At the height of the holiday season, shoppers are out fueling what the National Retail Federation says will be a 4 percent increase in spending over last year. But the economic pickup has failed to reach many north-metro residents, according to social-service nonprofits, which still have many people coming to them hungry and looking for help this year.
Jerri Loughry manages the Anoka County Brotherhood Council’s food shelf, which has seen a 42 percent increase in use since 2008. By the end of this year, her organization will have served roughly the same number of people — more than 10,000 — as it did in 2012.
That growth isn’t coming from the nonprofit’s ability to serve more people, Loughry said. ACBC never has turned away residents, no matter how many have come. She said the food shelf’s increase in clients is simply a result of broader need.
“A lot of families are just a paycheck or two” — or a cut in hours at work, a broken-down car or medical emergency — “from standing in a food-shelf line,” she said.
“It doesn’t take much.”
There are some positive signs for low-income residents, she said, including that Anoka County’s need for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) support did not spike this year. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t need around the holidays: For each of the past two months, ACBC has seen at least 50 families more than it normally does. “The holidays bring people out,” she said.
The holidays also bring out donors inspired by holiday spirit and tax deductions, and they are a key part of meeting demand for year-round and holiday-specific programs.
Without exception, nonprofits reached for this story praised donors for their commitment. But Michelle Ness, director of Golden Valley-based PRISM, said contributing to food shelves and social-service nonprofits brings returns to donors, as well. It’s good for people’s spirits to help others, she said, and as a nonprofit, PRISM enjoys bringing “some of that joy and energy to businesses” that donate. Large donations for Alerus Mortgage and Allianz helped it offer more food to each family starting last month.
‘At home and at peace’
Whether the need for social services in the suburbs rises or falls, Tanya, a 34-year-old mother of three in Albertville who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, hopes for a greater awareness of the struggles of low-income people outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Several years ago Tanya, who grew up in St. Paul, moved out of the city for a more peaceful life. But in 2010, she was found to have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Several months later, she lost her job. Not long after that, Tanya and her two sons found themselves homeless.
The closest help available was the Salvation Army shelter in St. Cloud, where she was able to stay after two nights of sleeping in her car with her boys.
Two years later, Tanya is living in a townhouse through the Salvation Army’s Shelter Plus program. Albertville is great, she said, but it is hard to get by in the suburbs. She says it would be easy to move back to St. Paul, where she would be closer to her brother, to daily needs like groceries and gas, and to many more social services to help get her back on her feet. But she has no plans to leave.
“The community here treats us like family,” she said. “My sons are involved with the youth group up the street. My pastor is always there to help.” She also praises the Shelter Plus Care program and staff, she said, which is the only service like it in the area.
“I feel very at home and at peace being here,” she said, “regardless of the lack of resources surrounding us.”
Poverty in the suburbs
In Hopkins and the towns along eastern Lake Minnetonka, the demand for food and social services has increased 131 percent since the recession began, said Peg Keenan, director of Intercongregation Communities Association. As the economy has improved, she said, some of the association’s clients have found jobs, but even “if they do [find] jobs, they’re part time or lower salaries.”
In a community with a reputation for wealth, Keenan said, the number of people the association serves is equal to the population of Excelsior. “People lose jobs here, too,” she said. “People have health crises; people divorce.”
That leaves the association to help in the cases it can, she said, including food support, help finding work, and help with rent and utility payments to stabilize a family’s budget while, for example, someone waits for a new job’s first paycheck.
To help low-income residents enjoy the holidays, the association sells certificates at Cub Foods to pay for Thanksgiving turkeys and the fixings. At the height of the recession in 2008, Keenan said, 816 households received turkeys. This Thanksgiving, 943 families needed help.
But affording a turkey or Christmas ham is the least of the worries for people without work or food, said Ness, the director at PRISM. By the end of the year, low-income people have run out of money from the earned-income tax credit, but growing children still need new coats and gloves, and with the holiday breaks, they aren’t receiving free and reduced-price lunches each day at school.
Parents know, said Ness, that if children “didn’t have breakfast and lunch [at school], those kids would go without food.” With PRISM’s food shelf, “we’re on the other end of that,” she said. In November, to make up for a cut to food stamps, or SNAP, the nonprofit started allowing families to come twice a month and take more food.
All this comes before the pressure of finding money for Christmas presents. To help, PRISM runs a free holiday toy shop for registered parents as well as a resale clothing store open to the public. Ness said need for the holiday shop program has kept steady since 2011.
Beyond holiday programs, the need for food and help with basic needs is more pronounced. “The need continues to stay high,” Ness said. “It’s not dropping; it’s just stopped growing as much.”
That situation, she said, is no less serious than what PRISM and others faced four or five years ago. “We have people very literally coming in hungry,” she said. And when someone comes in, she said, it likely means they didn’t eat the night before, or have been skipping meals to make sure their kids have food.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.