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Some villagers are in need

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This is the sixth in a series of articles looking at how the unstable economy is affecting various aspects of Yellow Springs life, including businesses, nonprofits, the arts, housing and schools.

In some ways, Yellow Springs has been insulated from the most profound aspects of the current economic turmoil. Overall, local housing prices have remained steady, foreclosures are few and several of the village’s largest businesses are linked to the relatively recession-proof industries of education and health care.

But people who work in local social service organizations can testify that some villagers are suffering. While the numbers are small, the problems are substantial, and some community members do not have enough to eat and may face utility shut-offs.

So far, the funding for the agencies that help those in need — the Yellow Springs Food Pantry, the local police department, the Emergency Welfare Committee and the Yellow Springs Home Assistance Program — remains steady, and the rise in needs has been met by increased donations from generous villagers, the leaders of these organizations say. However, some worry that there is much uncertainly down the road and that, given the climate of economic uncertainty, there could be a limit to that generosity.

Food for the hungry

Some of the most vulnerable villagers can be found on the second and fourth Tuesday and Thursday afternoons of the month at the Yellow Springs Community Food Pantry, which is housed in the basement of the United Methodist Church. Begun many years ago by the late Mary Ann Bebko as part of the Emergency Welfare Committee, the pantry, which for many years was housed in Bebko’s home, offered canned and dry goods for villagers in need. After Bebko’s death several years ago, the Methodists stepped in to house the pantry.

“It’s been a good mission for all of us in the church,” according to Patty McAllister, who oversees the pantry and the church members who keep the pantry running.

While some initial support was provided by the Emergency Welfare Committee, which is currently run by Denise Swinger of Starfish Inc., the pantry no longer relies on that organization for financial support, according to McAllister. Rather, McAllister keeps the shelves stocked with goods purchased by donations from individuals.

The only requirement for those who show up to get groceries is that they live in Yellow Springs or Miami Township, and that they sign their names on a register, according to McAllister. No other verification is required, she said, because Pastor Charles Hill decided that the pantry would be open to whoever is hungry.

Use of the pantry is clearly on the rise, according to McAllister, who said that when she first took on the project several years ago, four or five people showed up during the pantry’s open hours. Now, the pantry serves about 20 regulars, including both young and old, singles and families with children. The increase began in the middle of 2008 and has remained steady since then, McAllister said.

According to Swinger, who keeps track of the pantry’s customers from the sign-up sheets, about 120 unduplicated community members were served by the pantry during 2008.

Families may pick and choose what they need from among the canned and dry goods available, and coupons from Tom’s Market are sometimes available for fresh food. Every so often, McAllister makes a run to Tom’s or to the Dollar Store to fill the shelves, she said, adding that those in need can also call the church at 767-7560 in an emergency and she’ll open the pantry to serve them. The pantry is always in need of paper goods and other sundries, since these items are in demand and not covered by food stamps.

Currently, the pantry stock is low due to increased need, according to McAllister, who said she may soon place boxes around town for donated canned goods. Financial donations may be made by sending a check to the pantry in care of the United Methodist Church at 202 S. Winter Street, McAllister said.

When she’s running out of food or cash, she puts out a call to those who have previously offered help, including church members, and, so far, they have always come through, McAllister said.

“This community is very generous,” she said.

Police pitch in

Some in the community who are facing an emergency and don’t know where to turn call on the police department for assistance. That’s fine with Police Chief John Grote, who wants the department to do what it can for the village’s neediest citizens, he said recently. Like others interviewed, Grote has seen an increase in local families who are having difficulty paying their bills.

“My sense is that there is more need this year than in the past,” he said.

People may come to the police department for help because they get a quick response, since the police know the families involved and there’s no paperwork to fill out, Grote said.

One sign of heightened financial distress is the increase in the number of pool passes the police department provided this year for needy children, Grote said, although he did not have specific numbers on hand. The parks department alerted him to the needs, he said.

Grote has also noticed a rise in the number of villagers who have fallen behind in their utility bills. The department has helped several families cover the bills, sometimes multiple times, and he has also observed Village employees dip into their own pockets to do so, he said.

