More People Seeking Help From Nonprofits

By Clark Corbin
Post Register
Printed on Friday, May 8, 2009

Joe Brown felt like his life was slipping away.

He lost his place, he was looking for work and he didn't see a lot of help on the horizon.

Then, in December, he found the City of Refuge, a downtown Idaho Falls men's shelter that serves warm meals to anyone in need.

Brown stayed for four months, found a job at the Grand Teton Mall and saved up enough to rent his own place.

The City of Refuge provided Brown with the most basic of needs -- food, shelter and hope -- and it gave him the boost he needed to weather a personal storm.

"We were gonna be kicked out where we were staying, and I didn't even know a place like this existed," Brown said. "It felt good, actually, this place did a lot for me."

With unemployment and foreclosures on the rise in Bonneville County and across Idaho, stories like Brown's are becoming more common. Accordingly, the demand for help provided by area nonprofits and social services agencies is also increasing.

Last year, the City of Refuge provided shelter for 207 men and served 13,116 free dinners.

"We're feeding a lot more people right now, probably close to double," said David McKinney, City of Refuge director. "What I'm seeing is a lot more families are hurting right now. They haven't been in this situation before, and a lot of times they don't know where to start."

Demand for services is also on the rise at the Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership, which serves nine eastern Idaho counties.

"We're seeing a huge influx of people we've never seen before," said Sheryl Bailey, the agency's community services director.

In the wake of the recession, demand for energy assistance and food spiked at EICAP. The need for food, which is distributed through area food banks, grew by 40 percent to 50 percent so far this year, Bailey said. And EICAP provided assistance with heating costs to 5,500 households this winter, compared with 4,100 households last winter, she said.

Although times are tough -- Idaho's unemployment rate hit a 21-year high in March -- eastern Idaho residents are banding together to lend a hand.

"The community has been really amazing, and people are stepping up more now that they know times are tough," said Anne Johnson, manager of The Haven shelter in Idaho Falls. "Even if they can't make a cash donation, they say, 'I can't do money, but I can do towels or clothing.'"

Those little things help keep The Haven running at a time when the waiting list for rooms keeps growing.

"We're seeing a lot more two-person families right now," Johnson said. "More families are in a precarious situation because one of them was laid off or they've lost their income."

Although EICAP and The Haven say they are doing well financially, some organizations are enduring cuts.

Development Workshop, for instance, expects a $200,000 decrease in funding for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

"It's an interesting time right now," President and CEO Mike O'Bleness said. "People's needs for services are increasing, but funding for some services has gone down."

Development Workshop provides help for financially and developmentally disabled people, but O'Bleness said state funding cuts have forced him to turn some people away.

City of Refugee received $55,000 less in donations and grants in 2008 than the $302,300 it received in 2007, but McKinney doesn't blame the decrease on the poor economy.

"We've really been able to live within our budget," he said. "I'm pretty optimistic -- our donations for the first four months of this year are up substantially."

That's good news for Brown and the 30 others who sat down for a warm meal at City of Refuge on Wednesday.

"It's special, how they are really able to do a lot of good for the community and feed people off the street," Brown said. "It meant a lot to me."

Business reporter Clark Corbin can be reached at 542-6761. Comment on this story on Post Talk at talk/.