Squeezed: Ministries may need to do more with less money

foodpantryopen-webFreddi Birdwell’s wake-up call to the new economy came partly in the form of a young single mother at a transitional housing program in Knoxville run by the Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.

The woman and her young child had fled an abusive home, and she was trying to get on her feet, training for a new job and learning to run a household. She was in the final six months of a two-year program.

“She had a job and was doing great,” Birdwell recalled last week. “Then she was laid off and now she can’t find another job. I can only imagine the stress of that, with a child to take care of. We make sure she’s getting food on the table … just trying to Band-Aid it until we can help her with a more permanent solution.”

Stories like this have grown familiar in the past 12 to 18 months, said Birdwell, the community relations and development director for CCET, which is based in Knoxville but has offices in Chattanooga and Jonesborough.

As Northeast Tennessee feels more of the global economic downturn, people who normally walk on financial tightropes are falling into full-blown crisis, and others who were getting by are starting to stagger.

“We’ve absolutely seen a steady increase in the number of individuals and families who face some kind of housing crisis, who are homeless, who need assistance with utilities or food,” Birdwell said. “It was a slow increase for a while, but now that’s starting to pick up.”

Churches, faith-based groups and other charities are scrambling to keep up with the needs. CCET helped more than 17,000 people in the past year, about 15 percent more than the previous year.

“A lot of the people who’ve historically helped are on the edge themselves,” Birdwell said. “People who donated items to our thrift stores and pantries (in the past) now are coming to our stores. They’re one crisis, one job loss, one illness from putting them over the edge.”

Doug Miller, director of missions and media at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Johnson City, sees a similar trend.

“What we’re finding in the last eight to 12 months is that those on the (brink) of poverty are slipping over, and those already in the poverty level are losing the grip they had,” Miller said. “People who were not homeless before are living in their cars now.”

Munsey provides space for the Melting Pot, a ministry of Good Samaritan Ministries that offers free meals to people in need. The number of meals served has mushroomed in the last year, Miller said, from about 150 people per day at the end of the month to more than 200, a 33 percent increase. (More people come at month’s end, presumably when wages or benefits are running low.) Munsey’s own Wednesday-night dinners also attract more people now.

“We’re seeing people who normally don’t come,” Miller said. “A lot have jobs, but if they can get one more meal per week paid for – that’s another $5 or $6. That will pay for gas to get them to work for a week.”

The economic stresses are starting to show in other ways. CCET workers at shelters in Knoxville are reporting more incidents of child and elder abuse and neglect. Birdwell blames the financial uncertainty.

“It’s an on-the-edge kind of thing,” she said, “causing people such stress that they take it out on those around them.”

Despite such accounts, Birdwell and Miller sound optimistic. Miller said the number of volunteers at Munsey and the congregation’s donations for “compassion ministries,” which has expenses as high as $50,000 per year, are holding steady.

Birdwell reported that the CCET fundraising campaign during the last holiday season was more successful than the previous year. CCET operates 22 programs with an annual budget of almost $5 million, supplied by gifts from individuals and organizations, funding from the East Tennessee Diocese and government grants.

But churches, charities and other organizations that offer a safety net to people in need know they face a tough dilemma: The same conditions that make their services more crucial are hitting donors’ wallets too. No one knows how hard the economy will bite into giving, and these ministries may soon be trying to provide more while receiving less.

“We may not want to think about (more poverty),” Miller said, “but we can’t ignore it.”

 (Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 7 March 2009)

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