Monday, September 14, 2009

Crisis over for charities? Far from it!

A friend made a comment over the weekend that caused The Cliff to pause and take stock. She said: It feels the crisis is over for nonprofits. Not the problems, but the severity of the crisis that has plagued the region for most of a year.

The Cliff decided to pose that question to a few warriors on the frontline:

Beverly Howard at Loaves & Fishes just laughed.

Last month, Howard said, her food bank saw an increase in people who'd run out on unemployment benefits and still unable to find a job.

"The need here is at an all-time high," she said. "We don't anticipate the need going down for some months. The reality for our clients is that once the economy turns around, it will still take six months to a year for them to experience any relief."

That means that people will continue to get behind on rents or the mortgage -- and utilities. And they'll continue to need places like Loaves & Fishes for basic sustenance, or Crisis Assistance Ministry for help to keep from getting thrown in the street.

Carol Hardison, head of Crisis Assistance, groaned at the question.

"That shocks and scares me," she said.

Yes, the budget sheets are in better shape, but only because most charities have shed employees and services.

But has the severity of the problem diminished?

"No way," Hardison said. "We did make adjustments and did layoffs and we're right-sizing. But there's thousands of people who are no longer receiving services."

In July and August, she saw record numbers standing at the door of Crisis Assistance each morning.

The city was vastly helped by the $3 million raised for the Critical Need Response Fund last winter, she said. "It gave us a cushion, so we didn't have to pull out all the stops to help the people we were seeing. It got us through the summer."

But now they're seeing a double-digit increase in needs.

"We're just like the for-profits that are looking more productive," Hardison said. "They do more with less. But who picks up the people who are left out? As far as what we're seeing, a whole lot more people are closer to the cliff than ever.

"To me, the cliff is just starting for many vulnerable families."

At Jacob's Ladder Job Center, the job-preparing nonprofit, executive director Steffi Travis chuckles at the question.

"No. Not true. Charities are struggling in every dimension," Travis said. "I do think we've all adjusted ... but we are all having to vie for the same strapped dollars in a more personal way."

Her agency's clients are more anxious and burned out than she's seen in 30 years of working for nonprofits.

"Everything they do requires them to get services from other folks," she said. "If it's medical, they're often told appointments are long and waiting. Or services have been cut. I haven't seen any uplifting moments."

Jacob's Ladder has a group of highly qualified volunteers who committed for a limited time after they were laid off because they expected to be back working shortly. A year later, many are still jobless and volunteering, Travis said.

Donors are still tight with their money, uncertain about what the future holds. Charities are having to spend more time with donors relaying personal stories.

"They understand they need to give back -- and we are all truly grateful," she said. "But a lot of affluent donors just don't get how badly people are suffering. So they're holding back more than they'd normally give."


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