Persistence of poverty prompts 'compassion fatigue' Resources strained in Baltimore area

December 02, 1990|By Eileen Canzian

Anxious to raise money for their downtown soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread, officials at Associated Catholic Charities have been running ads with a phone number that people can call to contribute. So far, the effort has produced some 300 responses -- but only 10 of the callers wanted to make a donation.

Everyone else wanted something to eat.

"They were asking things like whether they could bring their children, and if they could come even though they're getting unemployment benefits," said one Catholic Charities official. "It was clear they had never in their life gone to a soup kitchen and had no idea how to do it."

The Catholic Charities experience was not unique. For many Baltimore-area non-profit groups, the traditional fall-winter fund-raising season has so far delivered too many supplicants and not enough cash. Lines are significantly longer at soup kitchens, housing shelters and other programs for the needy. But contributions are down.

"Fund raising is terrible this year," said Esther Reaves, director of the Mid-Town Churches Community Association, which has collected $80,000 less for its soup kitchen and three housing shelters than it had by this time last year.

People who used to send $50 are now donating only $40 or $25, Mrs. Reaves said. "I think they're feeling the crunch."

In contrast, Catholic Charities has found that many of its contributors have significantly increased their gifts this year. But scores of others have so far sent nothing, and contributions overall are down by $50,000.

Officials at Catholic Charities, like those at other groups looking at similarly grim ledgers, say they aren't panicked yet because contributions this month and next could make up the difference. But they are looking at the holiday season more anxiously than in the past.

"There's a fear that everyone -- both individuals and corporations -- may be less willing to match what they did last year because they're concerned with their own economic standing," said Ellen Murphy, the agency's director of fund development.

"They may want to be sure they can take care of themselves before they make a contribution to others."

Some non-profit organizations are especially worried because they need to raise even more money than last year to cover not just inflation, but also the greater demand for their services.

Food and housing programs aren't the only ones that see more faces in hard economic times. People stressed by financial crisis may begin to fight with their spouses, hit their children or abuse drugs and alcohol. Eventually, many seek help from counseling or treatment programs run by non-profit enterprises.

This year's sluggish giving comes after a decade in which many programs have become more dependent than ever on the public's good will.

"At one time, a typical United Way agency could count on 30 percent of its funding coming from the federal government. That's not there anymore," said Mel Tansill, a spokesman for the United Way of Central Maryland.

And now, state government is cutting back as well. A deficit-reduction plan announced last month by Maryland officials eliminated $200,000 in grants to emergency feeding programs.

The YWCA of Greater Baltimore, which has seen less state money this year for its foster-care and day-care programs, was recently told it may lose an additional $50,000 in state aid for its housing shelters. The news was alarming to officials already concerned about a drop in contributions from the public.

"If we can't turn this around in the next six weeks, we will have to seriously think about layoffs," YWCA director Jane Christie said late last week. She was on her way to a staff meeting called to look for other places to cut.

Organizations dependent on corporate contributions have their own worries. Corporations typically account for just 5 percent of all non-profit giving, but some groups rely on them for much of their budgets. They are wondering whether troubled companies such as Maryland National Bank will be able to continue making grants.

"We're just wrapping up our 1990 campaign, and we did very well, but I'm really concerned about next year," said Michael Braswell, director of Neighborhood Housing Services, which depends on corporate contributions for a third of its budget.

Maryland National -- which this year gave roughly $3 million to non-profit organizations in Maryland -- expects to be able to match that total in 1991, spokesman Daniel G. Finney said last week. But he said the company isn't in a position to make any promises for the following year. "It's just too soon to say," Mr. Finney said.

Not everyone, however, is gloomy. United Way officials, for instance, say they remain optimistic that they will reach their fund-raising goal of more than $34 million.

They are still $10 million shy of that, but Mr. Tansill said that nearly two-thirds of participating companies have yet to report on their drives.

At firms that have reported, employee giving was up by 12 percent. "In this economy, that's very encouraging," Mr. Tansill said.

And the Helping Up Mission in East Baltimore, which has turned to newspaper ads to seek support, has been pleased by the results.

"So far, we've heard from 3,500 new donors. That's truly what we were looking for," said the Rev. Michael Fishback, the mission's director.

Even at programs where contributions are down, some officials are upbeat.

"Most of us could afford to give up one pair of new shoes, or something like that, to help other people less fortunate," said Sally Robinson, director of Episcopal Social Ministries.

"And I just think that when it gets to Christmas, people are going to think, 'Yeah, I'm in trouble, but there are a lot of people who are in more trouble than I am.' "

She added quickly: "But I do wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and say a prayer about this."

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