Social service agencies facing more complex needs

Two years ago, I did a series of interviews with Jewish community members hit hard by the recession. At that time, they were mostly optimistic that things would turn around soon, but when I checked back this month, I found that they’re all still struggling to find their footing in this unstable job market. Social service agencies I contacted say this is not surprising.

“What we’re seeing is that what looked like a crisis initially is now sort of the status quo, said Susie Forer-Dehrey, chief operating officer of Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles. “People who thought that things would be temporary are now seeing them as more permanent, so people are coming through our doors with very difficult situations. The needs are growing and are more complex than ever.”

The unemployed cover the spectrum of age and past experience, according to Jay Soloway, director of education and training at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). JVS sees many clients through Community Connections at the JFS/SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, where it has career counselors on site during food pantry hours.

“Until the recession hit, the majority of the clients we saw at SOVA were chronically unemployed, with limited language, education and work skills. But since the recession has taken hold … we see this whole other group of individuals who are educated, who were in classic white-collar jobs, in administration or management.  They have told us on numerous occasions that they never thought there would be a day when they would need to come to a food pantry to put food on the table,” Soloway said.

JVS guides clients to visit the resource center, where they can get help with interviewing skills, networking, building a resume or information about re-educating themselves for a new career.

Through Community Connections, JVS saw 2,059 clients in 2010-2011, a 47 percent increase over 2009, which in itself was a 100 percent increase over 2008.

The number of first-time clients continues to climb at a steady pace, and JVS works with a growing number of people who have been unemployed for months or years, Soloway said.

“This prolonged unemployment precipitates all kinds of issues in terms of emotional stress and financial stress, not just on the individual, but on the family as well,” Soloway said.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has included $100,000 for job training in its proposed 2012 budget. That fund will help cover out-of-pocket costs for job re-education programs, many of which are already subsidized by government or philanthropic agencies, according to Andrew Cushnir, The Federation’s chief program officer.

The proposed 2012 budget allocates a total of $5 million toward helping local Jews in need, a $250,000 increase over last year, Cushnir said.

Federation has included in that budget $150,000 to help Jews in danger of losing their home, or who are already homeless — a growing problem, Cushnir said. Federation has partnered with JFS on the Jewish Homeless Crisis Intervention Fund, so JFS can help clients access resources that will lead to more stable housing situations.

Those initiatives come on top of Emergency Cash Grants, a Federation program that provides one-time emergency funds of up to $1,800 for a family to cover medical, housing, employment or child-care needs. Since the program’s inception in early 2009, Federation has allocated 1,684 grants totaling $2,341,683.

Applicants access the grants through synagogues, schools and social service agencies, a system aimed at bringing clients into the social service network. Federation has also partnered with synagogues, JFS and the Federation’s Board of Rabbis on a program that will place social workers in synagogues to serve congregants and community members. Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades and University Synagogue in Brentwood are piloting the Caring Communities program, funded in part by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, with expansion slated for synagogues in the East Valley and the West Valley, as well as to clients of Tomchei Shabbos, which provides weekly groceries to Jewish families in need.

Federation allocated $2.3 million to JFS in 2011. JFS has continued to see a steep uptick in the number of clients needing services — from food programs to mental health services to support for the elderly and disabled. But government cuts have shuttered some programs, including Adult Day Health Care and Linkages, which offered day programs for the elderly and disabled, respectively.

Calls to JFS’ Central Access phone line have increased from 300 a month in 2008 to 400 a month today. JFS/SOVA has jumped from 6,000 clients a month in 2008 to more than 13,000 in 2011, a number that continues to go up every month.

Forer-Dehrey said JFS strives to make the process of getting help on multiple fronts easy and streamlined. Clients should have to tell their story only once, when they call the Central Access number, or when they see an intake counselor.

Intake counselors offer hours at SOVA’s three pantry sites through the Community Connections program. During food pantry hours, SOVA clients can also meet with attorneys from Bet Tzedek legal services, representatives of government aid programs, counselors and social workers from JFS, and career counselors from JVS.

Forer-Dehrey of JFS laments that often counseling gets cut first when funding becomes tight.

“People need to talk about what is going on in their lives, and how they see themselves as part of a trajectory of moving themselves forward. That is important to the whole process,” she said.

But even for the families, pressing demands often crowd out the attention they might pay to mental health.

“People are really overwhelmed right now,” said Megan Koehler, director of program services at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles.

She said the program hasn’t seen a big uptick in the past few years, partly because the organization couldn’t fund a recruitment director, and partly because choosing a mentor for a child is not a priority when a family is deciding whether to skip paying rent so they can pay for medical care.

Financial stress is apparent for both the children who need help and their adult mentors. Koehler said she perceives that more adult volunteers are unable to continue because they are relocating to find employment. Applications to the college scholarship fund that little brothers and sisters are eligible for have included heartbreaking tales of financial hardship, she said.

“The impact is not only on the family, but on us, as we’re supporting that family,” Koehler said. “Our primary focus is on making sure the mentor/mentee relationship is strong and solid and safe and healthy, but we are really broadening our role, because so many additional variables are impacting families.” 

Agencies continue to look for more funding so they can service the growing demands, but people are not getting what they need, Forer-Dehrey said. With budgets stretched taut, JFS no longer talks of being a safety net that will prevent the fall, she said, but doing what it can to soften the inevitable impact.

And no one knows when things might turn around.

“About a year ago, I was saying that I saw a shadow of a glimmer of a hint of light on the horizon, and now I don’t say that anymore,” JVS’ Soloway said.

“Economists have tried to analyze this, but I don’t think anyone really understands what is happening.” l