Local human service nonprofits feel weight of recession

Despite reports that the stimulus package is drawing America out of the recession (“Economics conclude that stimulus package is working,” New York Times, Nov. 21), many North Adams families still feel its effects, evidenced by changes seen in nonprofit organizations that provide human services to low-income and unemployed individuals. During the past year, both the number and type of people seeking assistance at several such organizations, including Target: Hunger Northern Berkshires, the Berkshire Food Project and the Louison House, have diverged from past trends.
In contrast with several employers and members of local governance interviewed (“Unemployment marks North Adams economy,” page 1), representatives of these organizations expressed less optimism with regard to the impacts of the recession in North Adams.
“In most areas, we keep hearing that the economy is getting better, but it seems like the last few months have really been tough . . . maybe [the recession] finally caught up with people,” said Kim McMann, coordinator of Target: Hunger, a program of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts that partners with community organizations to reach specific hunger reduction goals.
The past year has brought sharp increases in the number of people seeking hunger-related services such as free meals, according to Robin Claremont, the development and communications manager of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. A compilation of data about services provided by the Food Bank and its related organizations in Berkshire County indicates that during the past year, 56 percent more visitors have come to these services and 66 percent more meals have been served, according to Claremont.
In addition, Claremont noted a drastic 78 percent increase in the number of people who come to receive food for two or more times, rather than as a solitary occurrence. “It’s probably a result of unemployment; people are struggling to meet household expenses,” Claremont said. “It’s concerning because people are relying on emergency food for a longer time,” rather than finding a sustainable solution, she said.
According to McMann, families in lower income brackets are not the only ones concerned about food prices; both low- and higher-income families have recently been seeking assistance. “Even higher-income level households are feeling the economic crisis,” McMann said. “Even those who remain employed are seeing no raises this year, while all of their expenses continue to rise. Hourly employees are getting fewer hours, too. And yes, each week there are newly unemployed people in our community.”
McMann noted that people who have never before needed assistance are often hesitant to ask for it. “Many of the people losing jobs these days have never had to access services; they don’t even realize at first that they can and should access services,” McMann said. “Even once they realize they need to, many are embarrassed to be the sort of person who needs assistance,” she said, adding that families often try to avoid coming to places that offer free meals. “At first, I think many families struggle: They try to make less food go further, buy cheaper food, take up family offers to come for dinner,” she said. After that initial period, she explained, if families are still struggling to afford food, they begin to seek services and meals.
She noted that many higher-income families in North Adams have recently become concerned about being able to afford food, whereas concern among lower-income families has remained more stable – an observation in accordance with results of a national survey conducted by The New York Times, which found that one in four children are currently receiving food stamps (“Food stamp use soars, and stigma fades,” The New York Times, Nov. 28).
According to McMann, this rise in concern among higher-income families may be due to the fact that they never before had to worry, whereas lower-income families have paid more attention to frugality in the past. “Whether or not people are in financial difficulty, if they’re worried, they will shop differently and [sometimes] skip meals or not eat right,” she said.
Another recent change in the demographic makeup of those seeking assistance from both the Food Bank and the Berkshire Food Project, a smaller organization that offers free hot lunches, is a significant rise in the number of adults aged 18 to 25 coming for meals, according to McMann and Valerie Schwarz, project manager of the Berkshire Food Project. “I’m seeing joblessness, [not unemployment],” Schwarz said. People who fall into this younger category “don’t have jobs and can’t find jobs,” she said. “More young people who are from high school and college and have never gotten that first job are needing to eat at free meal sites,” McMann said.
Paul Gage, director of the Louison House, which offers both homelessness prevention and a transitional shelter, has also seen changes in the type of people seeking assistance. “We’re talking about middle America, about people who a few years ago felt economically secure and stable . . . Now they’re on that line, and it’s a scary situation,” he said. “The old stereotype of the single white male individual with mental health issues or substance abuse is becoming less true; it’s changing with the recession,” he said, referring to the type of people that seek the services of transitional shelters. He noted that it is no longer uncommon to see a family with a mother, father and three children come to the Louison House.

