Local charities are buckling under a surge in requests for rent assistance, food, medicine and other services as job cuts and an economic slowdown squeeze on-the-edge families.
Many social service providers see the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the stick that broke the camel's back, at least for families struggling to make ends meet.
"The events of Sept. 11 have upset everything," said Carl Finney, a client counselor at the Eastern El Paso Community Center. "Over the last two months, our numbers are way over what they were last year.
Finney says he's seen the ripple effects tear through the county. The uncertainty has been enough to stop or delay new business and residential projects, forcing employers to lay off workers or cut hours. Many directly impacted by the slowdown are independent contractors, construction and service-industry workers.
"These people were living on the edge to begin with. Now it's even harder," Finney said. "They're living paycheck to paycheck, with every dollar already spoken for before it arrives. When the hours are cut or the primary breadwinner no longer has a job, that's a major ordeal."
Many small charities don't formally track statistics, but anecdotal evidence reveals the crunch:
Finney said he had 14 calls waiting for him on his answering machine one day last week with people desperate for help with rent, jobs and other aid in eastern El Paso County. He usually has one or two.
On Nov. 28, more than 30 people lined up outside Ecumenical Social Ministries in search of rental assistance, when typically, only a handful show up that early seeking help.
The food pantry at the Salvation Army was almost bare in October because demand was so high. The number of weekly food packages delivered to local families in need has more than doubled since September 2000 -- from 51 households and 142 people to 123 households and 254 people this year.
Best of times, worst of times
Despite a national slowdown that began in 2000, the Colorado Springs economy was chugging along nicely. Statewide unemployment rates were lower than the national average and, for much of the late 1990s, there were more jobs than there were workers to fill them.
"For a long time, anybody who wanted a job could get one," said Rod Wilson, deputy director of the Pikes Peak Community Action Center, a job-training center. "We were in a downturn anyway and Sept. 11 just exacerbated that. We do have more folks with the sudden emergencies, people who don't have strong backup support."
Colorado's unemployment rate in October shot to 4.2 percent, the highest since 1996. And the numbers are worse for minorities -- the jobless rate for African Americans jumped to 9.7 percent nationwide and 7.2 percent for Hispanics. Colorado's job growth rate slowed to 0.8 percent, the slowest since 1987.
In Colorado Springs, the jobless rate swelled from 3 percent in May to 5 percent in October. During the same time, local unemployed workers rose from 8,000 to 13,000, accounting for nearly 15 percent of all unemployed workers in Colorado. November figures are expected at the end of this week.
"There's a huge difference between people looking for jobs and the number of jobs," said Peggy Herbertson, director of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, a federally funded clearinghouse that helps bring together people looking for work and businesses looking for employees.
The number of job openings listed at the Workforce Center dropped from 4,412 last year to 2,777 for El Paso and Teller counties, while the number of people looking for jobs more than doubled from 6,498 last November to 13,625 this year.
Keeping a roof
Charities are seeing families squeezed by higher rents and skyrocketing utility bills as winter approaches.
Two local charities -- the Salvation Army and the Ecumenical Social Ministries -- provide one-time rent assistance. Requests outnumber resources and both agencies say they try to help people in transition.
"More and more people don't make enough money to meet their basic needs," said Karla Rouser, director of social services at Salvation Army. "We try to help these people get back on their feet."
Rouser reported that her staff of 20 has been overrun with requests for help with rent, utilities, food, clothing and medicine. Workers were busy this week sorting through more than 16,000 pounds of nonperishable food items that will be delivered to local families in the coming months.
"We are extremely busy. Even with our volunteers, we don't have enough to cover all the demand."
Charities are also worried about an increase in foreclosures. Officials at the El Paso public trustee's office said 100 additional properties went into foreclosure in October, but that number is average for the year. It takes 60 days for properties to go into foreclosure, so officials say they will be watching foreclosures closely.
Marian Grier, president of the Pikes Peak Foreclosure Prevention Partnership, says her nonprofit organization, which helps locals to keep their houses out of foreclosure, has been "swamped with calls this month."
"We've had such a crunch this fall," Grier says. "Sept. 11 has had a big impact. Anything that disrupts the economy, we see a decrease in home ownership and an increase in foreclosure."
And now, with the holiday season approaching, charities are entering their busiest time of year. Resources are stretched to the limit, but many charities report the community has responded kindly. The Salvation Army recently completed a successful food drive that helped restock its food pantry.
Social service providers are hopeful the generosity continues at the local level through the winter.
"After Sept. 11, people realize the importance of giving," said Salvation Army's Rouser. "The event has helped open people's hearts."
Call "211" for social services
Everyone knows to call 911 for emergencies or 411 for phone number information. Next summer, officials are hoping to familiarize callers with the number 211 as a one-call statewide clearinghouse for where to go for help for everything ranging from housing to domestic abuse to substance abuse and prenatal care programs.
Several states already have working 211 programs, including Georgia and California, and Colorado will inaugurate its first service in the Denver metro-area, Fort Collins, Weld County and Grand Junction next summer. Colorado Springs and the rest of Colorado are expected to see 211 in 2003.
"It's almost impossible to find services, especially if there is some sort of crisis or problem," said Mary Robertson, co-chairwoman of the statewide steering committee working on Colorado's 211 effort. "It will be a huge difference in the safety net."
Thousands of governmental agencies and nonprofits provide social services throughout Colorado, but there's currently no easy, one-stop information center about these groups. Robertson says anyone dialing 211 will reach a call center where operators will tap into a computerized master list and connect people with the appropriate agency.
"211 is such an easy number," she said. "Many people don't access help because they don't even know what services are available. It's hard to know who to even call."
A statewide committee is currently working out budgeting and organizational details. All 211 calls will be free to the public. For more information, check the Web at www.211.org.
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