The telephone rings nearly all the time now and James Beale, director of the Friendship House Clothing Center, spends each day preparing for the onslaught of needy people who have been calling at the rhythm of about 50 customers a day. More, says Beale, than he has seen in a long time.
"Everybody's crying the blues," Beale says. "They're losing their jobs. Getting cut off welfare, getting cut off food stamps, and they just can't make it anymore."
Those whom Beale and community social service workers across the city are seeing are the needy created by inflation and hard times.
Much of the city is suffering, social workers say, and even suburbanites are trekking into the District to seek help unavailable to them in the surrounding counties.
"More and more people are calling in requesting information on Medicaid and food stamps," said Sharon Henery, coordinator for the D.C. Council on Aging. "More and more whites are calling in. Inflation is the number one problem. They say, 'I was able to manage before, but now I can't seem to.' "
As the ill effects of cutbacks in welfare, food stamps and Medicaid and the RIFs (Reductions in Force) of federal workers continue, the District's community social agencies are being bombarded with requests for help with basic services: food, clothing and shelter.
The good news is that there are services that can help--at least for now. But spokesmen for social agencies are worried about dwindling funds to help the needy and the swelling numbers of those who are desperate for help.
Since January, for example, the District chapter of the Salvation Army has absorbed a 66 percent increase in caseload, said Maj. Robert Griffin, director of Salvation Army social services in metropolitan Washington.
"We're running 400-500 families a month that we see and we're getting about 1,000 telephone calls a month," Griffin said. He attributes the increase, in part, to Reaganomics.
At present, Griffin said, the agency is getting more and more requests for job counseling, seeing more needy young people and the newly unemployed who "panic" while waiting four to six weeks for their unemployment benefits to begin.
"We try to bridge that gap," he said, offering free food and in some cases subsidizing utility bills and rent if the person can prove he is facing utility cutoff or eviction.
Among the city agencies providing social services are the American Red Cross, the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, the Washington Urban League, the United Planning Organization and People's Involvement Corporation, and a myriad of smaller groups offering soup kitchens, shelter, low-cost bulk food items and free clothing.
The D.C. Council on Aging will provide free information and service referrals to anyone calling its hotline number. The agency provides free meals and social services to over 5,000 people daily through its 60 community centers.
Henery said social workers will visit the homebound elderly and help them complete applications for services.
"In part, the elderly population of this city, as a group, are economically in relatively good shape," said Dick Artis, director of the Council on Aging. "Not all are poor." But fixed incomes, coupled with inflation and Washington's high cost of living, are beginning to catch up with some of the previously solvent, so that they now earn too much to qualify for welfare but are too poor to live without it, Artis said. "A large chunk of our people fall into that category."
Even among the city's homeless--a group once thought to be fairly constant--the population is changing.
"The number of homeless persons has increased and gotten younger," noted the Rev. Ernest Gibson, director of the local Council of Churches. "Some men are between the ages of l8 and 25. They're not the typical skid row person we imagined we'd find." Gibson said the council opened two shelters for homeless men at Pierce and Blair Schools in l980. The shelters can accommodate 300 people.
Since that time, along with the older, alcoholic men, the shelters have been seeing a sizable group of young, able-bodied, unskilled men who were pushed out of their homes because they could not find or keep jobs.
In January the shelters began a job counseling service, Gibson said. Nearly 200 people signed up. Sixty-seven have been counseled, 26 received job referrals and nine got jobs.
The unanswered question, said Gibson, is what will happen to the rest of the needy as jobs become more scarce and the newly unemployed middle-class are unable to provide help for the needy.
"The loss of jobs is affecting all of us across the board, not just the poor," Gibson continued. "The church cannot pick up all of the people. . . . Charity is no substitute for justice. Our government has a responsibility to see that justice is done in the basic distribution of goods and resources."