Philanthropy Summit Focuses on Those Struggling for Financial Survival | News

Philanthropy Summit Focuses on Those Struggling for Financial Survival | News

County business, nonprofit, and philanthropic leaders gathered Tuesday morning at the Belmont Country Club to learn more about efforts to help working families achieve financial stability.

The annual philanthropy summit was organized by the Community Foundation of Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties. 

Foundation President and CEO Nicole Acosta said the event was “an opportunity for dialog about our community’s needs and possible innovations and solutions to help our community thrive. Our goals today are to learn more about what’s going on here at home, maybe deepen our understanding about the economic realities for working families in Loudoun, and to explore how other communities are working together to leverage partnerships in a way that lifts up those in need of assistance.”

Attendees heard from the National Capital Area United Way’s director of research and evaluation, Scott Mengebier; a panel of agency representatives on the front lines of providing family assistance in Loudoun; and two managers who helped roll out the City of Alexandria’s pilot guaranteed basic income program.

The focus of the meeting was on challenges faced by area residents who live above federal poverty levels but still struggle to cover expenses in the high-cost region. Long known as the working poor, families living paycheck to paycheck increasingly are described by social service managers seeking to identify financial hardship as ALICE—people who are asset-limited, income constrained, and employed. In the region, about 10% of the population falls within the federal definition of poverty, but another 23-25% live on just on the threshold of financial survival, Mengebier said. 

ALICE families are ineligible for public benefit programs, but still are not able to afford the basic essentials to make ends meet, he said.

Those households are the focus of a proposed $1.5 million guaranteed annual income program planned to launch in Loudoun County next year. While the concept has been endorsed by the Board of Supervisors for funding, the implementation details have yet to be proposed.

Alexandria launched a pilot program using $3 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Through that ARISE program, 170 people were selected randomly from among more than 12,000 applicants to receive monthly payments of $500 for two years. While recipients are permitted to spend the money, distributed in a debit card, any way they wish, user data shows that buying food is the top category. 

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Julie Mullen, the City of Alexandria’s economic mobility officer, address attendees at the 2024 Philanthropy Summit organized by the Community Foundation of Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties. 

“For participants, they’re really saying things like, ‘I get to say yes to my kids for the first time,’ ‘I went to the grocery store and I wasn’t thinking about it,’ and ‘I got to buy meat for the first time in six months.’ There’s another group of people that have had unexpected medical crises, to be quite frank, and have said, ‘I’ve been able to stay in my apartment while I receive like life-saving cancer treatment,’” said Julie Mullen, Alexandria’s economic mobility officer. 

“As we all know, there’s always something, right? No matter what income level you’re living at, it’s always something—something in your house, something in your car, somebody who loses a job. So, we’re also learning just those financial shocks are less shocking, and people are kind of able to get through without losing their housing, without being able to give up putting food on the table,” Mullen said. 

Brandi Yee is the chief program officer for ACT for Alexandria, the community foundation that helped roll out the ARISE program. She said it took a lot of time and hard work with an assortment of community partners to ensure those in need of the funding were notified about the program and could complete the application process.

“We know that it takes time, and as we thought about leading with equity, we needed to make sure this program was accessible to everyone who might qualify to participate—whether that was making sure it was in their language or in the words and concepts that people understood,” she said. “We know that intentionality takes time and it takes resources. We started this work in the summer of 2021 when things got approved. We did the work through the fall of 2022 in order to kind of do work on that messaging and work on engaging community members,” Yee said. 

The program kicked off in February 2023. The City Council recently voted to extend the program for an additional five months.

A panel discussion focused on challenges that community safety net agencies are experiencing after COVID.

Loudoun Hunger Relief President and CEO Jennifer Montgomery said that newly released data from Feed America found that the number of Loudoun residents facing food insecurity rose to 6.9% in 2022, up from 4.1%—now potentially impacting more than 30,000 people, most of whom have incomes too high to qualify for government support programs.

She said rising food costs are hitting households particularly hard, noting that in Loudoun the average cost of a meal is $4.86—22% above the national benchmark.

“So, for individuals who are struggling with housing, utilities, and transportation, the additional burden of high food prices can have a significant impact on everyone’s budget,” Montgomery said. “We all feel that right when we go to the store, we’re like, what’s in this cart? We know that this is really affecting the families that we serve.”

Valerie Pisierra, the executive director of Loudoun Cares, saw her organization grow from a staff of two to 12 as it took on more responsibility to help residents avoid evictions and administer other COVID-relief programs for the county government. Since launching a new rent assistance program May 15, more than 650 people have applied for help, she said.

“People say COVID is over. Why are we still talking about that? How are people still affected by COVID? It’s not about COVID,” Pisierra said. “It’s about the economic situation that happened after that crazy time. The rents have gone through the roof. We have families who come to the end of their lease and their landlords tack on another $1,500 on top of their rent, because now they’re month to month.”

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Ryan Harrison, the assistant director of the county’s Public Assistance and Supports Division, addresses attendees at the 2024 Philanthropy Summit as Community Foundation President and CEO Nicole Acosta looks on.

Ryan Harrison, the assistant director of the county’s Public Assistance and Supports Division, said the expiration of COVID response programs is hitting many families—including programs that expanded eligibly for childcare subsidies. Now there are fewer slots available for that program, he said.

“Anyone with small children knows the cost of daycare can be like college tuition,” Harrison said.

While the scope of support programs may be shrinking, Harrison said his staff is working harder to conduct community outreach to ensure that those who need services know what is available, and also is reaching out to community organizations and volunteers to expand the offerings. 

“If you are interested in partnering with us in that effort, that would be a great opportunity to really put your hand to the plow and kind of help us in supporting those who are most vulnerable in our community,” he said.

Many attending the forum stressed that building those community partnerships are critical. 

“Food Insecurity is up. Homelessness is up. Housing affordability. We have all these big, big, big issues, and we are not going to solve them unless we work together,” Montgomery said. “So that’s my call to action—just do something. Don’t leave here today and not do anything.”

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