Nonprofit agencies find it tough to meet growing needs
Like most economic news of the day, the statistics are gloomy.
A 59 percent increase in people served by area food pantries, and a 20 percent drop in national food supplies.
Nearly 270 school-age children homeless in Champaign County, even as day-care centers report vacancies because families can't afford to pay.
More than 100 homeless women turned away from a local shelter, with demand up 50 percent over a year ago.
Even as the economy worsens, driving more families into crisis, nonprofit agencies find themselves unable to meet the need.
Years of meager increases in grant funding have eroded spending power, directors say. Add to that state budget cuts and a three- to five-month backlog of state reimbursements for services already provided, and many nonprofits are strapped for cash. Champaign's Developmental Services Center is among several that had to borrow money just to meet payroll.
Meanwhile, higher food and gas prices have driven up costs for agencies that provide meals or transportation. And fears of job losses or recess- ion have made consumers wary about donating cash just as the holiday fundraising season kicks into high gear.
The result is unprecedented stresses on social service agencies, and advocates fear families will pay the price.
"It really kind of is a perfect storm of concern for nonprofits," said Beverley Baker, director of community impact for the United Way of Champaign County.
In recent weeks, several agencies – including the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club and the Center for Women in Transition – expressed uncertainty about their ability to continue services at current levels, even as more clients show up on their doorstep.
The Center for Women in Transition has turned away 117 single women and 92 families since January, and "the year's not even over," said Executive Director John Sullivan.
"It's a double whammy," he said. "I think it's just going to get worse and worse."
Problems at one nonprofit have a ripple effect. Cutting detox services for drug and alcohol addictions – as Prairie Health Systems was forced to do after state budget cuts this fall – will most certainly lead to more child abuse or neglect cases as parents go without help, said United Way President and CEO Lyn Jones.
The Court Appointed Special Advocates, which represents Champaign County children in foster care, has 563 children right now, and numbers are definitely up over last year, said Executive Director Gigi Lambert. She's already seeing the effect of cuts at Prairie Center and the Mental Health Center, as parents and children go without the counseling they need. Families will likely stay in the foster-care system longer as they wait for services, she said.
Sullivan saw an immediate impact at his shelter. "Those needs come straight back here, because this is where a lot of those clients are," he said. "The main reasons for homelessness are substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence and good old poverty."
Sullivan has lost about $20,000 in grants over the last three years, even as utility and insurance costs went "through the roof." The center, which helps homeless women make a transition back into society, has a $475,000 budget.
Sullivan doesn't think it will close, but "we're going to have to do something. The last thing we'll do is affect services. We're a ways from that, but it's not good, put it that way."
The United Way just approved a $6,000 emergency grant to ensure that a winter overflow shelter created last year can open again in January. Without the money, the Center for Women in Transition would have cut one of its two evening-shift workers who served as the intake person for the overflow shelter.
Homeless shelters are "the last refu- ge," he said. "That's the building block of the social services community."
This alarm has been sounded before, but Jones thinks conditions are more severe now. Requests for United Way funding are up more than $300,000 over the last funding cycle, a 16 percent increase.
With the lag in state payments, some agencies have gone through six months of hardship, Baker said. Even money restored last week by the state will take time to trickle in, she said.
Developmental Services Center just borrowed $400,000 to pay its staff this week. The state owes it more than $1.5 million in back payments, said President and CEO Dale Morrissey. To add insult to injury, the state won't reimburse agencies for interest paid on money they borrow, he said.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation last week restoring cuts he made earlier this year, using money from a "fund sweep" of other state accounts. But state officials indicated they might still ask DSC and others to hold back 12 percent of their grants, retroactive to July 1, Morrissey said. That's $193,000 for DSC.
"It's basically cutting us twice," he said. "We're still fighting that."
He hopes to manage his budget through attrition, rather than layoffs, but that still means higher staff-client ratios and longer waits for adults needing services.
Another problem: organizations that have set aside money "for a rainy day" are forced to dip into their investments at the worst possible time, after the stock market nose-dive, Baker said.
Fund drives this fall report mixed results so far. The Crisis Nursery saw its sponsorships drop from about $22,000 to $17,000 for this year's popular Holiday Shop fundraiser, Jones said. But United Way campaigns at local banks – a sector hard-hit by the financial crisis – are coming in at or above last year's levels.
In tough times, a certain segment of donors will "think long and hard" about contributing, she said, but others who are able tend to give more because needs are greater.
"Our greatest challenge is finding them," she said.
Jones and others urged donors to dig deep this holiday season to support shelters, pantries and other agencies.
"If a community wants to have social services in this community, they need to support them," Sullivan said.