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News Charities, agencies stretched to limit after years of recession

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Three years into the deepest recession the country has seen since the Great Depression, governmental and non-profit support organizations are struggling with depleted resources and dropping revenue streams. In Macon County, with its economy still reeling from the collapse of the housing market and its number one industry, construction, the story is no different.

While the need for social services seems to have plateaued to some extent, some organizations are having to cut services after finding their funding sources and reserve funds drained. Local organizations like CareNet, a non-profit faith-based ministry serving Macon County, offer vital assistance to folks struggling to tread water in the flood of hardship unleashed by the recession. But in a season where many pantries are running dangerously low, even CareNet has had to scale back and conserve.

“We never recuperated from last year,” said Vanessa Bailey, executive director of CareNet. And she says her organization is not the only one. Part of the problem is that, as the recession stretches on, many in the community are giving less as they have less to give. “Financially it's just not been there for a lot of non-profits,” said Bailey.

A sign in the CareNet waiting room announcing that the organization is no longer offering financial assistance is but one indication of the organization's struggle to meet the needs of the community. Bailey says the organization has also had to cut down on the amount of food it gives out.

“We have our own crisis going on,” said Bailey. “A lot of people don't realize it until they come out to our pantry and see we only have enough food stocked to get through one week.”

Bailey says that in recent weeks, a number of food drives around the county has given the non-profit a little breathing room, but she is quick to add that at CareNet, “every day is a holiday.” By that she means that her clients – families who are depending on her organization to help them through a tough time – don't just get hungry on Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Unemployment measures dropping, but need continues

The nation's unemployment rate climbed to 9.8 percent in November, a seven-month high, as hiring slowed across the economy. Despite some hopeful signs earlier in the year, economic recovery seems to be proceeding more gradually and erratically than expected.

The most recent unemployment statistics available for the state of North Carolina, however, show a slight drop in unemployment for the month of October, to 9.6 percent, down from 9.7 percent in August. October’s totals were also down from the previous year, when they reached a high of 10.9 percent.

Likewise, in Macon County, from October 2009 to October 2010, unemployment dropped from 9.8 percent to 8.6 percent. Compared to other counties in the region, Macon County seems to be weathering the recession better than some. Graham County’s October rate for instance, held at 12.2%. On the other hand, Jackson County was at 7.3 percent. With its large education facilities to buoy employment, Jackson County has not seen nearly as dramatic numbers as other Western North Carolina counties.

But as many will tell you, there is an art to interpreting such statistics, an art which has become more and more challenging as the recession wears on. Agencies like the North Carolina Employment Security Commission (ESC) track unemployment through a count of individuals currently searching for a job, but such methods are infamous for underestimating the actual rate of individuals without steady, full-time employment.

“If someone is unemployed but not looking for work, then they are not counted in the unemployment number,” explained the regional ESC manager Dale West. According to ESC estimates, the county recorded a civilian labor force of 15,785 in October, with 1,361 unemployed individuals.

{mosimage}West says she is not optimistic about a quick economic rebound in Macon County. The county’s economy is driven by the hospitality and the construction industry – “and construction is just not happening,” West said. “I personally think that we will not see a large turn around until those construction jobs pick up,” she said.

On the other hand, there is some cause for hope. She says more and more employers have been listing positions with ESC, though usually they are only looking for one or two new employees. On Monday, the ESC website included listings by 40 different employers. The challenge is that many of these jobs require specialized training, such as positions in the medical field and education.

One thing is for sure, however. From November 2009 to October 2010, $16.4 million dollars was funneled into the local economy through unemplyoment insurance benefits received by job seekers in Macon County. But with employment benefits set to run out for many Maconians, without federal action this source of economic stimulus could also dry up, a situation that could be disastrous for a community already stretched to its limit.

As the county’s first defense against the hardships of the recession, the Department of Social Services has seen need continue to climb in 2010. The increases are not as dramatic as they were in the first years of the recession, but according to DSS Director Jane Kimsey, there is no sign that things are improving for struggling families in the county.

The DSS tracks need in the county year-to-year by point-in-time surveys conducted in the month of November, the month where the agency generally sees the greatest leap. A report tracing the impact of the economic downturn on Macon County families was delivered to the board on Wednesday.

In November 2003, 931 households received assistance from the Food and Nutrition Program (formerly called the Food Stamps Program). In 2008, that number had jumped to 1,609 households, an increase of over 73 percent in the five year period. The increase in actual benefits paid out through the program in November grew by 138 percent, from $172,028 in 2003 to $409,381 in 2008.

In one year, from 2008 to 2009, households in the county receiving Food and Nutrition assistance in the month of November increased by 30 percent, while benefits paid out increased by 52 percent. As Kimsey points out, the dramatic difference between the increase in the number of families that need assistance and the amount of benefits paid out is one indication of the critical nature of the need for those families. “Families that just needed a little help before, now they need a lot of help,” Kimsey explained.

This past November, 2,664 families received Food and Nutrition assistance, up 27 percent from 2009. Meanwhile, benefits paid out increased by 16 percent to $719,338. In a normal year, this would be a considerable leap, says Kimsey, but relative to recent years, it seems the trend is slowing, at least in terms of benefits paid out.

