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ECONOMY-BALTIMORE Dec-9-2008 (830 words) With photo posted Dec. 9 and graphics posted Dec. 8. xxxn

Baltimore charities find increasing need, even among former donors

By Gary Gately
Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- Not so long ago, Oredolapo Roberts lived in a four-bedroom house, owned a successful business and drove her children around in a new Chevy Tahoe.

Then the economy faltered, her event-planning business went bust and the bank foreclosed on her home. In August, she and two of her children moved into Sarah's House, a homeless shelter near Baltimore.

At St. Francis de Sales Parish in Abingdon, people who had never been poor keep showing up, said Deacon James Sullivan, coordinator of social action and justice ministries.

"They lose their jobs, and they're coming to us and saying, 'Can you help me? I've never been through anything like this before,'" the deacon said.

Even longtime donors now seek help for themselves and their families. At the Franciscan Center in West Baltimore, an elderly woman got surly when staff asked routine questions. Said the center's CEO, Karen Hayward-West: "She blurted out, 'I've supported you since 1944, and now that I need help, I can't believe you're putting me through this.'"

Across the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the economic slowdown has struck harder and deeper than any in recent memory. It has rapidly increased the ranks of first-time jobless, homeless and hungry people and, in turn, strained the resources of charities, shelters, churches and food pantries.

Compounding matters, contributions from government and private sources as well as donations from individuals have declined as economic woes worsen and spread.

Unemployment is rising in Maryland. The state's jobless rate reached 5 percent for the first time in 12 years in October, the Labor Department reported, and economists expect an even greater percentage to be out of work in the months to come.

The squeeze has left some unable to afford mortgage payments, rent, utilities and medical bills -- or forced them to choose among these necessities.

At Sarah's House, Roberts sits on a worn couch with other homeless mothers and recounts how quickly her definition of "homeless" changed.

"You know, when you hear that word 'homeless,' you tend to think of the disheveled person on the corner," she told The Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore Archdiocese. "But, oh no, these people are just like me. ... To see a lot of families here just really blew my mind."

On Dec. 1, Roberts began a new job in Washington at the nonprofit SEED Foundation, which helps prepare inner-city children for college. She travels by Sarah's House shuttle, commuter train and subway.

As soon as Roberts can afford a place of her own and leave the shelter, her space will be snapped up quickly.

Joyce Swanson, head of client services at Sarah's House, said the demand far outstrips supply. In November, some 300 people were on a waiting list for 66 single rooms and transitional apartment housing for 22 families.

Janice L. Williams, development director at St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, said the number of homeless families has been on the rise in Baltimore City and the surrounding county.

"The need is indeed acute and there are families who are now homeless and in need of emergency food assistance," she said. "They are typically homeless for the first time."

The economic meltdown could hardly have come at a worse time for charitable organizations. That's because the squeeze could reduce the number of contributors and the size of gifts at the time of year when charities traditionally receive a substantial portion of their donations -- around Christmastime.

At St. Vincent de Paul, Williams said, contributions had dropped about $200,000 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 because of fewer donors and smaller gifts. Now, the agency waits anxiously for contributions.

"We're holding our breath," she said. "We just don't know how many people have been affected in a way that their charitable giving is either not possible anymore or is going to be at a level lower than it was last year."

At Catholic Charities' Our Daily Bread Employment Center in Baltimore, Tonia Robertson, clad in an orange sweatshirt and jeans, sat in a little office where the white board on the wall reads: "Stable work. Stable home. Better life!!! Always too soon to quit!!"

For five years, Robertson had a steady job making as much as $11 an hour as a food service worker before getting laid off in October. She said she took pride in doing a good job and never missed work or came in late.

Now, at 42, she comes most days to eat the free breakfast and lunch and check in with her counselor, Kayce LaRose, placement manager at the employment center.

Robertson pays $500 a month rent to live in a single room in a house. She does her best to stretch her unemployment benefits. She and others who live in the house recently unplugged the refrigerator and stove to save on utility bills.

"We just hope and pray the economy will turn," she said.


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