The Big Quit Hits Homeless Ministries

They never stopped serving on the frontlines, but now short-staffed nonprofits are struggling to compete with flexible, virtual work that took off during the pandemic.

At 6 a.m. and in a 40-degree rain, David Mason arrived at work at the Bowery Mission, New York City’s oldest ministry to those without homes, with addictions, or in need of a meal.

He has been working on the frontlines as a staff “ambassador” serving the city’s most vulnerable throughout the pandemic, without getting sick once, when others were working at home and the city was largely shuttered. He is a steady presence as the mission has seen staff and volunteer turnover.

Even when short on volunteers or kitchen workers, the mission starts the day by offering hot showers, a chapel service, and then breakfast to those on the street. It served 255,000 meals last year and housed 266 adults in its long-term residential programs. The mission’s main location in Manhattan, with its trademark red chapel doors, has been operating since before the last pandemic in 1918.

In this pandemic, though, volunteer numbers have been down and the mission has been short-staffed. About 10 percent of the Bowery Mission’s staff roles have gone unfilled for the past year, according to president and CEO James Winans, and the organization isn’t getting many applicants for those spots.

Winans said the organization set aside money in the budget for those roles “for a reason,” and the gaps put an extra burden on remaining staff. The omicron wave took another 10–15 percent of staff out of work temporarily, leaving the organization scrambling to continue serving hundreds of meals a day and offering shelter and residential programs in five 24/7 locations.

Until recently, the mission’s donations closet was a mountain of unorganized clothes and shoe donations because there weren’t volunteers …

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