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By Mandy Donovan | Citizens Bank Staff
The three red doors at 315 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia are usually wide open. On a normal day, in normal times, hundreds of adults would be ushered in off the cold streets to come and share a meal. Since 2005, there’s been a seat for everyone at the table.
Today, those doors are closed. Tables are folded up. But the life-sustaining services Broad Street Ministry provides to Philadelphia’s homeless? Those won’t ever stop.
As the life-altering effects of the coronavirus epidemic became clear, Citizens Bank pledged to help, awarding over $2 million to help small business customers like BSM pay their staff, replace lost income, and prepare for the recovery.
“It’s a nice time to know that there are places like Citizens Bank on your side,” says BSM Executive Director Mike Dahl.
As it says on Broad Street Ministry’s website, “This is the place to go for those with nowhere else to go.” Thousands of men and women are invited in to find a nutritious meal, shelter on winter nights, clothing from the donations closet, personal care products, and health and social services. But one of the most valuable things they find is respect.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to close their dining room, BSM served around 300 guests per day. They were beautiful sit-down meals, prepared by a professional chef team, served tableside with linen and china.
But the meal, according to Dahl, is just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s what draws people in,” he says. “And then we develop a relationship with them and leverage that relationship to help them find their way back to stablility.”
BSM serves as the only consistent mailing address for about 5,000 people across Philadelphia. A permanent mailing address might not seem that consequential to lots of us, but to BSM’s guests, it’s everything.
“Your existence in our society begins with a mailing address,” Dahl says. “You need a mailing address to get an ID. And you need that ID to get benefits and a job.”
“Without a mailing address,” Dahl continues, “you just don’t exist.”
Before the pandemic, Broad Street Ministry would serve 300 guests per day in its dining room.
The mail service is so important that the team at BSM identified it as one of the three most important things they had to find a way to sustain, despite the lock down.
“When the crisis hit, we said, ‘Of course we need to keep feeding people, but we had to maintain the mail too because it’s such a lifeline,’” Dahl says. “And given the nature of the coronavirus, we had to continue with our efforts to promote hygiene.”
Dahl and the staff at BSM rolled up their sleeves and began brainstorming ways to continue providing meals, mail, and personal hygiene products to the people who relied on them every day.
The coronavirus has forced many nonprofit organizations to throw out their playbooks and rethink how they serve out their missions. For Broad Street Ministry, this meant ending sit-down meal services at communal tables. Gone are the hugs, conversations, and laughter. BSM moved to an all-take-out setup.
“Everyone was so desperate for the food because of the hunger crisis that we ended up giving away over 200 meals in the first 15 minutes,” Dahl says.
Dahl and team realized two things: First, they needed to move the meal service outside. Second, they needed a medical partner to conduct coronavirus screenings.
“When people come in for the meals, it’s the one time you can find them, and you want to get them screened and tested [for COVID-19],” explains Dahl. “You need to take advantage of the meal as a time to connect this underserved population to coronavirus screening and testing.
“You want to be able to provide housing for the people that test positive,” continues Dahl, “so that the virus doesn’t ravage through the population.”
An ambitious partnership between Project Home, Prevention Point Philadelphia, and Broad Street Ministry was born. “Step Up to the Plate” provides free, nutritious meals to go, as well as coronavirus screening at remote service hubs across the city.
“We’re having great success with people finding us to help alleviate the hunger crisis,” says Dahl, “but we’re also addressing the medical crisis as well.”
Demand for BSM’s services has only increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bagged meals are prepared by out-of-work caterers. When BSM’s annual spring fundraiser was cancelled due to COVID-19 and social distancing, Dahl and his team got creative once again. Rather than preparing a fancy meal for the fundraiser, BSM told the caterers to use the contract to feed the needy.
Thanks to BSM’s mission, Philadelphia’s food insecure are getting professionally cooked meals, and hourly paid caterers are back to work.
BSM used to serve 300 meals a day in their dining room at 315 S. Broad. Now, thanks to “Step Up to the Plate,” they're handing out as many as 2,100 meals each day.
“My staff is stretched very thin,” Dahl says. “Every staff member who can make it in is needed on the front line.”
Because of social distance requirements, BSM is no longer able to rely on the volunteers who support their full-time staff. But it’s the demand that keeps the team going.
The original plan was to provide these remote services for seven weeks. But, as Dahl explains, “We’re just now moving into the realization that we will have to continue to serve outside through the summer, at least until August.”
The outdoor service is not the same as the beautiful meal and personal conversations they used to have, but the staff at BSM has stepped up, effectively saving the lives of people struggling with a city-wide hunger crisis.
“It’s a difficult thing to have to ask people to stand in harm’s way,” Dahl says. “I’m just so proud of my team. They show up day after day because they believe in the mission.”
Will it go back to the way it was before? The demand has increased so much in such a short amount of time. How many people BSM will be serving once the shutdown ends is a huge question mark, sending early 2020 budget planning out the window.
As unemployment claims continue to climb in Pennsylvania, the demand for BSM’s services will continue to rise. “If those jobs don’t come back quickly,” Dahl says, “there are so many people living paycheck to paycheck that they’re going to need help.”
That’s why Dahl and BSM were so appreciative of the $15,000 grant from Citizens Bank. “When people reach out and understand what organizations like ours are going through and they step up to help out, it’s just such a relief,” says Dahl.
Now that they’re past the immediate crisis, Dahl has time — just a little — to think about the future. For starters, what will the new normal look like?
From deep cleaning of the space, to providing Personal Protective Equipment to staff, to occasionally bringing on temp workers, BSM is like many small businesses in the age of the coronavirus. Expenses have gone up and revenues have gone down. With the missed fundraiser, the budget will be much leaner for BSM in the second half of 2020.
Walking past Broad Street Ministry's dining room on a recent afternoon, about the time when he would normally be welcoming guests in for lunch, Mike had tears in his eyes. He wondered when their beloved sanctuary at 315 S. Broad Street would reopen.
Yes, there is much to grieve, but also much to be thankful for.
And plenty of work to be done.
To assist Dahl and his team’s initiatives in Philadelphia, visit Broad Street Ministry to make a donation.
And check out all the ways Citizens Bank is supporting local businesses and our communities.
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