It’s been half a century since the Rev. Wayne Williams started Marietta-based MUST Ministries with a one-room pantry and clothing closet. Over the decades, it has grown into one of the largest and best-known charities in metro Atlanta, with more than 100 employees, more than 17,000 volunteers and annual revenue north of $15 million.

“There’s an old saying that you marry your mission, but you date your model,” Dr. Dwight “Ike” Reighard, current MUST Ministries president and CEO, said in an interview. In other words, while the foundations of the charity remain the same, its size and methods have greatly expanded.

The mission is to serve as a safety net for people whose lives are “a high-wire balancing act.” Losing a job, or something as simple as an unexpected car problem, are enough to take a struggling family off the rails, Reighard said.

About 80% of the people the charity serves are women and children. MUST’s four main services are providing food, shelter, clothing and employment opportunities to people in need.

Reighard has been with MUST for a decade now and said the greatest change over the years has been the ballooning issue of suburban poverty MUST seeks to address. People often think of homelessness as an urban issue, but most of the people the organization serves grew up in and around Cobb County, he said.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a longtime MUST board member, echoed that sentiment.

“The truth of the matter is where homelessness is expanding and sometimes explosively is in the suburbs,” Barnes said.

To the occasional critic who complains the charity attracts the homeless from Atlanta to Marietta, Barnes said “that’s simply not true.”

“What happens at MUST is, you can’t spend the night unless you are drug free and alcohol free,” Barnes said. “And we will feed you and we will clothe you, but you can’t come in until you do that. So there’s no attraction. What I see is a mother who lost her job, she’s got two children and she’s lost her house and she has no place to go except a car. Or a veteran that fell on hard times.”

Though it was before his time, Reighard said Hurricane Katrina was a turning point for the charity.

“MUST was one of the charities that was tapped on the shoulder to help with that relocation of people and help (providing) the items that they were going to need,” which contributed to the charity becoming institutionalized.

Now, MUST serves as a conduit for government funding and is given tasks such as processing applications for COVID-19-related rental assistance. The increased responsibility is a privilege, Reighard said. Time can erode one’s awareness of an organization and lead to complacency, he added, so it’s important to make sure MUST’s employees are being innovative in their approach.

“You have to make sure that you don’t get out over your skis too far,” Reighard said.

The year leading up to the semicentennial was of course, dominated by the pandemic. The needs among Cobb Countians have risen dramatically due to COVID-19 and its economic effects.

For instance, in a normal year, MUST would serve about 250,000 lunches as part of its summer lunch program. In 2020, that number was 379,000. School pantries aided 700 families instead of 400. And more than 125,000 people were served by the nonprofit last year, up from a typical 33,500 people. (Reighard said those numbers may include duplicates).

On any given night, between MUST’s shelter, its permanent supportive housing program and the hotel and motel rooms they provide, about 300 people are sleeping with shelter due to MUST services.

“The heartbreaking thing, the last few years, is that many of those people that needed help have been people ... who gave to MUST in the past,” Reighard said.

One of MUST’s partners, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, was in the process of moving and was low on supplies when the pandemic hit. Corporate retailer partners, meanwhile, were experiencing supply chain issues.

Fortunately, MUST was in a strong financial position before the pandemic hit, Reighard said. Additional government funds enabled them to shift their model, focusing especially on providing food and shelter. They put displaced clients up in hotels and motels, allowing the homeless shelter’s population to remain relatively static, which was critical to reducing COVID-19 spread.

Joyette Holmes, a MUST board member and former Cobb district attorney, said she became familiar with MUST years ago, often driving past its Elizabeth Inn shelter on Elizabeth Church Road and when, while working as a defense attorney, some homeless clients would receive court notices at a MUST-provided location, ensuring they knew of upcoming appearances.

“We are blessed as a community, and the areas right around us, perhaps, (to have) an organization like MUST,” Holmes said. “And the longevity has to mean something for the work that MUST has been able to do.”

Looking forward to the recovery after COVID-19, MUST has its eye on the expiration of the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium at the end of June, which could bring a flood of homelessness. They also plan to ramp up workforce development services to get people employed as the economy cranks back up.

The charity is also working on its new campus, expected to open in early 2022. Located on North Cobb Parkway, the new campus will include offices and a new shelter, increasing capacity from 72 beds to 136 beds. Additional “flex space” will be used for hot and cold weather events, for people waiting to get into the shelter or other ad-hoc needs.

The shelter is being built by a fundraising campaign. The first phase raised more than $12.1 million and phase two will seek to raise another $4.5 million. MUST hopes to become debt-free in the coming years, Reighard said, which “gives you a lot of flexibility in what you’re able to respond to.”

Reighard hopes to expand MUST’s mission further to do more in the realm of healthcare and mental healthcare. They’ve partnered in the past with Mercy Care to provide free clinic access.

Mental health problems are widely seen among people MUST serves, Reighard added.

“And just by virtue of what they’ve been through, it would cause you to have mental health issues,” Reighard said. “I mean, can you imagine being a mom, and having a couple of children, and you’re trying to survive out of a car and fast food?”

The wrap-around services MUST provides, he said, are meant to get people into stable situations. The goal should not be to have a revolving door of people. Pre-pandemic, Reighard said 74% of people in their shelter end up in a stable environment and the average shelter stay is 30 to 35 days.

“Some people say ‘Well, you know, MUST ought to just focus on the homeless shelter, MUST ought to just focus on food,’” Reighard said. “But we see it holistically, we see ourselves as a one-stop shop, to be able to get people on the road to stability. That should be your goal.”

“Donors — financial and, you know, people capital-type donors — come back year after year because they see the work that’s being done,” Holmes said. “The reality is, people still need our support, they still need somebody who truly cares and cares with the love of God certainly, and MUST does that.”

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