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Requests for assistance increase as charities strive to keep up

In the midst of the current health crisis, the need for services to help community members has increased, but the funds to supply such services have been in short supply.

With a 25-percent increase in food distribution in March and with every expectation of that number continuing to grow, the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank stressed that the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve and it is clearly having a financial impact on residents of this area as well as the entire state.

A recent $16,500 grant from the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania and the Lycoming United Way is helping to fund the increased need.

“With schools closed and so many families facing an uncertain financial future, we need to make sure that everyone still has enough nutritious food to stay healthy,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Food Bank, adding that “life-sustaining gifts like this one will help us ensure that no family is hungry through this crisis and beyond.”

The Food Bank has estimated that their COVID-19 effort will cost at least $100,000 per week to maintain an eight-week response, though the economic impact may last longer. The Food Bank serves people in 27 central Pennsylvania counties, including this region.

They have been packing and shipping 3,500 Crisis Response Food Boxes daily.

Similarly, other agencies who recently received grants through the foundation and United Way say the funding was sorely needed at this time.

A $20,000 grant will help to fund the county’s Supportive Housing Program (SHP), according to Rachelle Abbott, chief operations and planning officer at STEP Inc., the lead agency for the program.

The program is a housing initiative to assist county residents in danger of eviction or foreclosure and sheltered and unsheltered homeless residents in securing a stable housing arrangement, Abbott explained.

“The SHP is well suited to be utilized during this current COVID-19 pandemic as it can support a family through a short-term crisis and allow them to build upon their strengths to become more secure,” Abbott said.

“Currently,” Abbott noted, “even with the injection of funds, there is a waiting list due to the tremendous need for rental assistance.”

Jim Plankenhorn, CEO and president at STEP, shared how early results of a community needs assessment the agency is conducting has shown that the need for housing is significant.

“It’s a program we already have for individuals and families that have a short-term housing need. Perhaps they have lost a job for a layoff or whatever. And that’s what we have heard from individuals or individuals who have since applied for it,” he said. He also noted that when the survey is completed, he feels that food insecurity will be shown to be a significant need for the community.

The first round of grants, totaling $301,300, from the First Community Partnership of Pennsylvania and three area United Ways was distributed in an effort to help area non-profits to respond to the needs of the communities they serve.

Organizations like the Salvation Army and the American Rescue Workers, which each received one of the larger grants, are still providing services to the community, even though their revenue from thrift stores was cut off due to the shutdown, according to Ron Frick, president and CEO of the Lycoming County United Way.

“They’re not open. Potentially thousands of dollars a week aren’t coming in, but they’re still helping people. They’re not going to stop helping people,” he stressed.

The first round of grants was to those organizations who needed the support to respond to immediate needs, according to Frick.

In the case of the Salvation Army, Maj. Donald Spencer, Corps officer and pastor, said his agency had applied for the grant because their income had “taken a hit” because their thrift store was closed. That along with donations is where they receive the majority of operating funds, he added

Spencer said that they have furloughed some of their workers, mainly the ones who had been in their thrift store.

“There has been a big uptick in those coming to us for help during this time as paychecks have stopped,” he said.

“We have been doing an awful lot with food pantry, both with prepared meals and also with food for people’s pantries at home,” he said. “That all has an expense in addition to us having the building open and storing food.”

Speaking of the grant, Spencer said that “it is a very generous gift. It helps plug some of the gap … in terms of our finances.”

“People have been donating to the Salvation Army, but as they are out of work they have less to give and we will receive less,” he said, adding that the $20,000 grant has been a huge help.

Spencer did say that when they are permitted by the lifting of restrictions, they will be reopening their thrift store. Although the social services provided by the Salvation Army was considered essential during the shutdown, their thrift store was not.

A second round of grants focused on recovery is anticipated in the next few weeks as the funds start to build up again. Those non-profits that weren’t approved in the first round or who want to be considered for the second will be able to apply, Frick indicated.

Frick said that he anticipates the recovery phase to take a lot longer.

“I think we just don’t know. The challenge with all of this is there’s just not a date,” he said.

“People can say well, you know, we’re going to open the economy and May 8 is a date everybody’s talking about because that’s what the governor said. But the reality is, some businesses will not be up and running and be able to start that fast. So, what does that look like?”

He said that United Ways across the country are more equipped to handle the response phase.

“The United Way is more equipped for the recovery phase,” he said.

The challenge is to find some means of funding all of this, he said, because none of the funding is the normal allocation process that is usually done by the United Way in the spring.

Another unknown is how well many workplace campaigns are going with the shutdown or fewer employees who could contribute.

“How many of the plants have been shutdown for 60 days, and not paying employees. The employees aren’t donating. If you’re not getting a paycheck, I can’t take a portion of that for the United Way,” Frick said.

“We’re not sure of what that’s going to look like, but I would suspect a higher level of people who don’t fulfill their pledges,” he added.

Looking ahead to the recovery phase, Frick acknowledged that there are many unknowns.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the brunt of it yet. The way we sort of looked at the whole thing back in March was let’s get through the virus health care scare part of it first. and then, we’re going to have to deal with the economic ramifications of it later,” he said.

“So, everybody ‘s looking at that to try to get through it economically. My worry is you have businesses that have been closed for 60 days. What does it look like when they reopen,” he said.

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