Caldwell County can't keep up with needs of poor

Apr. 28, 2013 @ 08:22 AM

Pleas for help from unemployed and low-income residents for help with food, heating and cooling bills and other forms of assistance are far outstripping the abilities of the Caldwell County Department of Social Services, increasing the burden on independent charities.

“We’re seeing more people than we can take care of,” said Rhonda Howell, supervisor of emergency services at the social services department. “It’s hard for all of us to handle the influx of need.”

The brunt of what Howell said has proved a “tremendous need” this year has fallen on the department's Crisis Intervention Program, which is used to offer utilities and rent subsidies, help with heating fuel and sometimes help with prescription costs. It ran out of money at the beginning of March -- about a month before the fund typically is depleted, she said.

The agency saw its greatest demand for services ever in February, when Howell said some 300 families and individuals eligible for assistance under poverty standards established by the federal government requested money for fuel, like kerosene, to heat their dwellings. 

Nearly 6,400 unemployed and low-income residents received services from the agency between July and March, when the $560,000 it received from the federal government for fiscal 2012-13 ran out. The agency can offer individuals no more than $600 a year.

From July 2011 to June 2012,  the department operated with about $730,000 in federal funds.

The shortage of funds has sent more people than usual looking for help to independent charities.

One, the Salvation Army in Granite Falls, had to stop offering vouchers in December for help with things like utility bills because of a staff departure. The agency now is training a social worker to manage the voucher system.

Yokefellow in Lenoir is issuing an increasing number of vouchers three days a week to people for basic needs, including utility and rent payments and clothing, executive director Sharon Osbourne said.

She said her nonprofit last year provided vouchers for utility and rent payments worth a total of about $180,000, up from the less than $173,000 it issued last year.  The rise in demand also led to a significant increase in other forms of financial assistance offered by Yokefellow, she said, which last year issued clothing vouchers worth a total of about $36,000, eclipsing the less than $7,300 in 2010. 

“The problem is growing,” she warned.  “We need better answers.”

In the southern end of the county, South Caldwell Christian Ministry has distributed a record-breaking amount of food in the past three months, 65 to 80 pounds of food every three weeks, executive director Deborah Thomas said.

“The Lord provides whatever we need,” Thomas said.  “I don’t worry about that – whatever we desperately need, it comes in.”