It Still Looks Pretty Grim
Community groups pick up the slack
by James Leonard
Rural poverty is every bit as bad as urban poverty. It's just harder to see.
"People can disguise their problems, but not forever," says Nancy Paul, director of Faith in Action, a human-services group operating in Chelsea and Dexter.
"It shows up in school when you see two kids wearing the same coat on alternate days," she says. "And we know we have people living in the woods and in their cars."
Rural poverty was easier to miss ten years ago. But when a bad state economy got worse and local unemployment soared to 9.4 percent in July 2010 (see Front Porch, p. 9), the need for human services increased dramatically. And just when the need was greatest, state and federal funding cuts plus shrinking property tax revenues limited what local governments could do to help. That has placed even greater burdens on the nonprofit groups that provide those in need with food, clothing, and just about anything else.
"We're serving quadruple the number of people," says Nancy Paul. "I've been here eight years, and when I started, we had twenty to twenty-five emergency food orders a month. Now it's one hundred or more."
Three Chelsea churches--St. Barnabas Episcopal, St. Paul United Church of Christ, and St. Mary Catholic--founded Faith in Action thirty-two years ago. "Now nineteen different churches are working with us," says Paul. "That's close to everybody out here. Every church wants to have a compassionate response, but they don't all have the same capacity as a larger church, and we make that response possible."
The recession made the need even more urgent. "We're helping a lot of people who've never had to ask for help before," Paul says. "They don't know what's out there [to help families with financial problems], and they're mortified to have to ask at all.
"The biggest part of what we do is to operate the local food pantry, but that's only part of it," Paul says. "We also have a clothing room, and we know
it helps keep kids in clothes, especially in the winter. And we also deal with utility shutoffs and evictions and problems with health care and domestic violence issues. Altogether, there are around 250 to 300 families that we have contact with over the course of a year."
Though Faith in Action is often the first point of contact for people seeking help, Paul says the solutions to their problems often involve other human-services agencies. "Let's say somebody's having trouble making their utility payment. We can call over to the Salvation Army, and they'll pay a little bit, we'll pay a little bit, and the client will pay a little bit, and we'll get it taken care of."
Faith in Action has only two employees, Paul plus a full-time social worker. "But we also have between forty and fifty volunteers at any one time that are worth about three or four full-time equivalents," Paul says. Nearly half their money comes from their own fund-raising, a third comes from community organizations, particularly the United Way, and the rest comes from local churches.
"It's a definite 'loaves and fishes' situation," Paul says. "We're serving quadruple the number of people, but we haven't quadrupled our funding. So much of what we get is in in-kind donations--food and clothing mostly. And the checks are coming in. The future for us looks as good as what comes in the door and what comes in the door is tremendous. We can still help 99 percent of the people who come to us."
Times were already bad in the south of the county, says Aid in Milan director Nina Pemberton. The recession made them worse. "We've had much more demand for services," she says. "We encourage people to come in before they shut off the utilities. But some people have never had contact with an agency before, and they don't know we exist until they've been shut off.
"We've also increased food distribution a lot because food stamps
have been cut and welfare is being limited," adds Pemberton. "People who depended on the stamps or the extra money for getting by were borderline before, and they're over the line now."
The need, of course, has always been there. "Aid in Milan started almost forty years with a grant from Aid for Lutherans, the Lutheran insurance company," says Pemberton. "A group of community people here in Milan got together and hired a director and started passing out bags of food and doing Meals on Wheels." Now "we serve several hundred people over the course of the year," Pemberton says. "The food service is for seventy-some families. Then we have people who come in for help with water or gas or other utilities, and we have others who come for help with prescriptions. We even have people who need money for gas--not very often, but in an emergency. Last week, the police sent a man over who'd gotten stranded here from Monroe. And we found a friend of his and paid for gas to bring him home."
Pemberton, who's been with the group for twenty years, as a board member and now director, is the only full-time employee. "We have a treasurer. We have a young man who takes out our trash and mows our yard and shovels our snow. And we have a person who takes care of our food we get. They're all part time, and we have about fifty volunteers." About half their funding comes from United Way and the rest from the community. "Milan has just been fantastic," Pemberton stresses. "Donations are up for food, and people just walk in and give us checks."
