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Fairfax nonprofit groups say more residents seeking help with housing and food

By Kali Schumitz,

Although the nation is no longer in a recession, many Fairfax County residents still are feeling the effects of the faltering economy.

County nonprofit groups say they continue to see high levels of need for emergency food, housing and other types of assistance.

From July through September, Fairfax County’s Coordinated Services Planning hotline saw an uptick in the number of calls from people saying they needed assistance with basics, such as food, clothing and housing. The hotline is a clearinghouse that people can call for referrals to all kinds of county and nonprofit services, and is one indicator that the county uses to track trends.

In fiscal 2011, 3,000 to 3,100 calls were logged under “basic immediate needs.” In the first quarter of fiscal 2012, there were more than 3,400 such calls.

“We’re still seeing people in large numbers,” said Amanda Andere, executive director of FACETS, a nonprofit group that helps homeless people.

In addition, she said, “We’re having to work with them in a greater amount of intensity.”

Many of their clients are among the long-term unemployed, or they need job-skills training to help them obtain better-paying jobs, Andere said.

“It’s sadly more of the same,” said Kerrie Wilson, chief executive of Reston Interfaith, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and other services to low-income individuals and families in the county. “It’s the folks that traditionally have felt the need, plus all the people who are still struggling due to the economy.”

As one example, Wilson said, Reston Interfaith distributed about 11,000 bags of food last year, up from about 8,000 in 2007, prior to the nationwide recession. There also has been an increase in the number of people citing unemployment as the reason they need assistance, she said.

Lisa Whetzel, executive director of Our Daily Bread, said her organization gets more requests for emergency assistance than it can handle. The nonprofit group has a budget of about $2,500 per month to help families with one-time utility or rent payments.

Since it started tracking in July, she said, Our Daily Bread has had to turn away 60 or more families each month. By the time they call, she said, some have been without electricity for a month or more.

“What is particularly alarming or disconcerting is that many of the families calling are unemployed — and have been for a while,” she said. “And these are people that are able to work, but just cannot find work.”

Aside from persistent unemployment, a lack of housing options for people working low-wage jobs remains the biggest hurdle for nonprofit groups trying to help their clients become financially stable.

With fewer people buying homes, “there is more competition for affordable rental housing,” Wilson said.

At this time of year, most nonprofit groups also are focused on deploying their holiday food and gift programs. Although Thanksgiving food baskets helped families in need celebrate last week, donors to support December holiday programs are still needed.

Our Daily Bread is the central administrator coordinating holiday assistance throughout the county. It has received more than 3,000 referrals (each referral represents a family), and Whetzel expects an additional 1,000 by the end of this month.

They do not yet have enough community support to provide for all of those families, she said.

FACETS is providing a little bit different experience for its clients this year by creating opportunities for children to make a gift or to “shop” for a sibling or parent, meaning they can pick out a gift from among a selection of donated items.

“That idea of giving someone a gift is powerful, but empowering someone who doesn’t normally get to shop for their family is a little bit different,” Andere said.

For more information on how to support county nonprofit organizations, visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/living/healthhuman/.

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