Charities still struggle to meet needs
JANESVILLE It was 5:30 a.m., and dozens of families already were lined up outside the front door at the Salvation Army headquarters on Sutherland Avenue in Janesville.
People in flannel shirts and hoodies stood shivering in the 28-degree air. It was still dark, and the Salvation Army’s annual Coats for Kids distribution wasn’t set to start for another 3½ hours.
All told, the Salvation Army this year had gathered 1,600 coats for distribution at the annual coat drive.
At last year’s drive, the group distributed 620 coats. Organizer Lindi Paull said the Salvation Army on Saturday distributed even more coats than 2011—693 in total.
The Salvation Army uses the drive to distribute coats and outerwear to families who live in northern Rock County. Undistributed coats will be given to other local charities, Paull said.
Paull said the Salvation Army does not require income verification for the coat drive, so it’s hard to say if hardship has worsened for those in need.
But the hundreds who waited in line in the cold for a coat Saturday tell a tale that income data cannot.
Paull estimates it can cost a family of four at least $400 for coats, boots and other outerwear. For many families aided by such social service providers as Janesville’s ECHO and the Salvation Army, that can be a week’s pay.
“That’s too expensive for a lot of people right now,” Paull said.
That news comes even though there are indications the local economy is improving.
In a Gazette report earlier this month, local economic development officials pointed to businesses spending more than $600 million on new investments, along with a boost in home and vehicle sales and overall consumer confidence.
From an economic development standpoint, Forward Janesville President John Beckord exuded hope that the improvement is “starting to change attitudes in a positive way.”
But a better “attitude” for business leaders, investors and gainfully employed people hasn’t translated to an improvement for the segment of the population that such local groups as ECHO are seeing more and more of—minimum wage earners.
“The improvement doesn’t quite trickle down, at least not quickly,” ECHO coordinator Cheryl Maveety said.
Maveety said ECHO’s fastest-growing clientele continues to be families with one or more adults working fulltime.
“The people we see aren’t street bums who don’t want to get a job. They’re the working family out there making minimum wage, working two jobs. They’re trying to feed a family of four, and it’s just not cutting it,” Maveety said.
She said among that population, local evictions and foreclosures continue to climb. There’s also a growing need for temporary housing and utility and gasoline assistance.
ECHO has provided 25 percent more homeless kits than in 2011. Compared to last year, the center’s need for household goods has climbed 14 percent, and the demand for diapers has climbed 60 percent.
ECHO reports it is on pace give meal services to at least 27,000 people for the second year in a row—a 25 percent increase since 2006, the year before the Great Recession began.
Maveety said demand for the organization’s services typically ratchets up late in the year, once heating costs start to kick in.
“Most of our clients tend not to come to us until they absolutely have to. It typically happens around the holidays,” she said.
It costs ECHO $30 a week to give grocery assistance for a family of four, organizers said.
Maveety said most of ECHO’s donations come from middle-class families—people who see their discretionary income shrink late in the year as well. It’s when ECHO begins to get spread thin.
“We’re literally day-to-day now,” she said.
On Saturday, ECHO held one of its major fundraisers leading up to the holidays—its Empty Bowls soup lunch, which featured 46 soups donated from local restaurants and chefs.
Maveety said the benefit was a smash—so successful that organizers actually began running out of soup.
Totals weren’t available, but at an average ticket price of $10, proceeds from the benefit couldn’t have come at a better time.
“This is money that will be available for us to use first Monday morning. It keeps our doors open. We can buy milk for families,” Maveety said. “It’ll tide us over for a week, and then it’s back to running day-to-day again.”