Columbus agencies hungry for help

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The agencies that help needy Columbus residents obtain food and housing are hungry for additional funding and volunteers, and struggle to keep a roof over their own heads, City Councilwoman Charleta Tavares heard Aug. 6.

Tavares, chairwoman of the health, housing and human services committee, conducted two days of testimony from 30 organizations that receive assistance from the city.

The hearings were held to update the public and elected officials on how tax dollars are being spent, in advance of budget talks for 2008.

Marilyn Oberting, director of the Community Kitchen, said that she wanted to remind residents that, within one mile of City Hall, there are people who are going hungry, who have no health care, or have had their utilities cut off.

The Community Kitchen started in 1979 at East Main Street and 18th Ave. to serve indigent men, but has since expanded to provide families and senior citizens with everything from clothing to medical care to bus passes, Oberting explained. The kitchen served 99,000 meals last year.

Even people who are working face choices about paying for necessities. One man who eats at the kitchen has been living in the car he needs to get to work because he can’t afford both rent and transportation.

More working families are showing up to eat lunch, so they can provide breakfast and dinner at home, Oberting said. Illness or injury can mean the end of employment.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the hurricanes of 2005, donations have declined, she told Tavares.

The agency itself is on shaky financial ground. Even having their check from the city lost in the mail created hardships, according to Oberting.

A 25 percent rent increase expected in January could put them out of business.

“It doesn’t take much to break what we’re doing,” Oberting testified.

Marilee Chinnici-Zuercher, CEO and president of FirstLink, which connects residents to available services, also reported an upsurge in the number of people requesting assistance.

Its food program served almost 646,000 people last year, a 30 percent increase, the president said. Three-quarters of the calls for help come from Columbus, with the ZIP codes 43207, in southeastern Columbus, and 43204, on the Westside, among the top five.

Food pantries and kitchens are seeing more working families who aren’t earning enough money to make it through the month, Chinnici-Zuercher said.

She partly attributed the hike in calls to its new 2-1-1 phone number, that connects residents to 4,982 available services, as well as 1,900 volunteer opportunities.

Through its Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, adults 55 and older provide 10,000 hours of service a month delivering meals, feeding the homeless, and teaching adult literacy classes.

The city’s $10,000 in support for this program allowed the agency to leverage another $90,000 in federal funds.

It’s getting more difficult to convince younger volunteers to make long-term commitments, Chinnici-Zuercher noted. As a result, Columbus volunteers provide fewer hours per individual than the national average.

Joy Chivers, director of the Gladden Community House on the city’s near Westside, has seen a similar surge in need and a deficit of volunteers.

Gladden House, founded in 1905, mostly serves senior citizens on fixed incomes and children from working-poor families, Chivers said.

Their pantry provides 15,000 lbs. of food a week and 250,000 meals a month. It is one of the few pantries that delivers food boxes, increasing the need for volunteers. They also deliver 4,200 meals a month to senior citizens.

Like the families it serves, the pantry sometimes runs out of items such as cereal and canned goods before the end of the month, Chivers said.

The agency also offers a tutoring program for students from schools with the some of the highest truancy and drop-out rates and the lowest proficiency test scores in the Columbus district, Chivers said.

They have been able to achieve attendance rates of 99 percent and a graduation rate of 100 percent, while increasing reading and writing test scores.

Gladden House couldn’t continue its services without the support of the city, Chivers said. They also receive support from United Way and other sources.

Steve Votaw, CEO of Directions for Youth and Families, commented that “flat-funding” is the primary issue for the agency that provides prevention, education and treatment for kids in trouble because of drugs, pregnancy and other problems.

Directions for Youth has a three-month waiting list for counseling, Votaw said.

Its Short Stop arts program served 750 young people last year. Its new location on Ohio Avenue, offering education and support services, has welcomed about 100 kids and has room for more, Votaw pointed out.

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