City's "vital signs" are worsening, officials say

The pulse of the Chicago public service community is weakening at a time when demands on food, energy assistance and emergency housing are increasing.

That's the message from a new report out from the Chicago Community Trust measuring the increase in the demand for human services as a result of the recession.

The report measures six indicators of human impact - food pantry visits, food stamp utilization, foreclosures, calls to the homeless prevention hotline, unemployment and mass layoffs - and all six show a drastic increase from where they were a year ago.

"It means they have to scrap for resources that they didn't think they would have to scrap for," says Jim Lewis, the Trust's senior program officer.

According to the report:

- Foreclosures in the metropolitan area have doubled over last year - 14,868 in October 2008 compared with the same month in 2007.

- Unemployment jumped from 4.9 to 6.6 percent, leading to over 30,000 more families using food stamps, and hundreds more to the homelessness prevention hotline.

- Food pantries across the city are seeing more than an additional 100,000 families a month.

Lewis says need is now extending to families that never thought they would have to consider taking charity.

"The stereotypes of the poor are generally false," he says "The vast majority of people don't want to utilize public benefits."

To help meet growing need, The Chicago Community Trust has launched a new initiative - the Unity Challenge to help get people to donate to charities serving the poor in Chicago. The organization will donate $2 to the Trust's fund for local charities for every $1 a person donates, Lewis says.

The need is great, according to the report. Visits to food pantries have sharply increased in 2008 compared to 2007 and are continuing to rise.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository reported a 33 percent increase in the number of families standing in line for food from July to September of 2008 over 2007. Although they don't have the numbers yet for the last quarter of the year, officials expect the figures to be even higher.

The winter months bring with them high utility bills, says Bob Dolgan, director of communications for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and it is expected that the poor will feel even more pressure on their slim pocketbooks.

"We believe that we haven't seen the end of the surge," says Dolgan. "We're hopeful that we can continue to keep up, but at the same time, we're bracing for a difficult season."

Dolgan says the organization has never witnessed such skyrocketing demand for food, and the real hardships are falling on individual pantries, many of which are struggling to serve their clients, according to Dolgan.

"It leaves a strain on many organizations, which are often volunteer run, small organizations with limited budget," Dolgan says.

Volunteers at the Polish American Association pantry in Old Irving Park recently distributing food to people gathered in the basement of the charity. Human services charities are being challenged by the increasing number of people in need of help, advocates say. / By Justin Goh

One of those pantries is the Polish American Association at 3834 N. Cicero in Old Irving Park, which usually distributes food every Wednesday morning. However, for one week last month, they ran out of food and had to shut down.

Dorota Lewandowski, director of supportive services, says they've seen about a 50 percent increase in the number of families they regularly serve, and are continuing to get 20 to 30 more families per week.

"It's heartbreaking. They are just regular people that are in need," says Lewandowski, who says lines for food distribution begin to form at 7 a.m.

In addition to Wednesday pantry, PAA also operate an emergency food pantry. Lewandowski says in the last few years, serving one family per month out of the emergency pantry was a lot for the organization. They're now getting up to three families a day.

The pantry recently decided that it would only distribute food to people who are residents of the 60641 zip code. Lewandowski says making the decision was heartbreaking, but it was the only way to keep serving families well.

"We just can't do it. We can't do it physically," she says. "It's just so crowded every week. It's too much for us."

Although the economic times have hit so many families hard this year, The Chicago Community Trust hopes that those who are doing alright financially will open up their wallets for their less fortunate friends and neighbors.

Lewis says the economy needs those with money in their pockets to spend it, instead of holding onto it.

"People have to feel a little courageous. If you're okay financially, you need to keep spending," he says. "The thing that turns a recession into a depression is when people who have the means become irrationally conservative."

Overall, Lewis says he thinks things will get better eventually, but right now, he says we need to focus on those people that are barely  making ends meet.

"I am optimistic that these problems are going to be solved," says Lewis. "But right now, it does mean that there is going to be a lot of pain for those who are on the margins."