What's Next?

Guest Correspondence

BY MARK PRITCHETT SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAY 16, 2020

Uncertainty remains a defining trait of COVID-19 and how communities are responding to it. From the virus itself (Is it safe to go out? Will a second wave hit?) to the economic and social impacts (Will those awaiting unemployment benefits get them? What happens after Florida’s eviction moratorium ends?).

Together with our donors and in partnership with Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, Gulf Coast Community Foundation has been investing in relief for overwhelmed families, stretched service providers, and strained systems. Now, more than six weeks into our COVID-19 Response Initiative, we’ve started seeing shifts in funding requests as nonprofits look toward longer-term stabilization and planning. At the same time, basic needs remain unmet for many in our region, and new people fall into crisis each day.

Take two grants we awarded last week: One will help Centerstone Florida hire new IT staff to improve access, effectiveness, and sustainability of virtual mental-health counseling for thousands of high-need clients. The other covers materials so a group of Suncoast Science Center volunteers can make more face shields and masks needed by local health-care facilities. That dichotomy of capacity building for the “next normal” and urgent response to an emergency need exemplifies our current state. The COVID-19 crisis is unlike other disasters or downturns we’ve dealt with, and learned from, before. Discrete phases of response, recovery, and rebuilding won’t apply like they do when a hurricane blows through.

But we do know some things.

Working closely with community leaders and partner agencies on the ground, we’ve gained clarity on where the most intense community needs are likely to persist. Over the coming six months, we anticipate that our region will need the most help in these areas:

• Mental health care
• Affordable housing
• Food security
• Reemployment assistance
• Childcare and early education

It’s telling that the first two on that shortlist also topped the priorities identified in Gulf Coast’s 2019 regional scan report—released last summer, long before COVID-19 exacerbated them. This highlights another crystallizing characteristic of the current moment: Different sectors will improve at different rates and scale, depending largely on where they stood before the pandemic.

Feeding families in need, for example, will be a major and costly priority. But the infrastructure our community has built over several years, with All Faiths Food Bank serving solidly as the hub of our hunger-relief system, positions us to respond nimbly and capably. Access to workforce housing and essential mental-health services, on the other hand, were woefully inadequate before this. Florida is near bottom in the nation in per-capita spending on mental health and in payment of unemployment claims. For systems that were broken already, “recovery” to a pre-pandemic state won’t meet our communities’ growing needs, not by a longshot.

We’re also losing hard-won ground in other areas, such as substance abuse. By putting several successful community programs into place, we actually pushed this issue off the regional priority list between our 2017 and 2019 research scans. But overdoses are quietly slipping back to crisis levels. In the first two weeks of this month, our region saw double the opioid overdoses and deaths we experienced all of last May.

That’s why we continue to work in broad collaboration on projects like our Here4YOUth mental-health initiative and enhancing our homeless-services system, even as we’ve focused on COVID-19 response. Since April 3, when the Governor’s safer-at-home executive order was issued, our local Continuum of Care for homeless services has moved 345 households comprising 487 individuals into housing. That includes 89 clients with the “highest acuity of need,” meaning they’re the very hardest to place into permanent homes.

The philanthropic generosity of our region has made wins like that possible. It also has prevented other entrenched problems from devolving into severe crises. Such generosity—and more—will be needed for some time to come. Fortunately, another certainty is that our community of givers will continue to lean in.

But philanthropy alone can’t solve problems that have been building for years, in some cases decades, before COVID-19 exposed how deep they run. We need leadership with the integrity to forge solutions thoughtfully and rationally, regardless of political expediency. We need committed collaboration across sectors—public, private, as well as independent. We need innovation and excellence at all levels of our community, like what we’ve been seeing from our strongest nonprofit partners.

I’m an optimist. I believe we live in a community that can and will rise to these needs, as we’ve done before. When faced with the adversity of a destructive hurricane, we have immediately pooled our talents and resources to minimize suffering and move forward together. We have proven that human ingenuity and compassion are far more powerful than any storm. We can do the same with this virus.

Mark Pritchett is the President and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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