Heating assistance is another way the DSS tracks the depth of economic need in the county. The winter season has only just begun, but already DSS programs are being exhausted. The Crisis Intervention Program (CIP), for households that have no heat source or are at risk of losing it, has in the past been released to DSS in disbursements over the course of the year. Last year (2008-09), there were six allocations for CIP during the fiscal year, with a total of $159,645 distributed to 526 households. This year, more funds were allocated early in the year as opposed to being spaced out over the winter season. The DSS received $138,512 in November, the year’s 2nd allocation. The total allocation was encumbered in seven work days by the 350 households which filed for assistance.

After the actual benefits are paid out, there should be some funds left over from this allocation, but the allocations are not guaranteed and the DSS doesn’t know if it will receive more heating funds this winter or not.

Like the non-profits around the county, the DSS has been challenged just to keep up with the workload of processing so many claims. Kimsey says that federal stimulus funds has made it possible for them to add two positions to support the Food and Nutrition Program. “That’s helped us tremendously with the increase in caseloads,” she said.

Needed: Donations, volunteers, awareness

Local charities and non-profits have their own statistics that demonstrate the persistence of need in the county. As of October, CareNet, which receives no government funding for its food programs, had already spent $43,000 on food for the year. “That's what we spent for all of last year,” noted Bailey.

Most of the goods that CareNet gets to stock pantry shelves comes from food drives – from churches, schools or other groups – and organizations like Manna Food Bank help to keep costs down. A number of recent food drives by schools and organizations in the county have given some relief to CareNet's dwindling pantry, but still the organization has occasionally found itself struggling to meet its primary mission, providing food assistance.

Besides food assistance, CareNet also offers assistance to folks struggling with utility bills and medication expenses. These funds come primarily from grants and programs like Duke Energy's “Share the Warmth” heat assistance program. But funding for such programs fluctuates and competitive grants are not guaranteed. This year CareNet has seen a drop in funds available, and with its own financial reserves depleted, has been unable to pre-allocate funds for such assistance.

CareNet has more than 4,700 families on file who have used its services over the past five or six years. Bailey says she recognizes that holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are a great time to focus and build awareness in the community. But she stresses the importance of getting people involved throughout the year. “We have to continue to remind people that this is happening here,” she said. “People think not here in Macon County, but it is everywhere. There are homeless people here, people living in their cars or with two or three families in the same household.”

And for all the difficult situations that people have found themselves, Bailey says there are just as many ways that they got there. Some are simply in transition and need just a little help to get through it. Others find themselves in impossible situations, many through sickness or loss of a job. “You cannot label each person who comes through the door until you find out where they're at,” Bailey explained.

A faith-based ministry in Macon County that started out with a handful of churches, CareNet is now supported by 67 churches in the county and relies heavily on grants and donations. For those struggling to support themselves or their families, local organizations like CareNet have literally been the safety-nets of last resort. And as resources have gotten more scarce, it has become even more critical for these organizations to work together.

“The key is to remember collaboration, coordination and communication,” says Bailey, who explained that much of her job is just knowing what resources are available in the county and how to connect people with those resources: Habitat for Humanity, Manna Food Bank, Rotary clubs, church groups, DSS and numerous other formal and informal groups around the county are all part of the solution.

In one example of the increased collaboration between these groups, local non-profit thrift stores have joined together in an alliance intended to help them channel funds and donations more efficiently. Collaboration with the school system and local principals has helped CareNet expand its student Back-Pack Program, in which students that may not otherwise get regular meals at home receive weekly “back-packs” with food items for the weekend. In it's third year, the program has been sending home as many as 240 back-packs a week.

Besides material needs, Bailey is also concerned with the spiritual and emotional distress of many of CareNet's clients. This is another way in which collaboration between groups and agencies is indispensable, she says. With this in mind, CareNet has created a church relations board with several pastors from the county. “We are trying to open up as many lines of communication as we can,” Bailey explained. “There are a lot of feelings of hopelessness out there, and hopefully we can provide a hand up, not just a handout.”

A core group of volunteers keeps organizations like CareNet going and offering its basic services. “CareNet is Macon County giving back to Macon County, and Macon County is just amazing,” said Bailey. “It really is.”

But volunteers are another resource that has been taxed by the long recession. Last year the organization totaled 21,000 volunteer hours, and this year it will be functioning on less than that. Unfortunately, said Bailey, some volunteers are only seasonal, some move away and some have to stop for other reasons. In an organization where every set of hands in invaluable, losing a couple volunteers can be very hard. “We need help,” said Bailey. “We need bodies. We're thankful for every hour of help we can get.”

At CareNet, the range of jobs that needs to be done seems pretty limitless: volunteers answer phones, sort food, help in the kitchen, interview clients, sort donations, pack food boxes, cleaning, etc., etc. It takes as many as 75 to 100 volunteers. And charities and non-profits throughout the county have similar needs. “Invite a family member or friend to participate,” says Bailey. “Get involved. Volunteer. Find out what is in the community. If CareNet is not your thing, find out what is. There is so much out there that you could do.”

And donations are always accepted, too. CareNet is always looking for non-perishable food items such as canned goods. They also accept personal hygiene items, blankets, clothing, and other items that can be sold in the CareNet Thrift Store. Bailey reminds those who can donate that their donations stay in the county and will go to help people who are often their neighbors.

CareNet takes donations Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is open to clients Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with lunches served in the dining room. For more information on how to receive assistance or how to get involved, contact CareNet at 130 Bidwell St., Franklin, (828)369-2642.

 





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