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Sign of the times: Poor economy brings challenges to service providers
By Steve Ritchie- OurTownLive.com posted in Community
March 2010

MT. ANGEL - The prolonged recession and high unemployment rates are taking a toll on local families, according to social service leaders in the area. The sour economy also is proving to be a challenge for the organizations that serve struggling families and individuals.

With the statewide unemployment rate still hovering around the 12 percent mark, work can be hard to find right now. Those with jobs in construction, nursery work and agriculture have been especially hard-hit, and some of those fortunate enough to hold onto their jobs have to cope with reduced hours and wages.

The loss of jobs and cutback in working hours have dramatically increased business at local food banks and helping agencies.

"We are seeing a lot of people who have never come in for help before. Five people in the last two months told me that (seeking help) was embarrassing because in the past they have been donors to SACA," Dixon Bledsoe, director of Silverton Area Community Aid, said.

At both SACA and St. Joseph Shelter/Mission Benedict in Mount Angel, the biggest problem right now is how to help people stay in their homes and keep the heat and electricity on. Bledsoe says SACA used 40 percent of its annual emergency financial aid budget in just the first two months of the year.

"We're just getting slammed," Bledsoe said on a recent weekday morning at his desk. Even at 10 a.m. the SACA facility was buzzing with volunteers bringing in food, fielding phone calls and assisting those seeking food and emergency help.

"I wrote $3,000 worth of checks yesterday. PGE notices just came out, saying you need to pay by this date or you're going to be shut off . . . So we're going through a lot of money right now . . . I'm glad we're able to help. It's really hard to say no when people are in so much pain."

With the increased need in the community, Bledsoe said the SACA board has already pulled some money from reserves to help meet current needs. He also said they also may soon decrease the maximum amount of assistance that any one family can receive, and could establish a policy of assisting a family only one time in any 12-month period, as opposed to once in each calendar year.

These changes in policy are prompted by SACA's desire to spread the available assistance among more needy families, since the number of people seeking help is growing so fast.
SACA had been providing up to $750 in rent assistance and $450 in utility assistance. Those caps may be lowered to $600 for rent and $300 for utilities.

Bledsoe said that a first-ever grant from the Emergency Food and Shelter Local Board would provide $10,000 for rent and utility assistance. On the other hand, he noted that Community Action, which operates with federal dollars, has not been able to provide rental assistance for clients as it has in the past.

Karolle Hughes, director of St. Joseph Shelter (www.StJosephShelter.org), is the primary contact for people seeking emergency rent or utility assistance at Mission Benedict. Like Bledsoe, she said she works to provide assistance to as many people as possible. This means calling landlords and utility companies to see how much will be required to keep a family in their home or to keep the power on. Hughes also tries to tap as many other resources as possible.

"They just come in my office, we discuss the need, and I get on the phone and start my resource search. I find the resource (that will assist them) and refer them on . . . to (those with) deeper pots (of money) . . . I guess my bottom line has just been to get them help."

Hughes said that the first two months of 2010 have seen a 9 percent increase in emergency aid at the mission, and that most of that has been for PGE, followed by rent assistance.

"It has certainly felt like there have been more needs at the beginning of this year than last year," Hughes noted. "It felt as though I had people just about every day in January and most of February looking for help of some kind."

Much of Mission Benedict's budget for emergency financial assistance comes from parishioners at St. Mary Catholic Church in Mount Angel, who give generously to a collection once a month. Mount Angel Abbey, Benedictine Sisters and individual donors also supplement available funds.

Both SACA and Mission Benedict are meeting the need for food and remain relatively well-stocked. Certain items, though, continue to be in great demand, especially soup, chili, meat, sugar (for baking), peanut butter, jelly, and tuna.

Struggling folks in the Scotts Mills area are benefiting from the recent creation of the Scotts Mills Food Cupboard, which was started just over a year ago to serve those in need in the Scotts Mills, Butte Creek and Monitor school areas. Located in the Scotts Mills Community Center, the Food Cupboard is open on Tuesday mornings from 9 - 11 a.m.

Coordinator Phaedra Dibala says the need at the Scotts Mills program has just about doubled in the one year they have been in operation.

"We started out doing two to three food baskets a week, and now it is five to seven a week. A lot of families here have more than one job but just can't make it."

Dibala said food supplies are holding up well, thanks to an annual allotment of 22,000 pounds of food from Marion Polk Food Share, as well as numerous local drives. However, she said the program could use personal care items like toilet paper, soap and toothpaste.

While all the program directors praised the community for being so supportive, especially during the holiday season, Bledsoe and Hughes noted that cash donations are much scarcer at this time of the year than at Christmas.

"The community continues to be amazingly generous," said Hughes. "We just need to keep letting people know how tough it is right now for their neighbors and friends who are struggling financially."


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