Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 2, 2008: Suburban poverty: Economy brings increased need for help

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Posted by April McClellan-Copeland June 02, 2008 05:27AM

Categories: Business Impact, News Impact

They were a hardworking Geauga County family trying to make ends meet when their lives were swept up in the foreclosure crisis.

Although both parents work, they couldn’t keep up with ballooning mortgage payments that grew $300 beyond their budget. Soon, the electric company turned off the lights — twice. The finance company repossessed the car. The kids had to drop their dance classes and other activities.

The family, struggling to keep their home, felt so pressed that they had to ask for help.

They are among a growing number of suburbanites who are falling on hard times and are turning to charities or government programs for food or for help paying the bills.

The Geauga family asked the United Way to help them get their lights turned back on.

But when the wife went to a food bank for food, she did so behind her husband’s back, to save his pride.

“It was really hard,” said the woman, her voice cracking with humiliation. “We’ve worked hard. They [food bank volunteers] gave me a hug. It’s a shame that you work, work, work.”

The harsh economy — with its loss of jobs, high cost of food and fuel and increase in home foreclosures — has Northeast Ohio families who never dreamed of needing assistance now getting food stamps and other emergency help to pay their bills.

Economic conditions are so tough statewide that the number of people getting food stamps is at its highest level since 1994, just before welfare reform, when people began to go off assistance, said Brian Harter, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

“These are people who never thought they would have to walk through these doors,” said Cheryl Mason, eligibility services administrator at Medina County Job and Family Services, which also has seen an uptick in the need for assistance.

Even some Amish families from Middlefield, who are usually self-sufficient and pull together to help one another, are coming to food banks. The women wait until after the men go to work, said Kimm Leininger, executive director of the United Way of Geauga County.

Joseph Gauntner, director of Cuyahoga County Employment and Family Services, said poverty is growing significantly among newcomers and longtime residents of suburbs.

The Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland’s central and suburban offices also have seen significant increases in the use of the agency’s food, utility-assistance and other programs by first-time users who have lost jobs or experienced foreclosures, said Philip Mason, director of development for the Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland.

In 2006, the Salvation Army served 52,000 people in Cleveland and its suburbs. In 2007, the agency helped 78,300 people, and the numbers continue to rise this year.

The Salvation Army has also seen an increase in the number of families who get emergency assistance in service units that cover traditionally higher-income areas such as Brecksville, North Royalton, Solon/Chagrin Falls and Strongsville.

The Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, a network of pantries, hot-meal programs and hunger centers across Cuyahoga County, has seen a 40 percent increase in the past five years in people who use its services in suburban sites, said Michelle Wohlfeiler, director of special events and marketing coordinator for the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland.

“There is a myth that there is no poverty in the suburbs,” said Mason, of the Salvation Army. “That is not true any longer.

“Unfortunately we’ve redefined the definition of poverty,” he said. “There are many more people living paycheck to paycheck. By the grace of God, many of us are two paychecks away from being homeless or hungry.”


• Lorain County Job and Family Services saw its food stamp rolls increase by 358 families in 2007. In 2006, 80 more families got food stamps than in 2005.

• The number of calls to the 2-1-1/First Call for Help line — a referral service to health and human-services agencies in Cuyahoga, Medina and Geauga counties — increased significantly in 2007, as did the volume of requests for referrals to food banks and other cash-assistance programs.

In 2007, the number of food pantry requests increased by 35 percent, utility bill payment requests by 41 percent and rent payment requests by 24 percent, said Stephen Wertheim, director of 2-1-1 Call For Help.

• In April 2007, Medina County issued $514,000 in food stamps. By April 2008, the amount had jumped to $584,366.

In addition, the number of residents in Medina County who got cash assistance for utilities, shelter and gas more than doubled between 2006 and 2007, Mason said.

While the number of people in need steadily rises, the resources are cut. In December, Medina County lost some state aid and had to reduce the total amount of annual cash assistance to help the working poor pay for utilities, shelter or car repairs from $1,500 to $750 per family, Mason said.

And the need has put a strain on Medina County’s food pantries, said Julie King, executive director of the United Way of Medina County.

In 2006, the pantries served 34,000 people with 38,000 pounds of food, King said. Last year, 36,500 people sought the food, but only 25,000 pounds were available.

The number of children getting free and reduced-price lunches has increased as well, King said.

As the need increases, agencies such as the Hunger Network, as well as other charities and foundations, are also feeling the strain. And it is not just a local problem.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a national publication, reports that almost a third of foundations nationally say they have stepped up their giving this year to provide services to families, and they plan to give more next year.

But the Chronicle’s story, which cited a Web-based survey by the Council on Foundations, an organization of more than 2,100 nonprofit grant-making foundations and giving programs worldwide, added that many of the respondents expect to give less next year because stock market values have diminished investments. The report also said grant makers will be faced with tough choices in the future.

When the need for services increases, it puts a squeeze on charities and foundations to serve more people with fewer resources.

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland faced some tough choices in 2007, when more than twice as many agencies as the year before applied for its Good Samaritan Grant Program, said foundation President Susanna Krey.

The grant program gives a pool of $150,000 to agencies that deal with basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter in grants of up to $10,000.

And when corporations such as National City fall on hard economic times, agencies to which they donate feel the pain as well.

“It’s a double whammy — the requests have increased while the resources are decreasing,” said Mason, of the Salvation Army.

King said she does not see the economic downturn subsiding anytime soon, so in the meantime, people should not be ashamed to reach out for help.

“We have to let people know that there is not judgment on their moral character,” King said. “They need to keep food on the table and a roof over their kids’ heads.”

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