, Newburyport, MA

December 5, 2012

As winter nears, nonprofit officials fear impact of spending cuts

By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON — Nonprofit organizations that help people find housing or provide food and fuel assistance are bracing for a tough winter, expecting more people to need help at a time when federal subsidies could be reduced.

The number of Massachusetts residents expected to fall off unemployment benefits, coupled with high fuel and food costs, will force residents to choose between eating or heating their homes, several officials from nonprofit organizations said during a conference call arranged by social service agencies.

Federal emergency unemployment insurance benefits are scheduled to run out at the end of the year. The fiscal cliff that Congress is wrangling over — a series of scheduled tax hikes and spending cuts — could make the problem worse for many residents and the charities that help them survive, according to Catherine D’Amato, executive director of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Expected federal cuts to food programs, particularly commodities and USDA foods, will strain food banks. In addition, the possibility of fewer resources for federal entitlement programs will put more pressure on the emergency system, D’Amato said during the call.

“Hunger is increasingly becoming a middle-class problem across our commonwealth,” D’Amato said. “The issue has changed over time, in particular since the recession.”

One in 11 Massachusetts residents, approximately 800,000 people, are “food insecure,” meaning they visit a food pantry, soup kitchen or shelter, according to D’Amato. Nationally, 1 in 8 Americans visit a food pantry, soup kitchen or shelter to eat. The Greater Boston Food Bank serves approximately 90,000 people a week through a network of pantries, shelters and soup kitchens.

The increased need for help has spurred a boost in the response from charitable donors this year.

In 2009, several organizations pulled together to create MassNeeds, a statewide coordinated effort to take a broad look at hunger, housing, heating and health needs. The group raised a record amount in donations this year, $8.4 million collected from 40 corporate, private and public foundations. Last year, they collected $3 million from 20 donors.

“Unfortunately, as we all know, the economic recovery has been slow and a bit uneven. Many residents are struggling to make ends meet,” said Blake Jordan, executive director of the Highland Street Foundation, one of founding organizations of MassNeeds.

A lack of affordable housing compounds problems for many people struggling to pay rents or mortgages in a tough economy, Joe Finn, executive director of Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, said.

“It is no secret that here in Massachusetts over the past decade or so, we have had a serious issue around the supply of housing,” Finn said. “This is a problem that impacts all of our lives. If you are poorer, it becomes a far greater crisis, often developing into homelessness.”

On Monday night, about 16,000 men, women and children were homeless across the state, Finn said.

For many people, living in a shelter has become a way of life, Finn said, adding his organization recently found housing for a 74-year-old woman who lived in shelters for 15 years. After she was placed in permanent housing, she was diagnosed with cancer, he said.

Many in their own homes cannot afford to heat them, according to Kathy Tobin, energy programs director for Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD). With oil at about $4 a gallon, it costs approximately $800 to fill an oil tank that could heat a home for about a month and a half, Tobin said.

“We are very concerned about how people will be able to get through the winter when we are looking at not just higher fuel costs, but the change in weather,” with temperatures expected to be colder this year than last, Tobin said.

The ABCD sees less federal money coming in to help, and additional funds they had hoped for from the state to fill the gap do not look likely, Tobin said, as the Patrick administration announced Tuesday midyear cutbacks because tax revenues are not meeting benchmarks.

“This is where households began to make very difficult choices,” Tobin said. “This is winter. They have no choice but to come up with some cash.”

Tobin said a 90-year-old woman called her the other day to talk about how this would be her last year in her house because she cannot take the stress of trying to afford heat anymore. Other people find unsafe ways to heat their homes.

“We have a family that uses a huge pot of water to boil on the stove to keep the kitchen warm,” Tobin said.