Swelling need, shrinking aid test charities

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 2, 2009

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Massachusetts charities are scrambling to provide food, clothing, and other assistance for surging numbers of families seeking aid this holiday season, with many charities receiving twice as many requests as they did last year.

Even though some economists say the recession is easing, the Salvation Army in Central Square saw requests for Thanksgiving baskets rise 62 percent this year over 2008. The group is bracing for a similar rush in the upcoming holidays.

The Home for Little Wanderers, a child and family service agency, has received twice as many appeals this year for basic items such as winter coats and grocery store gift cards. The Greater Boston Food Bank said some pantries are distributing provisions to 30 percent more people.

But as the scope of need explodes, support for charitable causes is withering, as even the most generous donors face their own financial struggles. And charities worry that donations, already down in the first nine months of the year, will fall badly short during the holiday season.

“Dickens was about half right,’’ said Michael Durkin, president of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, recalling the author’s best-of-times, worst-of-times paradox. “This is the toughest year anyone can remember, and a lot of charities have their backs against the wall.’’

The high demand this year has dashed hopes that the financial crisis and its effects on the poor peaked last holiday season. Instead, persistent joblessness and a continuing struggle for many families trying to stay in their homes have forced even more people to seek assistance.

At food pantries, organizers say, people who used to give to the needy are now joining them in line. Out-of-work parents who in better days would spend hundreds of dollars on Christmas presents for their children are now turning to toy drives so the space under the tree is not bare.

“I can’t remember the economy being quite this difficult,’’ said Linda Markwald, regional director of Community Health Charities of New England. “Even if charities manage to raise the same amount, the needs are just so much greater.’’

More than half of charities have experienced declines in donations from last year, the Association of Fundraising Professionals found in an October survey, and donations to foundations are expected to decline by more than 10 percent this year.

Last year, donations to charitable causes in the United States dropped 2 percent to an estimated $307 billion, according to the Giving Institute, a consultant to nonprofits. It was the first such drop since 1987.

“I had hoped 2008 would be the worst of it,’’ said Michael Nilsen, a spokesman for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. “But even with the better economic news recently, it doesn’t seem to be working out. We’re bracing ourselves for a tough season.’’

The holiday season is crucial for charities, which receive from one-third to one-half of their overall contributions in the last three months of the year.

Fund-raisers say that many employees enrolled in charitable payroll-deduction plans have reduced their contributions, and even the most loyal donors have scaled back pledges. Action for Boston Community Development, an antipoverty group, postponed its annual fall auction, worried that donors were already overburdened.

John J. Drew, the group’s president, said that requests for food and heating assistance have risen sharply and that requests for holiday toys have doubled from last year. Some are from parents who have been out of work so long their unemployment benefits have expired; they make their housing payments only by skipping meals and keeping the heat low. The group has encountered a growing number of senior citizens who are forgoing medicine to save money.

“It’s a desperate time,’’ he said. “People can’t make rent. They are losing their houses; they are tenants in a house that’s getting foreclosed. People come in, little ones in their hands, looking for help.’’

Jamela Neal, a 32-year-old single mother of four, was among them, reaching out to ABCD after she lost her job as a receptionist and her apartment in Everett this summer. Through an emergency shelter program, she and her children were placed in a three-bedroom apartment in Fields Corner, rent-free. She is living on her unemployment check, about $200 a week, but is struggling to pay off credit card debt. She recently completed a plumbing course through the group’s career development program. Though searching for work, she has had no luck.

“It’s definitely hard,’’ she said. “But I am very thankful to have a roof over my children’s heads.’’

Project Bread, an antihunger group, estimates that more than half a million people in Massachusetts are struggling to put food on the table. The group’s hot line, which connects people with local food pantries, has received 30 percent more calls than last year.

At Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston, requests for help with basic needs - food, clothing, housing, and utilities - have jumped dramatically. As recently as three years ago, a Catholic Charities pantry in Dorchester was distributing about 4,000 pounds of food a month. This year, it handed out 11,000 pounds in 3 1/2 days in October.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but without it they would starve,’’ said Tiziana Dearing, the group’s president.

Thomas N. Langdon, director of community relations and development for the Salvation Army’s Massachusetts division, said the financial turmoil of the past year has cast thousands of people into poverty and deepened the hardship of the chronically poor.

“As Christ said, ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ ’’ he said. “But this is a whole layer on top of it.’’