United Way aims to raise $1 million emergency fund

The Baltimore Sun

The United Way is announcing plans today to raise a $1 million emergency fund to help charities meet a steadily rising need for food, housing and utility assistance across the Baltimore area.

Even as the skidding economy affects more Marylanders, a drop in donations has strained the ability of service providers, creating dangerous gaps in the depths of winter.

"The demand for their services is going up, up, up, and the resources they have to draw on are going down, down, down," said Mark Furst, chief operating officer of the United Way of Central Maryland.

Sandy Monck, an executive at the charity umbrella group, said: "If we had $100 million it wouldn't solve the problem, but the $1 million will prevent people from dying on the streets during the cold weather months. It will help people stay in their homes."

So far, several foundations have given or pledged $200,000 toward the $1 million goal, meaning that most is yet to be raised. Due to the urgency, Furst said funds will go out soon after they come in. Every penny will be disbursed, with no deductions for administrative overhead.

Among the possible beneficiaries are homeless people who often show up at Baltimore City's downtown shelter only to find it filled to its capacity of 350. For four nights recently, dozens of people were housed at a West Baltimore recreation center. But Tuesday night, despite temperatures in the teens, a lack of money kept that overflow shelter closed.

"We wish it could have been [open] because it was cold, but we don't have the funds available," said Diane Glauber, president of Baltimore Homeless Services, an arm of city government that contracts with the nonprofit Jobs, Housing & Recovery Inc. to run the shelter.

"The United Way money would be perfect to be able to continue to keep that [overflow shelter] open on cold nights during winter," Glauber said.

Applications for a slice of the emergency fund are due today. The United Way of Central Maryland's 47 partner agencies and their affiliates were invited to apply. In addition, officials from the city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties recommended certain nonprofits to the United Way.

The emergency grants, which should start flowing early next month, will be kept to the relatively low amount of $25,000. But for the Echo House Multi-Service Center, a West Baltimore drug treatment center that provides an array of community services, that sum would be enough to help up to 250 families avoid eviction, said director Benita Paschall.

She hopes to gain the stopgap United Way money to revive a rental assistance pool that's been empty since October. "We have to tell people we cannot help them, but we always encourage people to keep calling if they need help," she said. "People are really in need now."

With the United Way's permission, Paschall would like to offer more than the $100 per family maximum that was permitted under the depleted grant from Associated Black Charities. While that would mean aiding fewer families, recipients would not have to patch together their rent from as many agencies.

At the United Way, the volume of calls to its 211 "first call for help" line illustrates the growing demand. Calls for assistance with rent and utility bills jumped by double-digit percentages from November to last month. The need for shelter also rose, though more modestly.

So far this month, calls for most services are on track to exceed December's figures. Requests are also rising for help meeting prescription drug costs.

The demand prompted the United Way earlier this month to create the so-called Emergency Response Fund. The France-Merrick Foundation contributed $50,000. With its endowment off by 30 percent since the first half of 2007, the foundation's board has decided to focus its giving on "basic human needs" such as shelter, clothing and health care, said Executive Director Robert Schaefer.

When the United Way called, the emergency fund sounded like a good fit, he said. "It certainly seems like a very good way to help the community and meet those basic human needs."

The recession has hurt the ability of nonprofits to raise money. United Way of Central Maryland knows this firsthand: Its annual fundraising campaign is likely to wind up at about $35 million, 10 percent below last year's $39 million.

While local recipients of the annual campaign will not feel the impact of that drop until a bit later this year - compounding their financial problems - Furst said the entire charity sector has been struggling to bring in dollars.

Catholic Charities of Baltimore, which operates Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, among other endeavors, saw its projected budget shortfall for the current fiscal year rise recently from $1.2 million to $1.5 million. Cuts in government aid and a falloff in donations are two key factors, said its development director, Angelo Boer.

Meanwhile, its Samaritan Center has been swamped with requests for help with eviction prevention and utility assistance. Call volume there jumped from 718 in October to 5,200 last month. Now Catholic Charities hopes to tap into the emergency fund to keep the center going.

"We're basically out of money there," Boer said. "This comes at a perfect time."

A big entity such as Catholic Charities may qualify for separate emergency grants through its various units, according to the United Way.

The emergency fund is restricted to rent, utilities, shelter expansion, soup kitchens and programs to get people into housing. It cannot be used for foreclosure assistance, Furst said, in part because that would exhaust the fund "very quickly."

Despite the grim economy, the United Way hopes to enlist individuals, businesses and foundations to reach or surpass the $1 million goal - over and above any giving people might have done as part of the United Way's annual campaign.

"We obviously have a long way to go," Furst said, adding that "the sooner we get the money in, the sooner we're going to be able to help people."

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