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A time to give, a time to receive

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on December 11, 2007.

A month ago, D.R. dropped off a box of canned goods at his church, helping fill food baskets to hand out to the needy at Thanksgiving.

Last week, the New York native was again talking to his pastor about help for the needy - but this time he was arranging to pick up several boxes of food to keep his own family going without.

"I never thought I'd be in this situation in my life, " said D.R., who asked that his full name not be used to avoid embarrassing his family. "I was giving food just a month ago. Now they're helping us out."

It's a situation more families across the nation and on the First Coast are facing.

For D.R., now a resident of Callahan, rising fuel prices and a reduction in his hours at work made an already tight budget unworkable. For others, those problems, as well as higher utility bills, foreclosed homes and other economic woes, are enough to push just-making-it-by families over the edge.

"People who were once collecting for gift baskets at Thanksgiving are now asking for gift baskets themselves, " said Diane Gilbert, executive director of the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of Jacksonville Inc.

That makes things even harder on nonprofits, too, as they see people slide from potential donors to potential recipients at the same time that aid from the federal, state and city governments has been cut and individuals - even those with a higher net worth - tighten their belts amid fears of recession.

"It is potentially a perfect storm, " Gilbert said. "We have what appears to be a declining economy and an increasing number of people in need. All of us are facing cuts."

The need, according to the United Way of Northeast Florida, has increased across the board. Compared with last year:

- The number of food-stamp recipients went up 5 percent.

- Requests for financial assistance, including help paying for rent, mortgage, utilities and prescriptions, jumped 13 percent.

- The need for food increased 26 percent.

"We've never had this kind of growth, " said Connie Hodges, president of the local United Way, putting the numbers in context. "Outside of a hurricane, we haven't seen spikes like this."

Between the start of United Way's fiscal year in June and the end of October, calls to the agency's 211 line, which coordinates a variety of assistance programs, were up 19 percent from the same period the year before, putting United Way on track to deal with 87,132 calls for the year.

That not only surpasses last year, but even beats the five-year peak of calls that happened in the 2005-06 fiscal year, when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma hit the area.

For many organizations, the money to deal with those spikes isn't there, either. The big causes of the decline: the city cutting its contributions to nonprofits by 10 percent and slowing individual donations.

The city cuts stem from proposed changes in the property tax system that have led Mayor John Peyton to slice $10 million out of about $11.4 million it gave to nonprofits.

Individuals are cutting back, it seems, because they're dealing with their own economic woes or fear they soon will be. A number of agencies say donations from middle-income individuals have fallen as givers become uncertain about their own financial future.

"People have to make choices about where their dollars go, " said Audrey Moran, executive director of the Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless. "We need to be very aware of the economic pressure on the community as a whole."

On a recent afternoon, for example, when the Second Harvest Food Bank collected the large bins it had placed in local supermarkets to solicit canned goods, the containers looked more like makeshift garbage cans than charitable depots.

"These donations have been down lower and lower, " Food Bank Director Patrick Colley said. "It's been the same story all day."

Such fears that money might soon be tighter are borne out by the numbers of needy individuals showing up at local charities. The Sulzbacher Center, for example, is serving about 100 meals a day more than it typically does, and its shelter spaces are consistently filled.

"Many families come in and sleep on the floor, " Moran said. "The beds are full, and we don't turn away families."

The drop in funding has already made some nonprofits go out of business altogether, Gilbert said, including New Hope Ministry, which provided services for 900 homeless people, and the Housing Resources Center, both of which shuttered their doors in recent months.

"So many of the agencies that we deal with on a regular basis are strapped. It's a very difficult time, " she said. "Everyone is tightening the belt. Other organizations have laid people off."

Some donors have compensated for part of the loss. For example, 15 local companies have set and met goals to help Second Harvest Food Bank, Colley said, surpassing the amount they gave in years past.

That trickles down because the organization, run by Lutheran Social Services, distributes an average of 30,000 pounds of food a day, both to mammoth facilities like the Clara White Mission, as well as hundreds of smaller food pantries and shelters across 18 Northeast Florida counties.

Having such a large number of organizations depending on Second Harvest, though, means that some items, such as canned goods, might be out of stock there on particular days, even though the food bank is nowhere near the point of running out of food.

For the Rev. William Reister of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, the shortages have meant less for the hungry during a tough time of year.

"Whenever someone comes to us, we'll give them what we can, " he said. "If the food bank shelves are empty, we can't give them as much. It's been difficult during the holidays."

And he doesn't see things getting better any time soon.

"It's just the beginning of greater demand, " said Reister, who serves on the board of Lutheran Social Services. "I think the economy is in very rough shape."

Those fears are shared by others. The United Way, for example, is still in the early stages of the current fundraising drive but - because the majority of donations are done through workplace pledges - it could be hard hit if local firms begin laying people off.

For people like D.R., who was picking up food last week, the only thing to do is hope and pray for the day when he can give rather than receive.

"I pray to the Lord every day that something will come up, " he said. "And I thank him for everybody who helps give to the food bank. I'm going to support it until I die."

timothy.gibbons@jacksonville.com (904) 359-4103



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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