Coming up short

'We've never been through anything like this before,' one agency chief says

funds for the needy shrink as more seek help

November 30, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

Angelo Boer is disturbed by what he sees happening. As the ranks of the jobless have swollen, more and more people are running out of food and money to pay bills. An emergency fund for utility cutoffs and evictions that was supposed to last the winter has already been depleted.

He's no less bothered, as development director at Catholic Charities of Baltimore, by what he isn't seeing: donations. In past downturns, giving has risen. Not so far this year. With contributions off 5 percent, the agency is on pace to miss its fundraising target by $500,000.

"It's less money to provide the services, but more services are needed," Boer said. "These are uncharted waters for us. We've never been through anything like this before."

The sinking economy is straining the ability of charities, churches and government agencies to cope with rising calls for help from around the Baltimore region. People must look harder and longer for aid, often turning to multiple sources, say the agencies' officials. Increasingly, the working poor and middle class are tumbling into crisis. Elderly residents and others close to the margin find it harder to make ends meet on incomes that are fixed or dwindling.

Organizations that aid the poor worry about the growing demand and are taking steps to adjust. At Catholic Charities, for example, an internal review is exploring possible savings. But, Boer said, "There aren't any good options."

At the Salvation Army, Maj. Roger Coulson, who heads the Baltimore-area command, is not nervous - yet. "Our experience," he said, "has always been that as long as you're able to share with the community what the needs are, people always seem to come through."

The organization's annual red-kettle campaign is under way in public places that shoppers frequent during the holidays. The Salvation Army also has sent out "urgent" letters appealing for donations to assist "record numbers" of needy.

Coulson said the problems have become more acute from month to month, and are worse this fall than last. He predicted the trend would continue, ensnaring people who until the economy went sour had no need for charitable aid - people like the Schmidts of Finksburg.

On Halloween, Karl Schmidt, 62, lost his job as parts manager at a car dealership. Days earlier his wife, Cathy Schmidt, 53, learned her cancer will require chemotherapy in January. His layoff might force them to buy private COBRA insurance, though they aren't sure how they'll afford the $600 monthly premium.

As if that were not enough, the Schmidts had a more immediate concern as trick-or-treaters made their evening forays. Their electricity was turned off that day because they owed $2,200. They had fallen behind because, months earlier, Karl's pay had been cut by a quarter.

While they sparingly used a generator to power the house, they sought help. In the end, the Salvation Army and four private groups, along with Carroll County, pitched in $1,300. The Schmidts came up with $900. After three weeks, power was restored.

He goes looking for work every day, intent on regaining self-sufficiency. "Right now, we don't know which way to go," he said. "I'm just thankful for the help we've got so far."

Around the region, people have swamped the 211 "First Call for Help" operated by United Way of Central Maryland. The hot line is on track to get 20,000 calls this month for housing, utility or holiday assistance, 7 percent more calls than in October.

United Way's fundraising campaign for next year is projected to fall short by 10 percent, or $4 million.

"We've done a great deal already to trim our operating expenses, but the last thing this community can afford is for us not to be able to fund the needs," said spokesman Chuck Tildon. "So we're trying to do everything we can to raise more money."

But if that fails, he said, "tough decisions are going to have to be made." United Way, which raises money for distribution to charitable groups, raised $39 million last year. Catholic Charities was the second-largest recipient behind the American Red Cross at $1.8 million.

Howard County, one of the nation's wealthiest, has hardly been immune to the downturn.

The main homeless shelter, the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, is persistently full or overflowing. The nonprofit Community Action Council reports twice as many requests for help with utility bills compared with this time last year.

Linda Hayes, who runs the Christ Church Link telephone referral service, says the numbers tell only part of the story.

"It's not just people calling with turnoff notices, but people whose power was turned off months ago," she said. "We're seeing more water turnoffs, where you've got families with young children, babies even, that don't have water."

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