"We're at a crisis," Emmett Carson, respected CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, declared at a "Food and Shelter Summit" in Mountain View in early December. He was speaking to an audience of about 100 leaders of community organizations, businesses and foundations involved in providing or funding community services. (A full report on the summit is at www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=10088 .)
Providers reported they are facing an increased level of immediate need that is unprecedented in decades while at the same time donations have fallen off sharply — half the community-service organizations report serious drops in giving this year. Even large, well-endowed foundations, such as the Los Altos-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation that is a heavy funder of food-and-shelter programs, have seen the bottom fall out of their investment portfolios.
Shelter and food providers report that the combination of job layoffs and home foreclosures has given rise to a "new poor" — formerly middle-class employees, including white-collar managers, who have fallen on unexpected poverty and are struggling to keep afloat day to day, physically, financially and emotionally.
"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" in people applying for basic food-and-shelter aid, the head of one major community-service agency serving Silicon Valley reported.
People who used to volunteer in food lines are now standing in them, Poncho J. Guevara, executive director of the San Jose-based Sacred Heart Community Service, said.
While the crisis reflects national, state and worldwide trends, the need at a local level is immediate and real. For instance, by early December Second Harvest Food Bank (the largest provider of food assistance to our two-county region) had distributed 25 million pounds of food in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties this year — but based on demand the nonprofit estimated there is an unmet need for more than 140 million pounds.
Translate that need to hungry children and families, far beyond the stereotypical sidewalk panhandler with a battered "homeless" sign. "The poor" now includes not just chronically or borderline homeless but workers who have lost jobs or have reduced work hours or face increased housing costs, Guevara noted.
"They worked in retail, construction and financial (institutions). They came from strong educational backgrounds," he said.
Carson expressed optimism, but framed in a daunting challenge: "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 of those attending the summit.
He announced that the Community Foundation is providing $3 million in "Strengthen the Safety Net" emergency grants to 47 different organizations that provide direct-assistance services in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
People are responding to the unprecedented level of need, he said, citing more than 135 individuals and organizations across the region that within six weeks made donations ranging from $20 to $250,000. The foundation was able to increase its safety-net grants from the initial $1 million goal to $3 million in December. Efforts also are underway to better inform people of services and to streamline access to food stamps.
But Carson noted that the $3 million is an emergency stopgap effort that will last only through the holiday season and into early 2009. More responses from the heart and pocketbook are necessary — which constitutes a soul-test individually and collectively as a region and community.
This story contains 671 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.