Requests for assistance double in past year, some agencies say

Samantha Fenn, right, of Fruita talks about how she ended up at the Community Food Bank for the first time as her friend Carol Cooper of Clifton listens while the women wait for approval to pick up food.

Still wearing greasy coveralls from his efforts at fixing a car outside the family’s trailer house, roofer Vern Edwards, right, talks about his frustrations with finding work and keeping his family fed and sheltered in a bad economy. From left to right are his children Chastity, 12, Josh, 10, Whitney, 11, Jacob, 7, and his wife Trinity.

Volunteer Karen Strohmeyer pulls a box just filled with foodstuffs from a counter in the back room of the Community Food Bank.

Vern Edwards and his family don’t live in a spacious three-bedroom home or boast a brimming savings account.

But for the most part, they’ve managed to get along all right.

The once-booming construction industry afforded Edwards plenty of work as a roofer. The family stowed away a little money, kept food in the pantry and paid their bills.

That was just a few years ago. But it seems like a lifetime.

Today, the family is in danger of being evicted from the lot they rent in a Clifton mobile home park. Edwards’ wife hasn’t been able to find work since she was laid off from the Ramada Inn on Horizon Drive more than a year and a half ago. Edwards got hurt twice — first on the job, then in a car accident — and watched helplessly as the recession silenced the nail guns and saws.

“Emotionally, it was really rough on me,” said Edwards, 45, slouched in a chair in the family’s living room last week with Trinity, 30, and the couple’s four children. “I could never imagine myself getting in this position with a family.”

The prolonged economic meltdown and molasses-slow recovery is driving escalating numbers of people to local nonprofit and government-service programs in search of everything from food and clothing to cash to help pay rent and heating bills. Some agencies report that requests for help have doubled in the past year.

Many of those seeking assistance are doing so for the first time — middle-class parents and professionals who never before filled out an application for food stamps, picked through hand-me-downs or had trouble scraping enough money together to buy their child a Christmas present.

“I have people coming in here saying, ‘I don’t know how this works. What services can you help me with? I’ve never done this before,’ ” said JoAnne Kelty, family services coordinator with The Salvation Army in Grand Junction.

“They are practically in tears, they’re so embarrassed.”

The surge in demand has strained nonprofit staff and volunteers who are working harder than ever to meet the need and hoping benefactors will keep up with them. In that arena, charity operators report mixed results. Some note the wobbly economy has led to fewer large donations. Others, though, say they’re seeing similar or even larger levels of giving compared to last year.

Mesa County social workers are handling a heavier public-assistance caseload, one that has grown in size as the year has progressed.

In January, there were 169 cases of people receiving help through Temporary Aid for Needy Families, a federal program that provides cash assistance for diapers, toilet paper and other items not covered by food stamps. In October, that number had nearly doubled to 322, according to the Department of Human Services.

Meanwhile, the number of food-stamp applications submitted through the first 10 months of the year is up 61 percent over the same time period last year.

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Karen Martsolf said 50 to 60 percent of those who apply for food assistance meet federal income guidelines. That excludes a healthy chunk of people whom Martsolf said are redirected to local food banks.

The Western Slope Food Bank of the Rockies provides food to many of those pantries, serving roughly 150 hunger-relief programs in the region.

Manager Starlene Collins said the food bank put out more than 250,000 pounds of food in both October and November. Last year, the organization distributed less than that in those two months combined.

“I’m just working my volunteers into the ground,” Collins said.

The Grand Junction Community Food Bank, one of the largest local pantries that serves individuals, has given food boxes to more than 2,000 people every month this year.

In recent years, volunteers have assembled boxes for 1,400 to 1,500 a month, according to program coordinator Jane Craig, who said she’s never seen this many hungry people in her 16 years with the food bank.

On Thursday, a steady stream of people filed into a warehouse on Morning Glory Lane, grabbed a number, met with volunteers to let them know how many were in their family, then sat and waited for a three-day supply of food.

Craig said all that’s needed for someone to receive a box of food is identification and a Mesa County address. Like most food pantries, this one doesn’t require proof of income.

“We treat them as individuals,” Craig said. “They’re all God’s children.”

Samantha Fenn, 32, of Fruita and Carol Cooper, 22, of Clifton appeared unsure of what to do when they wandered into the food bank Thursday. That’s because it was the first time either had visited one in Mesa County.

Cooper quit her job at the Residence Inn on Horizon Drive about a year ago so she could be with her newborn daughter. Her husband got into trouble with the law and spent time in jail. He has struggled to find a job since he was released two years ago.

“It’s just hard trying to find out what we’re going to do,” Cooper said.

Catholic Outreach referred Cooper and Fenn to the food bank.

“These places help a lot,” Cooper said.

Fenn said she is credentialed as a certified nursing assistant but has been unable to find work in that area. She is an assistant manager at a local gas station. She said her husband’s hours with a vacuum truck service business in Parachute recently were chopped from as much as 100 per week to 40. He also lost a dollar an hour in pay and a holiday bonus.

At The Salvation Army, staff and volunteers handed out 282 food boxes and provided clothing to 301 people last month. That was 97 more food boxes and 120 more people who received clothing than in November 2008.

“Most of them have gotten laid off. They showed up to work one day, and their boss said, ‘Guess what, we have to let you go,’ ” Kelty said. “A lot of them got laid off several months ago, but their unemployment benefits ran out.

“The news keeps saying the economy is improving, but I don’t see it.”

The Salvation Army generated $170,000 in donations last year through its Red Kettle campaign, its largest fundraiser. Capt. Dan Wilson said he hopes to raise $200,000 this year, a goal he realizes is lofty in this economy, but an amount he believes is necessary, given the service demand.

The Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program has seen its donors and volunteers step up this year, according to Greg Merschel, who coordinates the Grand Junction program, which serves eight counties.

And that’s good, because he said the requests for toys for children who may otherwise go without this holiday season have at least doubled in several Western Slope cities. The program in Montrose has already received applications for gifts for 3,000 children, a year after serving 1,700.

“I’m seeing more fear in people than I did in 1986, when I got here right after Black Sunday,” Merschel said, referring to the public’s reaction to the economy. “They really feel hopeless.”

At Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, staff and volunteers have seen the number of requests for help with housing triple in the past year, according to Sister Karen Bland, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“Every morning, there are between 15 and 20 families in here looking for housing,” she said.

Demand on Catholic Outreach’s broad range of programs is up across the board. Its soup kitchen is expected to serve 15 percent more meals this year than the 78,000 provided last year.

So many food baskets are being handed out — 16 to 20 a day — that its pantry was bare three weeks ago.

Folks who used to donate now need a hand themselves.

“We just say we help others, we can help you,” Bland said.

She said Catholic Outreach provided rental assistance that stopped 64 evictions in October. One of the evictions they stopped in November was for the Edwards family.

Trinity Edwards sought help after the family received a notice they had to vacate their lot in five days. Catholic Outreach obliged with a one-time gift, but they’re late again with their rent this month and aren’t sure how they’re going to pay it.

From his front window, Vern Edwards can see the house he roofed about two years ago. He said it was part of the last big job he did before injuries and the economy took their toll.

He and Trinity say they’re trying to make up for that lost income. Both have registered with the Mesa County Workforce Center. The family is hauling aluminum and other scrap metal.

The youngest son, 7-year-old Jacob, sliced his hand earlier this month trying to help his father strip copper wire.

The injury required a trip to the emergency room and seven stitches. The family couldn’t afford the Tylenol to ease the pain.

“It blows me away,” Edwards said. “I can’t get a job at a gas station. I’ve tried.”


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