Charity leaders to aid overtaxed local agencies

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City and county charity leaders launched a new emergency fund yesterday to help nonprofit groups, which are seeing a surge in demand from people reeling from the global financial crisis.

Called Neighbor-Aid, the collaborative effort "is just another example of Allegheny County being such a special place to live and work. In my experience, being in other parts of the country, I've never seen anything like this," said the county's human services chief, Marc Cherna.

New requests for help from Pittsburgh-area relief agencies have leaped 73 percent in the past six months, while financial support of those agencies is slipping.

Much of that is due to the surge in the "new needy," those who are facing family budget crises for the first time. They need support but are not used to -- or are even embarrassed about -- seeking it, a situation that has been taxing charities that already have their hands full with existing clients.

The new effort will help the nonprofit groups bridge that widening gap by focusing on efforts to address food, shelter, utilities and transportation needs.

Neighbor-Aid will be "a safety net to the safety net," said Joyce Rothermel, chief executive officer of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, at a news conference yesterday.

The effort currently has $700,000 in funding -- counting $350,000 from the Pittsburgh Foundation -- and will be aided by the United Way of Allegheny County, the Hillman Foundation and other contributors, in conjunction with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

The Pittsburgh area has enjoyed a measure of immunity from the worst of the financial crisis but still needs to prepare for it getting uglier, Pittsburgh Foundation CEO Grant Oliphant said. The area's economic condition "should not be used to mask the surge in need that is happening," he said.

The emergency effort is getting under way quickly in part because agencies do not know how long the economy will spiral and they want to be poised to respond to changing human services needs.

Experience with Hurricane Katrina evacuees, said Walter Smith of Family Resources, showed that people who at first need help with food or shelter later face mental health or domestic abuse issues.

Allegheny County is already seeing a surge in mental-health counseling clients, said Mr. Cherna.

"There is a real strong anxiety about 'How are we going to pay our bills? Our lives are falling apart,' " he said.

"What we don't know is how serious the problem is going to be," said the United Way's Bob Nelkin. "No one knows if this is a V-shaped or L-shaped recession, L-shaped meaning it lasts for a long time, V-shaped that we rebound very quickly." If the recession lingers, "we're going to have to have this partnership and be serious about our work together for some time to come."

In the last six months, a report by the Forbes Funds shows, local human services groups have seen a 73 percent jump in pleas for help from households that have not sought it previously. Of the agencies surveyed, 100 percent expect budget shortfalls.

With expenses rising and wages stagnant, the Forbes report says a new population of households, those making up to $42,500 annually, has been "pushed over the edge" and will be needing assistance.

These so-called "new needy" will "have to be told, and they have to be told very clearly, where to go for help," said Squirrel Hill philanthropist Elsie Hillman, who helped start the emergency fund effort.

At the same time, state and federal support for the 400 social service agencies funded via the county is also at risk. Gov. Ed Rendell has estimated the state's budget shortfall at $1.6 billion and is already slashing spending, so Neighbor-Aid's next public effort is expected to involve recommendations on human services policy.

The initiative arose out of meeting last month of some 20 regional nonprofit organizations. The Pittsburgh Foundation and the United Way will pool all the money donated to the emergency fund -- while waiving their usual administrative fees -- and have it awarded by a joint distribution committee. The funding awards will be streamlined, meaning applications for grants will be simpler than usual and funds will be issued quickly, perhaps as soon as next month.

Mrs. Hillman said the joint effort will be similar to, but larger than, a community campaign called "SOS" that reopened city swimming pools in 2004. Like that campaign, Neighbor-Aid will take any contributions, big or small.

"Everybody in this partnership is going to make a difference. I'm very excited about the role that we can play just as people, not just as foundations," she said.


Donations may be made through the sponsoring organizations or directly by credit card via the initiative's Web site at www.neighbor-aid.org . Donations may also be made to the fund via the Pittsburgh Foundation offices at Five PPG Place, Pittsburgh 15222. Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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