02/09/09 — Helping neighbors - Charities deal with economy

View Archive

Helping neighbors - Charities deal with economy

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on February 9, 2009 1:46 PM

The sluggish economy has not only hit most Americans' pocketbooks, it also has hurt the charities that many turn to in times of need.

Several of Wayne County's charitable organizations -- the Community Soup Kitchen, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army -- are seeing fewer and smaller donations but more residents in need of help.

The Soup Kitchen has seen donations steadily taper off since the beginning of the year, said its director, Doricia Benton. But at the same time, the number of people eating there is climbing. Last year, the Soup Kitchen served 8,000 more people than it did in 2007.

"We see new faces every day," Ms. Benton said. "We are glad to be able to give them a hot, nutritious meal." But she noted that there has been a big decrease in support, both foodstuffs and other household items and money. And that's not a good thing for an organization that operates entirely on donations.

To help make up the difference, Ms. Benton is in the process of applying for a grant. She said it's hard to forecast just how much donations might drop because so many people are being laid off from their jobs and money is tight for everyone.

"We just have to reach out to the community and pray that donations stay steady," she said.

It's not just adults who eat at the Soup Kitchen. Ms. Benton said families with children also come in.

"We have some children who, since they've been born, that's all they've known, to come and eat at the Soup Kitchen. We even have a couple of high chairs for them."

"I've had so many clients tell me that if we weren't here, they would go eat out of trash cans," Ms. Benton said.

Another charity that's seeing a decline in donations is the Wayne County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

"I think probably going forth, we'll continue to experience some of that," said Chuck Waller, the executive director of the chapter.

But Waller said he doesn't expect to have to cut back on the services the Red Cross offers.

"We have to collect blood," Waller said. "We have to train the community in first aid and CPR. We need to be able to respond to fires."

So far the Red Cross hasn't had to cut back on any of its healthy and safety classes.

"We're still doing everything we've always done," Waller said, "but we're working longer and harder."

For example, the local Heroes Campaign, that kicks off next month, will set its goal a lot higher than last year. Waller said this might not be the best time to try to raise more dollars, but that the chapter believes it is needed.

The Red Cross is also looking for other ways to raise money.

"Our approach at this point is to go out and be more proactive in getting the message out and be more proactive in asking for financial resources to be able to do what we do," Waller said.

In addition to a decrease in contributions, the Red Cross has also seen a decrease in volunteers.

"We're having to work harder to get folks to come in and volunteer," Waller said. "We need folks to help us staff blood drives, answer phones and help us respond to disasters. Getting folks to come in this environment has been challenging because they are working and reluctant to take time to come donate their time. It's not just the finances that are tight. It's people's time."

The Red Cross has had to cut out some of the incentives it offers at its blood drives to entice donors to give blood.

But if donations were to decrease drastically, the Red Cross would have to decrease some of the services it provides to fire victims, Waller said.

"We would not be able to provide them as much time in a motel. We may not be able to provide them as significant an allowance for clothing, food or medicine. That means a lot to a family that has just lost everything in a fire."

The Salvation Army hasn't had to cut back on the services it delivers, but has seen more people coming in for help, Maj. Andrew Wiley said.

"We are seeing more clients, absolutely. In December, we saw numbers far above what we normally do. We served more than 900 kids, 200 more than normal," Wiley said. "We are helping more people with food and utility bills who've not had to come in for help because they are losing their job and having their hours cut."

Wiley also said more people have been visiting the Thrift Store to shop.

The economic slowdown doesn't seem to have affected housing as much as the food lines at the House of Fordham homeless shelter, said its director, Linda Burroughs.

The number of people coming for food is double the number who came this time last year, she said.

"Foodwise, it's increasing all the time," Ms. Burroughs said.

The staff members at Fordham House staff pass out donated food every week day from 9:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. Recently, some people have waited in line the entire four hours to get something to eat, she said.

"On Mondays, the line goes out the door," Ms. Burroughs said.

Ms. Burrough said she used to see the same faces coming for food all the time, but now, there are new people in line.

"A lot of the new ones are over 65 and on a fixed income. They weren't coming last year," she said. "Even those who are not destitute have a greater need for food because of rising costs of everything."

One charitable group that is seeing an increase in donations is United Church Ministries.

The organization gets supplies for its food pantry from local churches.

"They have been just wonderful," director Frances Vernosky said. She said she believes churches have increased their donations because they know more people need help.

Ms. Vernosky said more people have been going to United Church Ministries for help with food, electric bills, rent and fuel to heat their homes. Those seeking assistance are saying they have either lost their jobs or had their hours reduced.

"They just don't have any other resources," Ms. Vernosky said. "They don't know what to do. Some of them have worked for 35 or 40 years and all of a sudden are out of a job."

She said United Church Ministries is seeing a lot of first-time clients. Walking through those doors is not an easy thing, she said.

"It makes them feel less than what they should be. And that's sad."

She believes the donations will keep coming.

"This is God's work. I believe that no matter what the economy is, as long as God wants this place to survive, it will."