Our neighbors need our help, as does the 211 help hot line that is a lifeline for many

It was Thursday of last week, and the mother on the other end of the phone line was terrified.

She was less than 36 hours from eviction. Her entire family, including her autistic son, was out of options.

"I just don't know what to do," she said, her voice trembling. "We have no family that can help and nowhere to go. I'm terrified and getting very discouraged."

The scenario was as scary as it was unimaginable. Her husband had always worked. They were proud, self-sufficient people. Begging was not part of their constitution.

But as the recession deepened, his work shifts dried up, along with the family's savings.

Suddenly, they were hours away from homelessness.

Fortunately, before the clock tolled 5 p.m. on Friday, the Altamonte Springs family got help — thanks to Heart of Florida United Way's 211 hotline.

The hotline has been a saving grace for thousands in Central Florida. It matches struggling families with agencies that provide counseling, emergency assistance, food, shelter — and sometimes provides direct assistance through the United Way's Basic Needs Fund.

The bad news, however, is that the well has almost run dry.

Many local charities have bare shelves and depleted bank accounts.

And the Basic Needs Fund — the pot of money that sometimes helps families in dire situations — is down from nearly $1 million to $100,000.

Yet the demand is still growing.

Last month, 211 hit a depressing new record, fielding more than 17,000 calls in July — up 50 percent from a few months before that.

The vast majority came from people who had never before called for help.

Most had children.

They were people who had tried to hang on during a rough economy but had finally exhausted their savings accounts or jobless benefits.

"These are individuals like you and me," said Larry Olness, who helps run United Way's 211 program. "They are individuals who did the right things in life and, through no fault of their own, found themselves in a bad situation."

And yet the lifeline to which many of them grabbed hold is now frayed. The money to help them is almost gone.

We can do better.


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