As lawmakers in Washington debate how to handle America’s financial crisis, social-service charities across the country are busy facing what leaders call dramatic and unprecedented increases in demand for help.
The slowing economy, a rising unemployment rate, spikes in food and fuel costs, and the decline in the housing market have social-services providers worried about their ability to raise enough money to meet demand. They say they are especially concerned because the holiday giving season is the time when food banks and other organizations receive the bulk of their contributions.
Some charities have already had to reduce services or turn needy people away.
“Donations are not keeping up with costs at this moment,” says Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA. “Some of our agencies are reporting the largest demands they have seen in decades for the most basic of needs, including food, shelter, and help with utility bills.”
Ms. Hill says she has heard multiple tales about people who were once donors to Catholic Charities now themselves seeking aid. “When you see people who have supported us having to come in for assistance, it tells us we are in some pretty serious economic times,” Ms. Hill says.
Ms. Hill says she is not alone among charity leaders in keeping an eye on what is going on in Washington and on Wall Street.
“With the instability with the financial situation in the country right now, we are all sort of waiting to see what sort of impact that it’s going have on our ability to raise money going forward,” she says.
Requests for food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies some 600 food pantries and soup kitchens in the metropolitan area, grew 35 percent over the summer.
“The cost of food and the cost of fuel are factors that are leading a lot of people to turn to food pantries for the first time,” says Bob Dolgan, the Chicago charity’s director of communications. “Anecdotally, we are hearing that a lot of people seeking help are those who you might traditionally think of us as middle class—people who have college degrees.”
Mr. Dolgan says his organization has so far been able to keep pace with demand but there is “uncertainty” as the staff prepares for the annual direct-mail campaign.
“We are distributing more food than ever before,” Mr. Dolgan says. “At this point we are just hoping Chicagoans will be as generous as they always have been.”
In Phoenix, where the high rate of foreclosures has left a surplus of single-family homes and a dearth of low-cost rental apartments, the homeless shelters run by Central Arizona Shelter Services are routinely filled beyond capacity. As many as 170 people a night now sleep on an asphalt parking lot adjacent to one of the charity’s downtown shelters.
Facing budget constraints, the City of Phoenix cut its annual support for Central Arizona Shelter Services by $110,000 this year, says the charity’s chief executive, Mark Holleran. In response, he says, the charity is “being more aggressive” in going after support from foundations and corporations, as well as individuals, which could be problematic.
“With all that’s happening in the economy, John Q. Public is starting to have a hard time taking care of himself and might not have much left over to give,” Mr. Holleran says.
Meanwhile, Mr. Holleran has witnessed what he hopes is not part of a disturbing trend: On more than one occasion, a nursing home called Central Arizona Shelter Services asking about its facilities because the home had a resident who would soon be unable to afford to stay there.
“If it’s seen as a solution to drop people off from a nursing home to a homeless shelter, we’re in trouble,” Mr. Holleran says.
Like urban Arizona, much of Florida has been hard hit by foreclosures and job losses related to the housing industry.
“Demand for help throughout the state, in a lot of cases, as more than doubled,” says Bob Dick, director of development at the Salvation Army’s Florida division. “In major areas where the housing marketing as taken the biggest nose dive, a lot of our places are having a 100-percent increase in demand for help, much of it related to rent and utility assistance.”
Mr. Dick reports that some Salvation Army outlets have already spent the year’s allotment of rental-assistance money and can do little more than refer people in need of such assistance to other organizations.
The charity’s largest fund-raising effort — the annual holiday “kettle drive” — is less than two months away, and the national economic turmoil is of much concern.
“We are very cautious in thinking about whether or not this could be a very difficult Christmas in regards to fund raising,” Mr. Dick says.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has had to turn away people seeking help paying their mortgages, as this is a service the charity is not set up to provide.
“We’ve never had people coming in for help with their mortgage payments,” says Angelo Boer, director of development and communications for the Baltimore charity. “Our services include help with rent, utilities, and basic needs for children. We try referring those people out to agencies that deal with mortgage counseling.”
While overall demand for social services are up across the board in Baltimore, Mr. Boer says donations to his charity are down around 6 percent.
“The main concern right now is for our high-end donors and how they will deal with what happens in the stock market,” Mr. Boer says. “We used to get a lot of stock gifts and they really help. Most of our income comes in between December and January. We are all working hard, and I guess the best I can say is that we are cautiously optimistic.”