The police also receive calls about families who are short on food or elders who need help filling prescriptions. So far, Grote said, he has been able to cover the requests, with funds from the department’s coat fund, with which it buys winter clothing for needy children, and from money from Furtherance of Justice funds, which is confiscated from narcotics arrests. Last winter, the coat fund purchased coats and shoes for more than 20 local youngsters, an increase over years past, he said. Currently, the coat fund has a balance of about $4,000, although that amount will be wiped out when winter comes. The department spends from $2,500 to $5,000 a year on the coat fund, depending on the need, he said.

The Furtherance of Justice funds are unpredictable since they are linked to arrests that have not yet been made, and he could not estimate the amount available, Grote said.

Grote encourages those who face a financial shortfall to get in touch with the police before they get too far behind, he said.

“People in need can give us a call,” he said. “I hate to see them get so far behind that they have no chance of getting on top of their bills.”

Help with utilities

The Emergency Welfare Committee is currently overseen by Denise Swinger, who also runs the nonprofit Starfish, Inc. Mainly, Swinger helps those in need pay their utility bills, she said in a recent interview. Like the pantry organizers, Swinger has seen a significant increase in the number of those who need help, beginning in the winter of 2008 and remaining steady through 2009. About 40 people came to her during 2008, Swinger said, a 25 to 30 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The Emergency Welfare funds are available for those who are experiencing a one-time problem with paying their bills, according to Swinger, who also works with the Village utility staff to make arrangements so that people can pay over time. If the need is ongoing, Swinger works with the individual or family to apply to HEAP, a federally-funded program that provides utilities funding for low-income people.

The Emergency Welfare Committee is funded partly by the Yellow Springs Community Council, which receives support from United Way, and partly from individual donations.

The Community Council was recently notified that it faces an approximate 15 percent cut in United Way funding this year, since the Dayton United Way 2008 campaign fell $2.5 million short of its goal, according to Community Council President Pam Conine. While in previous years the Community Council received about $17,000 from United Way, this year it will receive $15,000.

The YSCC funds 10 local recreational and social organizations. While the Community Council may not be able to fund some organizations up to past levels due to the United Way funding cuts, it will fund the Emergency Welfare Committee at 100 percent of its request of $500, according to Community Council Treasurer Doug McKinley. The Emergency Welfare Committee’s request was the same in 2009 as the previous year, he said.

“They are a higher needs area, and they will be funded,” he said.

Maintaining quality of life

While many may assume that the Yellow Springs Home Assistance Program only works with the community’s elders, it actually provides services for all who need help, according to Coordinator Amy Crawford in a recent interview. However, most of the services that she and Assistant Coordinator Caroline Mullen provide do go to older villagers and the family members who care for them. Those services include helping residents find the services that enable elders to live in their homes, home visits, assistance with arranging health care services and caregiver support, and acting as an information clearinghouse for anyone in need.

Use of the agency, which began in 1998 under the direction of Andrée Bognár, has increased every year since then, Crawford said. It’s not clear if that increase is linked to greater financial need, an aging population or increased publicity about the agency, according to Crawford, who is a registered nurse. Mullen is a licensed social worker and both work part-time.

In 2008 the agency provided 875 home visits and office consultations, compared with 700 similar services in 2007 and 465 in 2006. In 2008, the agency recorded 113 contacts with new clients, according to the agency’s 2008 annual report.

While she has not seen an increased need for a specifc kind of service since the recession began, she has seen an increase in anxiety among her clients who are caregivers for elderly parents, Crawford said. These people worry about losing their jobs or about the financial stability of their parents.

However, the elders themselves are less stressed, Crawford said, perhaps because hard times are nothing new to those who were alive during the Great Depression.

“If anything, maybe we can look to them,” Crawford said of her older clients. “I’m continually amazed by their coping and optimism.”

The agency has also counseled about three residents this year who feared their home might go into foreclosure, Crawford said. The clients were referred to the Greene County Department of Development for assistance.

While use of the agency has increased in recent years, adequate funding has been available so far, Crawford said. In 2008 the agency received more than half of its $53,000 funding from Friends Care Community, whose board has been steadily supportive. A significant portion of the agency’s funding is provided by a Greene County Council on Aging levy that is up for renewal in November. If the ballot does not pass, the agency, and the people it serves, will most definitely feel the effects, Crawford said.

“There are people in Yellow Springs whose services are subsidized by the levy,” she said, referring to some village elders who are able to live in their homes due to the homemaking or meal services they receive, and which they would lose if voters turn down the levy.

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