Gage said that he did not have specific enough information to know whether or not a recent increase in the overall number of people coming to the Louison House is related to the recession. “Our initial data is not strong enough to support a direct correlation, but when you sit down with a client who is describing their situation, you can make that determination: if it relates to income – either job loss or fewer hours – then it’s more than likely related to the recession.”

Even if the national recession improves in the near future, Gage does not foresee a decrease in the economic instability faced by many North Adams citizens. “We’re at a disadvantage: unlike Boston, western Massachusetts does not have a great deal of job opportunities,” Gage said. “As costs go up, very few jobs are added to the payroll and the ones that are, are low paying. Also, education is a factor: people don’t have skills or a diploma, or have limited education . . . they’re stuck in the cycle of poverty unless they get education and a career path.” He expressed concern that the economic situation in North Adams might get even worse in the next few years.

Impacts on nonprofits

North Adams nonprofits are feeling both how the recession has affected the people who they assist and how it has impacted the workings of the organizations themselves. According to a 2009 report (using 2006 data) published by Economics Professor Stephen Sheppard, “The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Organizations in Berkshire County”, Berkshire County has more than twice the number of nonprofits per resident than is observed in the U.S. as a whole, and 54 percent more per resident than all of Massachusetts. The nonprofit sector directly and indirectly generates over 25,000 full and part-time jobs in the County, accounting for as much as 38 percent of local employment, according to the report.

According to Sheppard, though the recession has bestowed financial difficulties upon both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, fewer nonprofits than for-profit enterprises have closed. Human service nonprofits, such as those organizations that provide food or shelter, meanwhile face even greater financial constraints than other nonprofits, because their demand increases as funding decreases. “Organizations that provide human services face double stress, because the needs of the population have risen,” Sheppard said.

The Berkshire Food Project, Target: Hunger and the Louison House have all seen changes in recent donations. At the Berkshire Food Project, though grant funding has remained fairly constant, individual donations have dropped, putting the organization $6000 behind where it would expect to be at this time of year, according to Schwarz. “We have a budget and if we don’t recoup this private donation money, it’s significant for us because we’re a small organization,” Schwarz said.

As project manager, Schwarz is the only paid employee of the Berkshire Food Project; otherwise, it is entirely staffed by volunteers, many of whom are Williams students. Sheppard noted that volunteer work might allow nonprofits to mitigate the recession’s effects in a way that for-profit enterprises cannot. “One strength that nonprofits can draw upon that is not available to for-profit organizations is volunteer labor . . . it is in times of economic stress like this that those with a little time to give can really help,” Sheppard said.

Volunteers cannot fill every job description of nonprofits, however, which also have numerous other expenses to cover. Diminished funding has severely impacted the Louison House, for example, which has been forced to reduce operations. From 2008 until Friday, its homelessness prevention program had a separate office with two full-time staff members, located on Main Street. However, due to insufficient funding for rent and salaries, the office closed and the employees had to be laid off, according to Gage.

The Louison House still offers homelessness prevention services, but no longer takes walk-in appointments. The transitional shelter receives steady funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but the homelessness prevention office depended on independent donations, which could no longer cover its costs.

Gage noted that many nonprofits suffer the effects of diminished donations. “We’re in the middle of a recession; almost every nonprofit is in the same position financially,” he said. “I go to meetings and everyone is hurting.” Though Gage regrets the loss of the two employees and hopes to re-open a separate homelessness prevention office in the future, he does not expect increased donations in the near future. “If the federal deficit increases, it could impact us in a trickle-down effect,” he said.

However, not all nonprofit organizations are experiencing similar drops in donations. According to McMann, the Food Bank has seen the reverse at the Berkshire Food Project: corporation donations have decreased, but individual donations have remained strong. “I have a feeling that part of what’s happening is corporate donations are down and individuals are donating more because they’re so relieved that they [have the economic means to do so] right now, but local businesses [who have donated in the past] are struggling,” McMann said.

“We’ve seen a lot of support from the community. When people think about basic human needs, they think about hunger and food,” Claremont said, noting that the Food Bank’s diversity in funding sources has allowed for them to meet needs. “We continue to see great support that makes it possible to do our work,” she said.