Coming up short

The Baltimore Sun

Angelo Boer is disturbed by what he sees happening. As the ranks of the jobless have swollen, more and more people are running out of food and money to pay bills. An emergency fund for utility cutoffs and evictions that was supposed to last the winter has already been depleted.

He's no less bothered, as development director at Catholic Charities of Baltimore, by what he isn't seeing: donations. In past downturns, giving has risen. Not so far this year. With contributions off 5 percent, the agency is on pace to miss its fundraising target by $500,000.

"It's less money to provide the services, but more services are needed," Boer said. "These are uncharted waters for us. We've never been through anything like this before."

The sinking economy is straining the ability of charities, churches and government agencies to cope with rising calls for help from around the Baltimore region. People must look harder and longer for aid, often turning to multiple sources, say the agencies' officials. Increasingly, the working poor and middle class are tumbling into crisis. Elderly residents and others close to the margin find it harder to make ends meet on incomes that are fixed or dwindling.

Organizations that aid the poor worry about the growing demand and are taking steps to adjust. At Catholic Charities, for example, an internal review is exploring possible savings. But, Boer said, "There aren't any good options."

At the Salvation Army, Maj. Roger Coulson, who heads the Baltimore-area command, is not nervous - yet. "Our experience," he said, "has always been that as long as you're able to share with the community what the needs are, people always seem to come through."

The organization's annual red-kettle campaign is under way in public places that shoppers frequent during the holidays. The Salvation Army also has sent out "urgent" letters appealing for donations to assist "record numbers" of needy.

Coulson said the problems have become more acute from month to month, and are worse this fall than last. He predicted the trend would continue, ensnaring people who until the economy went sour had no need for charitable aid - people like the Schmidts of Finksburg.

On Halloween, Karl Schmidt, 62, lost his job as parts manager at a car dealership. Days earlier his wife, Cathy Schmidt, 53, learned her cancer will require chemotherapy in January. His layoff might force them to buy private COBRA insurance, though they aren't sure how they'll afford the $600 monthly premium.

As if that were not enough, the Schmidts had a more immediate concern as trick-or-treaters made their evening forays. Their electricity was turned off that day because they owed $2,200. They had fallen behind because, months earlier, Karl's pay had been cut by a quarter.

While they sparingly used a generator to power the house, they sought help. In the end, the Salvation Army and four private groups, along with Carroll County, pitched in $1,300. The Schmidts came up with $900. After three weeks, power was restored.

He goes looking for work every day, intent on regaining self-sufficiency. "Right now, we don't know which way to go," he said. "I'm just thankful for the help we've got so far."

Around the region, people have swamped the 211 "First Call for Help" operated by United Way of Central Maryland. The hot line is on track to get 20,000 calls this month for housing, utility or holiday assistance, 7 percent more calls than in October.

United Way's fundraising campaign for next year is projected to fall short by 10 percent, or $4 million.

"We've done a great deal already to trim our operating expenses, but the last thing this community can afford is for us not to be able to fund the needs," said spokesman Chuck Tildon. "So we're trying to do everything we can to raise more money."

But if that fails, he said, "tough decisions are going to have to be made." United Way, which raises money for distribution to charitable groups, raised $39 million last year. Catholic Charities was the second-largest recipient behind the American Red Cross at $1.8 million.

Howard County, one of the nation's wealthiest, has hardly been immune to the downturn.

The main homeless shelter, the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, is persistently full or overflowing. The nonprofit Community Action Council reports twice as many requests for help with utility bills compared with this time last year.

Linda Hayes, who runs the Christ Church Link telephone referral service, says the numbers tell only part of the story.

"It's not just people calling with turnoff notices, but people whose power was turned off months ago," she said. "We're seeing more water turnoffs, where you've got families with young children, babies even, that don't have water."

More and more, she said, people can't pay either their utilities or rent and have scant money for food. Some have lost jobs, others don't make enough even with two jobs. With so much need but finite resources, people get less than the amount they are seeking, she said: "There are holes in the safety network in Howard County."

In Baltimore County, the region's most populous jurisdiction, applications for utility help are running 24 percent ahead of last year.

"We're seeing a huge surge in applications coming in with people having turnoff notices, and some of the bills are enormous," said Harriet Hertz, director of the county's home energy assistance program.

The surge has caused a monthlong backlog in providing help, though Hertz said her office can obtain 55-day extensions from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to buy time.

Another county program that provides emergency financial assistance has seen such a rise in demand that grants had to be cut from $500 to $300 to avoid running out of money. Recipients include those who have lost jobs but have not yet begun receiving unemployment benefits.

Increasingly, county officials say, people have to cobble together what they can from various sources.

The state's budget crunch has had a domino effect on staffing levels at the county Department of Social Services, which is run jointly with the state. The agency has not been able to fill some vacancies, leaving 16 percent of positions open.

"We're not able to keep up with all the requests for assistance," said director Timothy Griffith. By late October, 3,000 applications for help of various kinds had been pending longer than a month.

To ease the backlog, the Baltimore County Council has approved temporary staffing and overtime. It also greenlighted a budget transfer so two nonprofit groups can hire housing counselors. People have been waiting three months on average between getting a mortgage default notice and seeing a counselor.

At Catholic Charities, the crushing demand for utility and rental assistance has drained the Samaritan Center's allotment, which was meant to last through winter. Now callers are being referred elsewhere.

"Most people are going to three, four, five different places to try to get the funds and are not always able to find it," lamented Mary Anne O'Donnell, director of community services.

In October, donations of casseroles for the food program at Our Daily Bread dropped so low that supplies nearly ran out for the first time in 27 years. A public appeal has reversed that this month, much to the relief of agency officials.

And a steady stream of job seekers has flowed into the employment center at Our Daily Bread. The center, which has counselors and banks of computers, has seen better-educated people lately, a sign that jobs are being lost higher up the ladder.

One day recently, Samuel English met with placement manager Kevin Anderson. English got laid off from a construction job in mid-October and has scored only a few interviews since. With no job he cannot pay child support for his 4-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son.

English has experience coaching troubled youth in basketball, so Anderson's next move would be to check with a juvenile facility in Baltimore. Hedging his bets, he also planned to see if a Golden Corral restaurant needed someone to mop floors.

English, 40, said he has never had such a hard time finding work. As Anderson noted, he has a clean record and solid work history. English is trying to remain optimistic: "Eventually, somebody's going to give me a job."

RISING NEED

The Salvation Army, Greater Baltimore Command, is among area charities and government agencies that see increased demand for aid:

* Requests for rental assistance to stave off eviction grew from 24 in October to 471 during the first three weeks of November.

* People who needed help paying BGE bills increased to 1,105 during that three-week period, up from 851 last month. The October figure marked a jump from 671 calls in October last year.

* The number of meals fed to poor people jumped to 5,590 last month, from 3,026 in October of last year. (November figures were not available.)

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
79°