December 1, 2011

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Recession Hits Home

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Recession Hits Home

Social Service Providers Struggle to Help Impoverished Families

Heather Stewart

December 1, 2011

The numbers are disheartening: the economic downturn has dragged on for three years now and about 100,000 Utahns still can’t find jobs. The percentage of Utah children living in poverty has risen from 10.5 percent in 2008 to 15.5 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

But behind the numbers are real Utah families—families that are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck. For a family of four, the federal poverty level is set at an annual income of $22,350 or less. In Utah, nearly 135,000 children live in families with incomes at or below this level.

With so many people knocked off their feet by the stagnant economy, local social service agencies are fighting to keep up with the demand for emergency shelter, food and clothing.


Falling into Homelessness
Before the Great Recession rattled the economy, a coalition of local agencies and government organizations created a tremendous success story by decreasing the number of people living in chronic homelessness. The ongoing coalition transitions long-term homeless individuals into permanent, supportive housing.

The effort has been so successful that, for a time, the shelters were emptying out. There was even talk of closing The Road Home’s Midvale shelter, which is usually open in the winter months. But the recession put at end to that: as single men moved out, families moved in.

In fact, the Midvale shelter opened several weeks early this year due to the number of local families entering homelessness. And in the downtown shelter, some of the space formerly used for individuals is being converted into family living space in anticipation of winter demand.

All it takes is one major event—loss of a job, an injury, unexpected medical bills—to push families out of their homes and onto the street, says Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home. He describes one family, a long-haul trucker, his wife and newborn twin daughters, who entered the shelter after the trucker sustained a back injury that prevented him from working.

In order for the family to get back on its feet, the trucker needed to retrain for a new occupation and pay off past-due bills. By the time the family was able to leave the shelter, the twin girls were already learning to walk.

The desperate struggle to keep a roof over their heads can actually make the financial situation worse for many families, says Minkevitch. “You are going to fight for your ever-loving life to hold onto your housing. In the course of doing that, so often a family will engage in a dangerous game of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s no game—it’s a tragic accounting practice, where you’re going to hold off on utilities to pay rent. Then you’re going to get a little bit behind on rent because you have to buy groceries. Now you’ve got to pay for some of those utilities to avoid a shutoff…and there you are a month behind, then six weeks behind…”

Eventually, the eviction happens or utilities are shut off. And in the process, the family has accrued months of arrears for utilities that must be paid off before they can get into new housing. “That can add to the length of stay in shelter,” he says.

The Road Home is doing all it can to shelter and assist the onslaught of newly homeless families, although the effort has put a strain on its budget and staff resources. More than half of the agency’s donations are from private sources, which have also been slammed by the economic downturn.

“It’ll keep you up at night,” says Minkevitch of the growing financial burden on the agency. “It’ll scare the living daylights out of you. You just have to focus and serve the person coming through the door, and do it as effectively as possible.”


Going to Bed Hungry
The number of people filling up the shelters is one way to see the impacts of recession. Another impact is less visible: hunger. And it’s the most vulnerable people who are at the greatest risk for hunger—children and the elderly.

Utah’s food pantry system has mobilized to meet the need.

Last year, the Utah Food Bank gathered and distributed 33.3 million pounds of food. “We are up about 40 percent right now where we were two years ago,” says Ginette Bott, spokesperson for the Utah Food Bank.

The organization provides food to pantries in every county in the state. “The food that we collect we distribute out to 150 partner agencies, and then the agencies distribute the food to the neighborhoods in the communities in which they’re located,” she explains.

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