Valley facing food and shelter emergency

'We're at a crisis,' foundation CEO says

The economic slide spreading from Wall Street to Main Street has hit the "side streets and back streets," according to Silicon Valley shelter and food providers.

Local nonprofits are witnessing the worst-ever crisis of homelessness and a lack of food and shelter due to the increased unemployment rate and wave of home foreclosures, Emmett Carson, CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, told a crowd of 100 during a "Food and Shelter Summit," in Mountain View on Friday.

Susan E. Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks, said food banks and pantries are facing 10 percent to 300 percent higher demand this season. The association consists of 46 member organizations.

"We haven't bottomed out yet," she said.

Second Harvest Food Bank distributed 25 million pounds of food in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties this year, but the nonprofit estimates are 141 million pounds of unmet needs in the region, according to Poncho J. Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose.

Meanwhile, traditional funders of basic services are facing a crisis of their own. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a big funder of food banks, lost millions due to Wall Street turmoil, according to Jeff Sunshine, program officer in Children, Families and Community at Packard Foundation.

More than half of local nonprofits reported a decrease in individual donations, according to a 2008 Nonprofit Pulse Survey. Forty-nine percent reported a decrease in corporate and foundation gifts, and 22 percent reported decreases in state and local funding.

Meanwhile, food costs for Bay Area food banks and emergency-food providers have risen 23 percent this year, with a 32-percent jump in fuel costs, according to a July 2008 MAZON survey on impacts of rising food and fuel costs on emergency food organizations in California.

As the recession unfolds, it is clear the face of the poor is changing, according to Poncho J. Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose.

Now "the poor" includes not just the chronically or borderline homeless but workers who have lost jobs or have reduced work hours or face increased housing costs, he said.

"They worked in retail, construction and financial (institutions). They came from strong educational backgrounds," he said.

People who used to donate their time at Sacred Heart are now standing in the bread lines seeking services, he said.

"What's striking is that the current economic crisis is erasing the delicate line between the poor and us. What's so alarming now is that there are double-digit increases month after month," he said.

In the first five months of Sacred Heart's fiscal year, the organization experienced a 37 percent increase in food requests. And families who receive a three-day supply of food from the nonprofit report they are stretching that supply to five or even seven days, he said.

In the Bay Area, a family of four must make $77,000 a year just to make ends meet, Carson said.

The crisis is severe enough that Silicon Valley Community Foundation is focusing on food and shelter as its funding priority. The foundation formed the Strengthen the Safety Net campaign and will contribute up to $3 million to food and shelter organizations in the region, Carson said.

Despite the need, there is help that is not being accessed, the summit speakers said.

Santa Clara County had 4,561 more food-stamp recipients this year, but only 39.5 percent of eligible people are participating. In San Mateo County, only 18.5 percent of those eligible to receive food stamps participate, according to the nonprofit group California Food Policy Advocates.

Millions of dollars "are sitting on the table," Guevara said.

Sigler and Guevara said there must be more outreach to help people take advantage of available government services. Regulations, however, such as the fingerprinting and face-to-face interviews, scare many people away.

And providing information is not enough; public policy must adjust to reflect the changing reality, the speakers said.

The eligibility thresholds for food stamps, for example, exclude too many people.

Eligibility is currently based on federal poverty levels, which are not relevant in a high cost-of-living area such as Silicon Valley, Carson said.

Advocates want the thresholds to be changed to measure income-adequacy on the local level, he said.

Some new policies are in the works. As of July 1, 2009, counties will be able to opt out of requiring food-stamp applicants to spend down all of their savings to below $2,000 before receiving help. That bill, State Assembly Bill 433, is being called the "asset test."

Three other bills, removing the requirements for fingerprinting and face-to-face interviews and changing the re-evaluation schedule from quarterly to semi-annually, will be introduced this year, Sigler said.

Carson struck a hopeful note regarding the challenges facing the Valley.

"The good thing about a crisis is you suspend business as usual. We're at a crisis, and we're at a crisis in a time when we have the right people in this room," he said.

Now is the time for businesses, funders, donors, faith-based groups and nonprofits to join together in advocacy and form coalitions to change public policy so that the system works for all who are in need, according to Carson. If advocacy seems anathema to nonprofit activities, it can't be any longer.

He and others spoke of the need to change the way the poor are given a voice, because alone, they have little clout.

In the meantime, Sigler said food nonprofits are holding on, barely.

A few distribution sources are running out of food, she said as she recounted a discussion with an executive of one center whose shelves emptied out.

"I would not have wanted to be the volunteer who had to close the door on a line of people and say, 'I'm sorry. We don't have any more food today," Sigler recalled her as saying.

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Like this comment
Posted by Marion
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2008 at 9:19 am

While this an informative article, I don't see any links to places a reader can contribute. Perhaps this is because I'm looking at an online version, but it would help so much to be directed by the article towards where one can be of help in this difficult time.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2008 at 11:24 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

There needs to be a solution between temporary aid and total dependency - my previous suggestion for minimum solution shelters and caravansaries give what engineers refer to as soft failure mode.

Like this comment
Posted by Nilesh
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

one in five homeless people are employed in full- or part-time jobs

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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