Local food banks and shelters don’t need the Labor Department to tell them that jobless claims have reached a seven-year high. They can just look at the growing lines outside their doors.
Emergency food and housing providers across the nation are seeing a surge in demand this year as the number of people facing foreclosures and unemployment rise.
“You ride out these rides of natural disasters and economic downturns, and you kind of feel there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Eric Cooper, executive director of the San Antonio Food Bank. “You keep doing what you’re doing. It seems right now the tunnel is so dark. It’s an uncertain time of when there’s going to be relief.”
His organization, which aided 315,869 families in the fiscal year that ended in June, saw a huge 85 percent increase from the prior year. This was even before thousands of Hurricane Ike evacuees arrived in San Antonio in September.
Other cities reported similar stories. In a local impact survey of 180 food banks conducted by America’s Second Harvest, now known as Feeding America, this spring, 99 percent of the respondents report an increase in the number of people being served compared to the year before. The average increase was about 20 percent.
The food banks attributed the growing demand to several factors, with more than 90 percent citing rising fuel and food costs followed by 46 percent of the respondents citing mortgage or rent issues. More than a third of the people seeking help live in a household where at least one person works.
The economy has created a double-edged sword for Cooper. “When the economy heads south, the need for our services rise,” he said. “On the donation side, people are more conservative and give less and look for efficiencies where they can lower their costs.”
In addition to helping San Antonio residents, the food bank stepped up recently to feed hurricane evacuees who recently settled in the area. Cooper said one evacuee came to the food bank’s warehouse to volunteer. “He said he wanted to evacuate from Galveston on Wednesday, but he didn’t have enough money,” Cooper said. “Pay day was Friday. He had to wait. That’s the classic individual we work with. They are working, but barely making it.”
The San Antonio Metropolitan Ministry, Inc., better known as SAMMinistries, provides shelter and care to the homeless. At its emergency shelter, SAMMinistries serves approximately 350 people a night and is among the partners involved in building a new $80 million full-service campus that will have 806 beds next year when it opens. Even though the number of beds will more than double, it’s still likely not enough. “Unfortunately, I think we are going to be full,” said Scott Ackerson, vice president of programs at SAMMinistries, which was established 25 years ago after a homeless man was found frozen to death on the grounds of a local church.
The troubling times are pushing many groups to try new strategies. One of
the moves that SAMMinistries is making is to focus more effort on homeless prevention. One of the first steps that it has taken is to identify the different groups in the city that offer any sort of prevention program to see what’s offered and to facilitate a more streamlined process. It is also providing short-term financial assistance for rent and utilities.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported a 15 percent drop in chronic homelessness since 2005, but many service providers report that the ranks of the homeless overall has held steady or grown.
“We are seeing less chronic homeless and more people who would not normally be coming here,” said Barbara Trevisan, director of communications for Boston-based Pine Street Inn, one of the largest providers of services to the homeless in New England. “You have to look at the chronic homeless versus people that are homeless for the first time.”
Pine Street serves breakfast and dinner to roughly 1,500 people daily in its shelters. The number has stayed about the same over the last year, despite the fact that Pine Street has taken about 100 people off the street to live in supportive-housing developments over that same period, Trevisan said. She thinks these chronically homeless people have been replaced with more recently homeless people who are suffering economic hardships, like job losses or foreclosures.
Trevisan expects the numbers of the homeless to keep rising as the economy weakens. “We’re looking forward to more tough times ahead.”