More people seeking aid for first time

Rick Cohee, a worker with The Salvation Army, fills food boxes at The Salvation Army food bank. People seeking assistance have about doubled in the past year, officials with the organization said.



QUICKREAD

Food help

A number of food assistance programs are available around Mesa County from community organizations and area churches. For a full listing, call 2-1-1 from a land line. From a cell phone call 244-8400, or call toll-free 888-217-1215.



JoAnne Kelty can spot the signs: the shuffling feet and the averted eyes when people wish they were somewhere else.

In growing numbers, those who never before had to ask for assistance are showing up in Kelty’s office at The Salvation Army. They’re seeking some food to fill bare cupboards and temporary assistance to stay good on the mortgage and keep the lights on. After being launched into survival mode, those who long had been accustomed to full-time, good-paying jobs are simply trying to get through another day, one more week after a cruel recession stripped them of work and slowly strips them of their dignity.

“A lot of them are like, ‘I’ve never done this before,’ ” Kelty said. “I had one guy just about start to cry while he was in my office. I try to make it as painless and fast as possible.”

People seeking assistance at the charitable organization have about doubled over the past year, Salvation Army officials said. The new faces represent former members of the working middle class.

“I think a lot of people are really proud, and it takes a lot to get them in here,” Kelty said as volunteers nearby prepared another food box. “The reason that we are here is because we want to help people. I’ve been in their shoes. It’s nothing to feel embarrassed about. It doesn’t make you less of a person to ask for help.”

In Mesa County, more people are asking for and getting food-assistance help from the federal Food Assistance program, better known as food stamps.

As numbers of those seeking and receiving food assistance keep climbing, people are sticking with the assistance longer, said Karen Martsolf, spokeswoman for the Mesa County Depart- ment of Human Services.

In the past two years the number of county residents receiving food assistance nearly doubled.

In January, Mesa County had 5,338 households receiving food assistance. That number climbed to 5,739 in March. In comparison, 3,660 households received food assistance in February 2008.

“It’s not the people who are regularly on assistance. It’s the people who are middle-class Americans who are finding themselves needing assistance,” Martsolf said. “We had people making $7,000 to $10,000 a month go from being pretty wealthy to needing food assistance almost overnight. I think middle-class America is coming to the realization that it could be me someday.”

In Colorado, a single-person household with a monthly gross income of $1,174 or less, or a two-person household earning $1,579 or less, can qualify for food assistance. A family of four can qualify if it makes $2,389 or less. Maximum monthly allotment for a two-person household is $367 in food assistance. Households can own up to $2,000 in countable resources to qualify or have up to $3,000 in resources and have one member of the house be more than 60 years old or disabled and qualify.

“Scary place to be”

As the number of people getting food assistance rises, so does the number of people who apply but don’t qualify. Even those people who are employed but have had their hours cut and nontraditional college students are applying for food assistance in greater numbers, Martsolf said.

Of all the people newly applying for food assistance, 50 to 60 percent do not qualify for the aid, she said.

“They make too much, but they don’t have enough to make ends meet,” Martsolf said.

“They’ve never been in this place before. It’s a scary place to be.”

As that happens, she said, county workers divert the needy to other nonprofit community and church-based food-assistance programs.

As more people enter the food-assistance rolls, the stigma surrounding the benefits seems to be easing, Martsolf said.

Long gone are the couponlike booklets with pages of stamps that could be redeemed to purchase food. Those have been replaced by an EBT (electronic benefits) card or QUEST card. With the swipe of what appears in passing to look like any other credit or debit card, people on food assistance can purchase from grocery stores various food items or seeds and plants to grow food. Ready-to-eat items are not allowed for food-assistance purchases.

In Colorado, benefits are added to users’ cards during the first nine days of each month. When the benefits are added is determined by the last digit of a user’s Social Security number. Benefits not used in a single month can be transferred to the next month.

Because of the dramatic increase in food-box requests and other pleas for assistance, the Salvation Army has ramped up its efforts. More than 50,000 pounds of food remaining from the Christmas holiday food drives is being distributed. The agency purchases at wholesale other essentials from area food banks. A surplus shipment of eggs that may have made its way to the garbage in previous years was readily accepted this year. In one recent month, more than 2,000 people picked up free bread and other food items left for the taking at the Salvation Army office, 1235 N. Fourth St.

Six boxes a year

Volunteer Marty Hughbanks last week helped gather items for the food boxes, which can run about 30 pounds. Occasionally he and his wife have accepted the food assistance. For years Hughbanks worked three jobs at a time, but now he is on disability and cannot receive federal food assistance.

“Don’t be too proud. It’s there for people who need help,” he advised anyone who might be hesitant about seeking food help. “It’s not going to take away all your troubles, but it helps.”

When his food stores run low, it’s the meat he misses most. Those seeking assistance can get as many as six boxes a year through the agency. Along with dried goods and nonperishable items, Salvation Army volunteers also include some meat products.

“One or two packages of meat is not going to feed you the whole week, but it sure makes that next dinner nice,” Hughbanks said.


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