With thousands of restaurant workers across Houston suddenly unemployed, the need for various forms of financial assistance is bigger than ever before. For restaurant workers people in truly dire circumstances, the Southern Smoke Foundation can help.
Founded by Chris Shepherd after Hurricane Harvey, the foundation provides emergency cash assistance to people from the hospitality industry who are in crisis. As executive director Kathryn Lott explains, that covers a wide variety of situations.
“Everything is on a case-by-base basis,” Lott tells CultureMap. “It would always say medical first, instability of vulnerable populations, general homelessness third. That’s how our staff has been evaluating applications.”
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Southern Smoke has already distributed over $100,000 to people in need. Now that Lott has started to grow her team of case evaluators, the foundation is able to get money to people in as little as 24 hours.
‘Because we’re already a crisis relief organization, we have those capabilities to expedite [distributions].” she says. “We know time is of the essence when people are in crisis.”
The individual stories are harrowing: a person who is HIV-positive and couldn’t afford medication, a mother who was sleeping in her car with a daughter, a family in Florida facing eviction because both parents worked at restaurants that were forced to close.
“Because of the nature of this business, many people live shift to shift; even paycheck to paycheck is sort of a luxury,” Lott says. “They don’t have two weeks to hold out for another paycheck. Tomorrow’s shift pays for the car note and the next two shifts pay for rent, the next for groceries. That’s sort of how this system works.”
Thankfully, donors are responding at all levels. Tito’s Vodka announced that Southern Smoke would be one of four charities to split a $1,000,000 donation; Lott isn’t saying exactly how much the foundation received from Tito’s but does acknowledge it was “very generous.”
In addition, both the Houston Texans Foundation and whiskey producer Angel’s Envy have contributed $50,000 each. A partnership with the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation has also brought in significant funds.
Still, the need for assistance is great. So far, Southern Smoke has received over 3,500 applications in the last two weeks. During the three months after Hurricane Harvey, the organization received fewer than 200. Part of the difficulty stems from the inability to predict how long the crisis will last.
“I don’t know what this looks like in the long term,” Lott says. “We have no idea how bad things are going to get. It’s a balancing act with being very responsible with our donor dollars and meeting the needs of people who are in true crisis right now.”