More people relying on social services

Kelly Petryszyn

The percent of impoverished families raised from 5.9 to 7.1, according to estimates from the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2006-2008 American Community Survey.

The rise of poverty in Portage County has created a strain on social services. Portage County Family and Community Services is being particularly stretched because the agency has reduced its workforce.

The remaining employees are working longer hours to serve their clients, said Christie Anderson, special projects coordinator at Portage County Family and Community Services. Fewer employees are responsible for handling a higher demand for services.

“The situation has been more dire than it has been in the past because when the economy is downturned it impacts not only the people who need services, but it also impacts our contributions as an agency,” Anderson said. “Our donations go down as people have fewer resources to devote to charity. It’s a double negative impact when the demand is going up and the resources are going down.”

She added that there are fewer funding opportunities from the state and federal government and the demand has caused people to wait longer for services. The economy has also forced people who were comfortably middle class to the brink of poverty.

“There are people who are coming who have not found themselves in desperate straights before,” said Daryle Fullum, assistant director of food services at Kent Social Services.

Below is a summary of how different social service agencies are handling the increase in need in Portage County.

Kent Social Services

The amount of hot meals served increased from 31,256 in 2005 to 33,816 in 2009, according to statistics from Kent Social Services. Committed volunteers in addition to people serving court-ordered community service and Kent State students make it possible to keep up with the demand. Churches have been a big help in providing people and giving money, Fullum said. Donations are dwindling, but the agency still receives donations from individuals and local restaurants that donate to the hot meal program.

Center of Hope

Sister Denise Stiles, manager of the Center of Hope, a local food bank, decided to be lenient to ensure that everyone gets served. Under regular policy, people are allowed to come in once every 30 days to take from the pantry. Recently, people have been coming back more than once a month.

“We never turn people away,” she said. “If they say they are hungry then they can come.”

The number of families served from the period between January and October rose from 3,135 in 2008 to 4,713 in 2009. Stiles said donations are steady within the pantry.

County Clothing center

Program manager Candy Pollard has seen an overall increase in need, but especially in people who came from the middle class. The amount of people receiving clothes from the center increased from 41,514 in 2008 to 48,320 in 2009, according to records from the County Clothing Center. At the center, shoppers are allowed to take 16 items of clothing. Donations have been slower, but the center is still able to provide a constant supply to people who need to pick all 16 items of clothing.

Miller House

While other service providers said they are able to keep up with the increase in demand, the Miller Community House had to turn away 61 percent of its callers in 2009. The shelter can accommodate up to 22 people. The number of people it serves is always the same.

“There are not enough resources to go around,” program manager Anne Lofaro said.

She said the lack of subsidized housing and affordable housing are some of the reasons for the spike in need. Lofaro added that the Miller Community House is generally the last step for people and people only come here when they have no other option for housing.

What’s ahead

Until the economy recovers — if it does — Portage County Family and Community Services is working to accommodate a larger need. Anderson said the agency is recruiting more volunteers, but does not have the budget to hire more employees. In addition, the agency is also sharing resources between programs so nothing goes to waste. Similar services also share donations, but try to keep the donations to the city it was given to. Fullum is working toward spreading an understanding of the individual in poverty.

“Many of us probably know someone who is in need without realizing it,” she said. “It isn’t someone across town anymore. It could be your neighbor, someone in your family, someone who is a friend, someone you know.”

Contact public affairs reporter Kelly Petryszyn at [email protected].