That's good, because "in the next few years, it's going to be harder," Pemberton predicts. "But the community is so supportive of us, we'll be here and giving help. And we're so lucky. We own our own building. We own our vehicles. We never have to pay for those kinds of things. Whenever we put out the word, the community rallies around--all our churches and organizations like the Rotary. It is a fantastic amount of support."
"We used to see people coming to the food pantry once a month," says Laura Seyfried, director of the Manchester Community Resource Center. "Now they're more likely to come twice a month."
Seyfried started as MCRC's full-time director last May, but the organization began in the late 1980s when Double A Products moved out of town and took their jobs with them. In response, Seyfried says, "a group of individuals from all different backgrounds--village officials, people from the churches and from other community organizations--got together and created the MCRC to help [the laid-off workers] find new jobs and keep them in the community.
"Our mission now is to meet the human-services needs in the Manchester area and to provide a forum for the community," says Seyfried, "though we still offer services to unemployed people to find work. We have a volunteer to help them build a resume and learn how to do Internet job searches, and we let them use computers at our office.
"But we also work with other human-services agencies to make sure people's day-to-day needs are met," Seyfried continues. "If someone needs housing, we work with the county to make sure they don't end up on the street. We have a food pantry [where] people can come and shop, and we also do utility assistance. Mobile homes aren't necessarily very efficient to heat, and we can help with financial assistance, and we also refer people to the state and county to help them get their [heating] problem under control."
Small as the staffs of Faith in Action and Aid in Milan are, MCRC's is even smaller. "I'm the only employee, but we have between fifteen and twenty dedicated volunteers for the food pantry," says Seyfried. "We serve between fifty and seventy-five households per month at the food pantry, and with other referrals and phone calls, we probably serve another fifteen to twenty-five more households a month."
Like the other groups, MCRC relies on a combination of funding sources. "We do annual appeals twice a year. The previous one was in May just before I got here, and we're still receiving money from that. We get money from the Village of Manchester. We also receive money from other agencies. For example, there's a nonprofit resale clothing shop that gives money back to the community, including us. And the United Way, which is a new source of funding for us. It's our first year with them."
More funding is especially important in a recession, particularly when local jobs were already scarce. "Like every other small community, it's very noticeable if employment drops," says Seyfried. "We still have some manufacturing here, but most of it's gone. And because we're removed from the rest of the county geographically, transportation to work can be an issue. People want reliable work to sustain themselves and their families, and that's lacking in this area."
Coupled with cuts in welfare and unemployment benefits, this means increased demand for MCRC's services. "But we're a well-supported organization, with a lot of great community partners behind us," says Seyfried. "Every day brings great things, and the good things outweigh the challenges."
"Our caseload went up a couple years ago from eighty-five to 125 [per year] and has stayed uniform since then, says Don Dersnah, director of Saline Area Social Service. "I'm guessing the caseload will stay the way it is now, and some of these folks we'll be seeing for the rest of their lives."
Of all the out-county human-services groups, SASS is the oldest. "It was founded fifty years ago by a woman who ran it out of her own basement and handed things out to people in need," says Dersnah. They've grown since then but have kept that personal quality.
"We see ourselves as a 'neighbors helping neighbors' organization," Dersnah says. "We have a food pantry, and our clients use it every week. We have some limits--meat products, for example. Everything else, folks go through and do their shopping for a week. Folks are on their own to determine what they would like most. We're not like some food pantries who will put together a bag of groceries."
That's not all they do. "We are able, if a person has medical coverage, to help with co-pays on prescriptions. We are able to assist with rent up to $200 once in a twelve-month period, and we can help with DTE [utility bills] one time in a twelve-month period. We do a holiday [adopt-a-family] program, and this year we had about 150 households that we served."
Saline Area Social Service has three part-time employees--a director, a clerk, and a social worker--and nine volunteers per week who help with the office work. "I was a manager in the Michigan Department of Human Services for forty-two years," says Dersnah. "It was my career right out of college. And I left there and started here the same week."
SASS is funded by community donations and the United Way, each covering about half the budget. "Saline is a very, very generous community," says Dersnah. "When we ask, we find the need gets met."
None of the leaders see that need letting up any time in the foreseeable future. "For Dexter and Chelsea, we're it for the core services, and it's just the same for Saline, Milan, and Manchester, says Faith in Action's Nancy Paul. "We're all out here filling in around the cracks.
"We see faint glimmers of hope here and there, but it still looks pretty grim from where we sit."
[Originally published in April, 2012.]