Mary’s Shelter, a Virginia nonprofit that provides housing and other services for women facing a crisis during pregnancy, has seen a significant increase in demand since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March.

Meanwhile, shutdown measures have stifled the donation-driven organization’s ability to fundraise. It had to cancel its annual gala, the proceeds from which account for more than half of its yearly budget.

The nonprofit is part of a network of charities and other organizations serving people in the Fredericksburg area. If an organization is unable to help a woman in need, it would connect her to someone who can, said Kathleen Wilson, executive director of Mary’s Shelter.

But as stay-at-home orders took effect in the Washington region, many charities were forced to temporarily shut down, Wilson said. Mary’s Shelter was also getting calls for help from pregnant women in Northern Virginia and Maryland.

“We give them other places they can call. But other places were not taking anyone at the time,” Wilson said. “Shelters . . . community dinners were shutting down, church things were shutting down.”

The demand for help exceeded the nonprofit’s housing capacity, so Mary’s Shelter came up with a new way to meet needs. It placed women in hotels, paid their rent, or covered transportation to friends or family willing to take them in, Wilson said.

The organization spent nearly $20,000 on the additional services during March, April and May, a 20 percent increase in its typical costs for a three-month period, Wilson said.

“We’re just meeting the needs wherever they are,” Wilson explained. “If we have to buy a bus ticket so they can get someplace else or if we have to keep them in hotels for three weeks and incur that cost, we’ll do that.”

A 'breath of fresh air'

Mary’s Shelter, a faith-based charity that identifies itself as “pro-life” on its website, aims to offer expecting mothers an alternative to abortion by providing them and any additional children they have with housing for up to three years.

When it was founded in 2006, it consisted of a single two-bedroom apartment, but it has since grown into a sprawling network of six shared homes, housing up to 18 families. In addition to shelter, the organization provides residents with parenting and life-skill classes and counseling, while helping them enhance their education and secure stable employment.

Kelsi Powell was living in her car when she reached out to Mary’s Shelter at the end of January. Powell had previously lived with family, but she had to move out because they did not approve of her pregnancy. “Because I chose to move forward with my pregnancy, I had to go about my own way,” she said.

After the anxiety of living in her car, Powell said, Mary’s Shelter was a “breath of fresh air.”

“It makes you feel more comfortable being in a house with a backyard and a kitchen and your own room and bathroom . . . you feel like it’s your home.”

Yaribel “Bella” Jimenez arrived at Mary’s Shelter in January 2019. At the time, she was pregnant with her third child and had been homeless since being evicted the previous Thanksgiving.

According to Jimenez, the support she’s received over the past year and a half has been life-changing.

“I’ve come a long way,” said Jimenez, who began a new job as a security officer at Mary Washington Hospital in June.

“If it wasn’t for Mary’s Shelter, honestly, I wouldn’t even have the courage to apply for it.”

Requests for help grow

According to Wilson, Mary’s Shelter has seen a significant increase in the number of women seeking a place to stay since early March. At first, women came from other shelters that were forced to restrict intake, decrease capacity or shut down because of the novel coronavirus.

The influx swelled as fears about the spreading virus and financial insecurity swept across the state. According to Wilson, women facing a crisis pregnancy often turn to family or friends for shelter, but the threat of the coronavirus has put people on edge.

“People are so afraid of this virus right now that families who maybe would have taken in a family member who was pregnant are now not, or boyfriends are out of work and are like, ‘Uh-uh, no way. We’re not having a kid. I can’t afford it,’ ” she said.

Despite some uncertainty, Mary’s Shelter chose to continue accepting new residents. “We made a decision that we were not turning anyone away,” Wilson said. “That just wasn’t going to happen.”

To protect their residents from the coronavirus, they struck a deal with a local hotel and required all new residents to stay there for 10 days before moving into the shelter.

So far, it’s worked. None of the residents or their children have displayed symptoms or tested positive for the virus, Wilson said.

After Virginia banned gatherings of more than 10 people in March, Mary’s Shelter had to cancel its annual soiree, the proceeds from which account for 52 percent of its yearly budget. “We host about 700 people at a sit-down gala. People sponsor tables — it’s always very successful,” Wilson said.

The organization applied for some forgivable emergency coronavirus loans but knew it couldn’t fully cover the lost revenue, so it organized a “virtual soiree.” To Wilson’s surprise, it was a success and is on track to meet — and possibly exceed — what the in-person event usually raises. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.

Still, Wilson is concerned for the many other ministries facing similar challenges without as many resources.

Mary Peterson, a housing specialist at the National Maternity Housing Coalition, said that many homes across the country are grappling with the threefold challenge of meeting increased need, keeping their residents safe and finding different ways to fundraise.

“The spring — especially with Mother’s Day — is often the season for banquets, galas, walks and golf tournaments, which needed to be canceled,” Peterson said in an email. “Some have postponed, others have gone virtual, others are relying more on direct mail. There’s been a lot of creativity shown!”

Many homes in the network are faith-based and rely on local churches for fundraising. Julie Bennett, the chief operating officer of Care Net Pregnancy Center of Dane County, which operates the Elizabeth House in Madison, Wis., said that local churches run “baby bottle campaigns” every year, usually in the spring, distributing thousands of empty bottles for members of their congregations to fill with loose change, cash and checks. Most were canceled this year because of church closures during the pandemic. A handful of churches have launched virtual campaigns but engagement has been low.

Bennett is more concerned that, like Mary’s Shelter, she will have to cancel her organization’s annual banquet in the fall. Currently, 500 people are slated to attend the event. But such a large gathering may not be allowed even as Dane County moves into later phases of reopening.

Meanwhile, the number of women seeking shelter remains high.

Peterson, of the housing coalition, expects that need will stay elevated for some time, as the virus continues to surge in some parts of the country.

At Mary’s Shelter, things have settled somewhat recently as some charities in the area have reopened, but calls are still coming in quickly. “It’s nonstop,” Wilson said.