Social service agencies struggling to provide - East Valley Tribune: News

Social service agencies struggling to provide

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Posted: Friday, March 21, 2008 8:23 pm | Updated: 11:46 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

From leaner food boxes to longer waiting lists, local social service agencies are feeling the pinch. As the economy continues to tank and the cost of everything from groceries to gas keeps rising, more people are asking social service agencies for help.

But those same agencies are having trouble making ends meet, too.

"The needs are up and the resources are down," said Bob Evans, CEO of United Food Bank in Mesa. "We've got a good, solid donor base. But the amount they're able to give is less."

The food bank, which gave away food boxes through dozens of smaller agencies in five counties, distributed more food boxes in the past year, though the actual amount of food was down by 11 percent. At the same time, food costs increased 40 percent and transportation costs rose 16 percent.

It's the same story with other community and faith-based groups. More demand, in many cases from people who have never asked for help before, and fewer resources to spread around.

And as lawmakers and Gov. Janet Napolitano crunch numbers in earnest to reach a deal on how to close a $1.2 billion budget gap, and another bad year looms on the horizon, agencies are bracing for even tougher times ahead.

"With summer coming and the expense of that, there are going to be a lot of people out there who are hurting financially," said Laraine Stewart, chief operating officer for the local Area Agency on Aging, which serves Maricopa County seniors with transportation, food and in-home services.

"Seniors are pretty determined to make ends meet, but the buck only goes so far."

Napolitano's office called social service administrators together earlier this week to hear how they're faring. She's also asked the Valley of the Sun United Way to survey nonprofit and faith-based groups to find out just how bad the past year has been for them.

The surveys, due back Tuesday, ask agencies that serve families, seniors, the disabled and the homeless a variety of questions about the demand for services, their ability to meet the needs of clients and their resources.

The information could help Napolitano make the case with Republican legislative leaders that the budget cuts they've recommended would carve too deeply into an already weakened social service network.

Napolitano's plan to balance this year's budget relies heavily on school construction financing and tapping the state's rainy day fund. In contrast, key GOP lawmakers initially proposed 10 percent agency cuts across the board, but have pared that back to 4 percent.

The later it gets in the fiscal year, which ends June 30, the harder those budget cuts are to make. But advocates worry that, even though the governor said she would protect vulnerable populations like children and seniors, that may be impossible to do.

Republicans made a major concession this week and agreed to finance school construction to help balance the budget.

The meeting with Napolitano staffers "confirmed what they thought they knew," said Ginny Hildebrand, executive director of the Arizona Association of Food Banks.

"Everybody consistently is saying that their demand for whatever services they provide is up," she said. "That there are more people coming to them for assistance who have never come before."

Food banks direct families to government programs, including food stamps and the school lunch program. Hildebrand said agencies may have to start turning down families if they haven't first applied for food stamps.

There's already a waiting list of nearly 500 seniors in Maricopa County who need help at home but can't get it. Home and community-based services, paid for with state and federal funds, help people with things like personal care, shopping, meals and housekeeping.

Calls are up, too, to the Area Agency's Senior Helpline, Stewart said. Most of the 3,000 calls in the past month came from the seniors themselves seeking services, rather than their children or others looking for education or information.

"We're beginning to hear a lot that seniors can't get anywhere because they can't afford the gas - doctor's appointments and things like that," she said.

Given the severity of the budget deficit and the bleak economic outlook, Stewart knows that social service agencies like hers may not be spared. But she also knows that seniors who don't get in-home services tend to become more frail and wind up in nursing homes, with taxpayers footing the bill.

"It's ugly," Stewart said of the budget. "As much as they like to say we don't want to cut vulnerable populations, they may have to do something."

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