult for many of us to keep our doors open.” 

In the long-term, Auntie Na’s needs funding and volunteers. For now, partnerships with area churches and nonprofits have helped Auntie Na’s accumulate food to distribute. 

“If we can get enough volunteer drivers to deliver it for us, then definitely, we’re going to do what we can to run it through the first of the year,” she said. 

‘We’re kind of at the end of our rope’ 

Since March, Macomb Community Action had a four to six week wait list for its Meals on Wheels program because of an influx of new seniors, a dip in volunteers and not enough cars to transport the meals. 

As of September, the waitlist has been eliminated, said Nicole Urban, program manager, for Macomb County’s Office of Senior Services. Macomb Community Action added new vehicles and employees are filling the volunteer gap.

She said that the office has the capacity to serve another 300 to 500 people per day, but they could see another waitlist if they get a big surge in clients.

“I will be honest. It’s been one challenge after another after another and it’s been a lot of brainstorming, it’s been a lot of collaboration with community partners,” Urban said. 

Steve Haveraneck, vice president of Oakland Meals on Wheels, which covers 16 cities in Oakland and delivers about 1,000 meals a day, said his nonprofit doesn’t have a waitlist yet, “but we are bumping up against our capacity.”

He estimates that demand has increased about 30% from last year. At the same time, he has seen a decrease in volunteers. Still, new volunteers have joined, he said. 

Haveraneck also worries about potential outbreaks among his staff that could halt operations, leaving seniors without the meals they rely on. 

“We’re still making it work right now. … We’re kind of at the end of our rope. We’ve been fighting here like many organizations for eight months. People are getting tired, stressed out, and maxed out,” he said. 

How to get get help

Homebound seniors who need a meal delivered can follow these steps:

  • Contact your local area agency on aging for program eligibility and requirements. A full list, along with contact information, can be found online at www.michigan.gov/osa. Call the COVID-19 hotline at 888-535-6136.
  • Seniors without internet access or who seek additional assistance can call 2-1-1. 
  • The United Way of Southeast Michigan encourages seniors who call an agency and are unable to receive help to call 2-1-1 for help finding an organization with capacity.

Local agencies and nonprofits

  • Detroit Area Agency on Aging (Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse, Pointe Shores, Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe Farms, Harper Woods): 313-446-4444
  • Area Agency on Aging 1B ( Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw): 800-852-7795
  • The Senior Alliance, Inc. (Wayne County except the cities served by the Detroit agency): 734-722-2830
  • Focus: HOPE: 313-494-4600
  • Auntie Na’s Village: 313-808-8940

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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