Tough times on Wall Street impact local charities


Though many eyes are fixed on Wall Street, others are focused on local charitable organizations as they struggle to meet the increasing needs of the community while receiving fewer donations. The recent tough economic times have forced the charities to get creative with their programming and services.

All around, the sights tell the same story: It’s tough out there right now, and likely going to get tougher.

This means two things for local charitable organizations.

"Our donations are down and our needs are up," said Steve Zabilski, executive director for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

"It’s more dramatic than we’ve ever seen before," he said. "Our 87 conferences of charity, virtually to a conference, are reporting dramatic increases in the number of people coming to them for rental assistance, utility assistance or food boxes."

Many of the St. Vincent de Paul food pantries are bare from increased demand and the society hasn’t been able to restock them from their food reclamation center quickly enough.

"The need simply has never been greater. That’s the message that I hear every day from our volunteer Vincentians," Zabilski said.

The problem is not unique to St. Vincent de Paul, either. Both Catholic Charities and Paz de Cristo — an organization based in Mesa that provides daily meals, food boxes and empowerment programs — have never seen so much need in the Valley.

Tom Egan, director of Catholic Charities’ greater Phoenix region, gave an example to show how much things have worsened in the past couple of months.

"When we had rental assistance, it used to be a client was looking for $400 to help him out," he said. "Now people come looking for a $2,000 mortgage payment."

These new clients are people who were recently middle class and maybe lost a job or took on a mortgage payment they couldn’t afford. They’re not used to relying on charity.

"You have people who don’t know the system and they’re just desperately looking for help," Egan said. "They’re looking to us as a Catholic charity, but what they need help with, we just don’t have the resources for."

St. Vincent de Paul has had to reduce its staff by 25 positions, and its management team has taken significant salary and benefit cuts to help meet the growing need. Catholic Charities has had to suspend programs that many people rely on due to insufficient funds.

Mike Boos, director of Paz de Cristo, said his organization has had to cut back the amount of food they place in each food box.

"We’ve got to do more with less," he said. "It’s hard especially when you look at the faces of the people and they’re saying, ‘How come?’ Well, we just don’t have it."

Doing more with less

Tricia Hoyt, director of the Office of Peace and Justice at Catholic Charities, said the troubling times have forced charitable organizations to get creative.

She’s starting an "Out of Poverty" initiative that utilizes what she calls "circles of support." Basically, a family stuck in poverty will have six to eight people in their circle helping them for a one-and-a-half to two-year commitment.

"They would be dedicating themselves to help that family form their dream plan and then would dedicate themselves to brokering the resources toward that family that will help them get there," she said.

These circles of support aren’t meant to assist families in crisis right now, Hoyt said. There will always be a need for somebody to write a check that can get a family out of an immediate emergency. Rather, it’s a long-term plan to help families on the edge climb out of poverty, hopefully for good.

For instance, a member of a circle might be able to help a family member apply for a community college course that would yield a higher paying job. Or, a circle member might be able to help a member of the working poor find reliable transportation to a job.

The plan realizes that in the charitable giving axiom of "time, talent and treasure," the treasure chest is at an all time low. But that doesn’t mean people can’t still help with their time or their talent.

Hoyt hopes the program will help build stable communities, where individuals can help each other out with their skills and time. Sometimes, even just listening to families can make a huge difference.

Egan said his regional center has seen a large increase in crisis counseling appointments from couples who need someone to listen to them. The fact is that when money gets very tight, a strain is put on marital and family relationships that can be difficult to overcome.

"We’re trying to make all of our counselors available," he said. "We’ve reduced a lot of fees so to make sure people can be seen. We’re doing a lot of pro bono work."

His region is also on track to resettle nearly two times as many refugees as last year, although that task has become slightly easier with the softening rental and housing market.

And even though the charitable organizations have to help more people with fewer resources, they all said they’re not going away any time soon.

Printed with permission from the Catholic Sun, newspaper from the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona.

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