An Overwhelming Need for Help in the Triangle

October 28th, 2009 by Kim Lenz

uwgw_logoThe recession might soon be a thing of the past on Wall Street, but in the Triangle thousands of people are still struggling to pay bills, feed their families, and pay for their housing – and the United Way is trying its hardest to help.

The need through the first nine months of the year is twice what it was a year ago, nearly overwhelming the first line of defense at the United Way of Greater Williamsburg.

That first line is two women, who meet face to face with people who need help. They’re the UWGW’s Information and Referral Center, known as I&R. They offer counseling and whatever support they can muster from their network of resources.

These women find out what a client needs, whether it’s help paying a bill, getting food, getting transportation or paying their rent. They connect those in need with other organizations that can provide services, like food banks, clothes distributors, social services and free health clinics.

If the client qualifies for assistance, these women pick up their phones and start calling faith groups, organizations and individuals in the area collecting funds to help.

The United Way’s annual campaign funds are not used for the I&R service, but still the women manning the desks managed to raise $57, 521 to help pay people’s bills between January and September last year. They helped 8,919 families and 3,715 individuals in that period.

The recession began the end of last summer; since then, the local United Way has been overwhelmed with requests for assistance. And though some national indicators suggest the worst is over, things aren’t looking any brighter yet at the I&R center.

Between January and September this year, the I&R ladies helped pay $112,736 in bills – that’s an increase of $55,215. They also helped 1,443 more households and 959 more people.

There are always people they can’t help, usually because the clients don’t meet criteria for one reason or another. Last year, the I&R center could not provide $5,718 of help to clients; this year (through September), they’ve had to leave $23,677 unpaid.

UWGW Executive Director Sharron Cornelius says she peeked in the I&R office recently at lunch time. “I came to see them, and they just looked whooped,” she says. They’d seen 43 clients that morning alone.

“Demand is not slowing down,” says Cornelius. “I’m deeply concerned – people say the economy is getting better, but people [in our industry] just aren’t seeing that.

“Without what we do, these people would be homeless.”

Many of the clients are new to the United Way, Cornelius says. These are people who have recently lost jobs, who had never before had a problem finding food, paying bills or paying for their homes. Others are people who have limped along, but could no longer do so with the poor economy.

WYDaily has talked to the I&R ladies before – the stories their clients share are often heart-wrenching. One man, whose wife used a dialysis machine in their home to keep her alive, had trouble paying the power bill. The power was about to be cut off, but with the help from the United Way’s I&R center, he was able to pay the bill without losing his wife.

Another family, whom the center had helped periodically with food and clothing over a period of years lost their father. He had no suit to be buried in, so an I&R volunteer along with a volunteer at FISH found him something appropriate. This man, the I&R women will tell anyone they meet, worked hard all his life. He deserved to have a suit for his burial.

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