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Charity groups see rise in need

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A man came into a Trafalgar ministry asking for money, because he had lost his construction job, was out of cash and couldn’t pay his utility bill.

The staff at Lord’s Locker helped him make the payment, but knew if he didn’t get back to work, he would likely be back for help the next month.

The same was true for most of the 50 or more families the agency was helping each week last year. So this year, the organization revamped its aid program, adding more one-on-one counseling to identify and then solve the problem that led the person in for help.

For example, they were able to point the Trafalgar man to a job fair at KYB in Franklin, where he was hired and started earning a paycheck again. He no longer needs aid.

Although unemployment was down in the county in 2013 and the economy continued improving, local food pantries and helping agencies weren’t seeing a drop in need, forcing those groups to find a way to keep up with the increase or start cutting back.

Interchurch Food Pantry is giving out more food in order to keep people fed longer and save them money for other expenses, while The Refuge in Greenwood has had to cut back to serving only Johnson County families because the number of visitors tripled since 2012.

The unemployment rate in the county dropped from about 8 percent to 5 percent in 2013, but changes in federal programs hit the poorest residents the hardest, Interchurch Food Pantry co-manager Carol Phipps said.

Federal lawmakers cut $5 billion from the national food stamps program, the state changed timing on when food stamp money is disbursed and extended benefits for unemployed people also expired near the end of the year.

Those changes led to a surge in need during the past four months. Fewer people were using the pantry during the first eight months of the year, but the number of families needing help jumped 20 percent in the final four months of the year. That led to a 3.5 percent increase from 2012 to 2013 that hasn’t stopped. About 1,000 more people used the pantry in January and February this year compared to 2013, Phipps said.

Donations from local churches and service groups have helped, including canned vegetables or macaroni and cheese, which allow the pantry to use more money to buy items not often donated, such as meat, Phipps said. Families have been asking for more meat, milk and laundry detergent, so they are putting any extra money and donations toward getting more of those items, Phipps said. Now families get an extra meat item, such as ground beef or pork, non-refrigerated boxes of milk and detergent, Phipps said. The pantry should be able to continue giving the extra food through summer but might have to give out less if donations drop, she said.

More people also were in need at Lord’s Locker, where the number of families visiting weekly spiked from about 50 to 70 in fall. Director Emmalea Butler noticed many of the same people were coming in every week. In January the ministry launched a new program requiring people to meet with counselors and complete tasks such as applying for jobs, signing up for smoking cessation classes or going to money management programs in order to keep receiving aid, Butler said.

The ministry is still getting about 50 people in each week but is starting to see some of its clients get back to work and not coming as often, if at all.

“Weekly we’re seeing little steps of success, and a lot of our clients aren’t coming every week. We help every person that comes in at least once. They do have to sign up; then, it’s up to them whether they come back,” Butler said.

The Refuge in Greenwood offers similar services, such as counseling, job training, food and clothing, but the need spiked so much that the organization has had to limit the number it helps to be able to provide enough to people in need. Previously The Refuge offered aid to Johnson County and nearby Marion County residents. But the number of people using the food pantry and other services tripled from 8,400 people in 2012 to 23,000 in 2013, outreach coordinator Kerry Jones said.

“There wasn’t ever a time we couldn’t serve someone,” Jones said. “But we knew if the increase continued the way it was, we couldn’t serve people in the way we wanted to.”

Staff decided to serve only Johnson County residents for now. Unfortunately that means thousands of southside Indianapolis residents who are struggling have to look for help elsewhere, Jones said. If the rise in people seeking aid ebbs, the Refuge could open back up to a wider population, she said.

The St. Thomas Clinic, which provides free health care in Franklin, had the most stable year with only a small increase in total patients. The clinic saw 227 new patients in 2013, which was slightly up from 2012 but much lower than in 2009 and 2010 when about 400 new people came each year, clinic administrator Jane Beers said.

Because the clinic added about 300 total patients since 2009, they’ve streamlined their prescription program so people can call in ahead of time for free refills instead of having to wait during open hours. The clinic has also been able to start taking new patients sooner because they are only getting half as many new people, Beers said. A new patient may only need to wait one month for their first appointment, compared to three- or four-month-long waits in previous years, she said.

Beers doesn’t expect the number of people who need free care to go down, even with the new federal health care law, because the clinic’s patients can’t afford insurance plans and Indiana hasn’t expanded the Medicaid program to cover more low-income people. Finding care is actually becoming more difficult because some hospitals or doctor’s offices the clinic would refer patients to can no longer provide charity care.

“My referral physicians are being directed to cut back on our patients that they see for free,” Beers said. “I think it’s the reaction of the health care reform, that hospitals and (chief financial officers) are cutting back on charity care.”

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