Thursday, December 18, 2008

Homeless Shelters Feeling the Effects of the Economic Decline:Pt 3

By Margaret DeJesus (

While more people struggle to make ends meet in the weak economy, homeless shelter directors worry about increased demands for space and less donations to run on.

“When corporate commerce fails like it is right now, you have people getting laid off and now they have new issues in their own life to deal with,” said Michael Fetcho, the Boston Rescue Mission’s director of community outreach.

Major wage earners who lost their jobs might “take care of their own immediate needs” and not be able to donate as much money to nonprofit organizations and shelters. Struggling businesses also might not be in a position to make larger gifts.

According to Fetcho most human service organizations raise about 50 percent of their money in the last three months of the calendar year, which includes the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

“Everyone thinks of giving in the holiday season. Offices have parties and people donate. The Salvation Army rings bells on street corners,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s wonderful but it all ends in January and the needs are just as great the rest of the year. We have to spend nine months chasing the other 50 percent.”

Fetcho said department stores can hold sales and promotions to recoup their losses in later months unlike shelters that rely on getting it right the first time.

“I can’t do Christmas again in February. If we come out of this quarter weak, there’s more pressure to raise money during the time when people are not thinking of philanthropy,” said Fetcho.

Shelters like St. Francis House and Pine Street Inn are already noticing a decrease in cash donations.

“Those who are concerned about their poor brothers and sisters seem to be volunteering and making food and clothing donations instead of giving money. The manpower is tremendously helpful, but with fewer monetary donations, it’s difficult for nonprofits to meet the increased need,” said Elizabeth Lund, the director of communications at St. Francis House.

According to Barbara Trevisan, Pine Street Inn has been forced to purchase more food. Companies that donate excess food have cut back their inventory and are preparing less to give away. She also said less food is coming from the Greater Boston Food Bank because their demand has gone way up.

Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in the South End, is serving more women as of late.

“Our advocates are seeing 50 new women each week. In September our food pantry distributed 1,400 bags of groceries, a 50 percent increase from the number of bags we distributed last September,” said Lori LaDuke, communications director at Rosie’s Place.

“We are seeing guests coming to Rosie’s Place who have lost their apartments due to foreclosures on the building and women who have lost their jobs and can no longer afford to pay rent, utilities and groceries,” said LaDuke in an email.

Pine Street Inn has already seen a 40 percent increase in the number of people seeking support there while St. Francis House is serving about 100 meals more a day than usual according to Trevisan and Lund.

“With every new wave of layoffs and foreclosures, people will become homeless and many more will teeter on the brink,” said Lund.

According to Kristina Barry of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, approximately 1,200 families have already entered shelters since the 2009 fiscal year began.

Advocates expect the number of homeless families and individuals to be even higher this year. Last year’s annual homeless census coordinated by Mayor Thomas Menino indicated 6,901 as the total number of homeless men, women and children in Boston. The number was an increase of 3.9 percent from 2006 while the number of homeless families jumped by 17 percent. The results from this year’s census held Monday night are being calculated.

Shelter advocates are concerned about state budget cuts during the country’s economic recession and how to absorb the increased demand for help it is causing.

“Up to this point, the shelters' budgets have been spared through the first round of state budget cuts. However, we fully expect that we will experience cutbacks when the governor has to make further cuts in January or March,” said Michael Libby, director of programs at the Somerville Homeless Coalition.

According to Libby, cuts could “translate into layoffs, less staffing and dramatically reduced hours of operation,” where guests may only be able to enter the shelter late in the day and leave earlier in the morning.

There isn’t any state funding available for winter overflow shelter beds this year according to Jim Greene, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.

Although shelters were meant to be a transitional aid for people in need of emergency help, they have often been looked to as a more permanent solution.

“When you put cots and beds up after a natural disaster like a flood in the Midwest, the original intent is for short term relief so people can eventually return to housing,” said Greene in a telephone interview.

The failed economic and housing policies that resulted in too many people with too little income to afford high cost housing, unfortunately makes homelessness a harder situation to resolve he said.

“Homelessness isn’t short term or short lived so it’s become a long term problem,” he said explaining how the shelter system evolved into the longer term solution.

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