Aid agencies stretched thin

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Out of nowhere everything turned upside down.

Working the keys one May morning at the Butter Maid Bakery in Ross Park Mall, John Carpenter peered inside and saw all the gear was gone. The general manager of the franchise, with 20 years of baking experience and authority to hire and fire other workers, he realized it had gone belly up overnight. He was now one of those people without a job, looking in from the other side.

Nights turned into months. Despite having his mother drive him up and down McKnight Road putting up applications at every restaurant he saw open, there was still nothing. Unemployment checks got him $424 a month but rent at his Millvale apartment was $450. A kindly landlord let him slide a couple times but that wouldn't last.

"I was so short on money I couldn't even get around to look for work," the 38-year-old said. "I was trying to do what I could and praying I got a job right away and would not have to ask anybody for help. But it wasn't happening."

Mr. Carpenter became one of the "new needy," a group of newly unemployed and under-employed workers being forced to seek help from charities for the first time.

Seventy-three percent of Pittsburgh-area nonprofits have seen increases in help requests from such first-timers in the last six months alone, said a study released last week. At the same time, 100 percent of the same agencies expect budget shortfalls over the next six months.

The result of that math is many of those desperate enough to ask for help are being turned away.

Mr. Carpenter went to North Hills Community Outreach, where 491 new families have asked for help since July, double the number the agency usually sees. It floored him, but the agency gave him $250 to help with rent, as well as groceries, clothes and bus passes, and helped him and his wife apply for energy aid, pushing their utility bills down to $80 a month.

"I was shocked that somebody would give me $250. 'You mean I don't have do anything, I don't have to work for you?' " he said he asked. "It hurts your pride, that's how it makes you feel. I don't want to ask anyone for a handout. But I busted my butt and thought I was going to lose it all."

It has a price. At NHCO -- like many other agencies -- individual giving is down more than 30 percent while demand for services has more than doubled.

"What comes in in the morning, we give out that afternoon," executive director Fay Morgan said. "We're really worried that we're not able to keep pace with the number of families if it continues as it is.

"We're willing, but not sure we're able."

Experiences like those pushed the Pittsburgh Foundation and other groups, including the United Way of Allegheny County, the county's Human Services Department, the Forbes Funds and the Hillman Foundation, to launch a new effort Wednesday called Neighbor-Aid. The unique emergency fund, fueled with an initial $700,000 in grants, will offer bridge financing to agencies dealing with the sudden boom in assistance requests.

The fund -- called "a safety net to the safety net" by Joyce Rothermel, of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank -- will provide assistance to nonprofits in four broad categories: food, housing, utilities and transportation.

The Brashear Association, with food pantries in the South Side and Arlington, served 752 people in November, up from 546 in September. It fed 50 percent more families than usual this Thanksgiving. Though it is only a small agency with two family case managers, it has guided $90,000 in energy assistance to clients this year, a threefold increase from the $28,700 last year.

It has had trouble keeping its food pantries stocked and been forced to close its Kaufmann House pantry in Arlington a few times, turning away people new to the food lines, executive director Hugh Brannan said.

Calls for help with mortgage delinquency problems have jumped 50 percent the last six months at Action Housing, Downtown. The emergency heat restoration service it provides from mid-November through March usually helps about 700 families the entire winter, but in four weeks it has already handled 325 cases, according to executive director Larry Swanson.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Manchester has already spent 90 percent of its utility assistance funds. The individual donations it relies on every Christmas season are down -- even from wealthy donors, due to hits to investment portfolios -- and it isn't picking up as much used furniture as usual because donors aren't buying new living room and dining room sets.

The society budgets $60,000 annually to buy recycled mattresses. Less than three months into its budget year it has spent almost half that, director Fred Just said. "Something can always be put off. You don't need a new dining room or other new furniture, but you always need a bed to sleep on," he said.

Nothing is put off like transportation, even though it is a basic need inexorably linked to the others.

At Travelers Aid of Pittsburgh, requests for bus passes from the working poor -- those not entitled to assistance under government guidelines -- are up 40 percent this year, from people struggling to get to work, job training and interviews. Requests for bus passes are up 18 percent among those seeking mental health, drug and alcohol services.

Help requests at Pittsburgh's Greyhound station -- largely from people stranded while searching for work -- are up 23 percent.

"The cost of food is up, utilities are up, rent is up, foreclosures are happening. Transportation gets pushed down and becomes even a bigger barrier to access those other services. It's a ripple effect," Travelers Aid executive director Bob Lindner said.

The nonprofit leaders interviewed last week all said they had never seen need this great, or from so many new families.

"Oftentimes they're embarrassed, demoralized. They've tried to do everything themselves -- been applying for jobs, cutting back, asking relatives for help," Ms. Morgan said. "They don't know what to expect if it's their first time."

Most pointed to the steel industry collapse a generation ago as their only template, even though that is not an exact fit. Mr. Brannan watched people line up for government-issued butter and cheese in the early '80s, but said this doesn't compare.

"That was a tough period for families in our service area, but the sense was that it was difficult but we would get beyond it. This feels a little different. I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel and that's discouraging," the Brashear Association chief said.

Part of the despair is tied to government funding. Job losses mean lower state and federal revenues, which could trigger cuts in human services programs to balance budgets. Neighbor-Aid leaders will be focusing on public policy planning next month in advance of the state budget being released in February.

In a sign of the times, due to the flood of unemployment claims, the state Department of Labor and Industry was forced last week to start hiring hundreds of new workers to answer phones and process claims.

Besides government funding cuts, private foundations locally have experienced an average loss of one-third of their assets, Pittsburgh Foundation president Grant Oliphant said, which means further cuts to nonprofit giving.

Mr. Oliphant has reached out to fellow community foundation leaders in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo to aggregate data on fiscal challenges facing human service agencies in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He then plans on issuing a dossier to President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.

"We want the Obama administration to be thinking about [the surge in demand for human services], and not just thinking about these huge bailouts for business," he said.

Mr. Carpenter received his bailout in August from the outreach organization's branch in Millvale.

"I was a nervous wreck. I was trying to look for work and waiting for the worst," he said last week. With their help with bus passes, he kept checking the restaurants on McKnight Road and finally got another job, starting two days ago, at Bob Evans. It promises full benefits if he stays on through April.

The relief agency "got me on my feet again," he said. "It was looking pretty hairy."

More information is available at . Tim McNulty can be reached at or 412-263-1581.


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