As the federal government shutdown persists, local Jewish non-profits are stepping up to aid those affected by furloughed employment and missing paychecks.
The Hebrew Free Loan Association announced last week that it is making interest-free loans of up to $2,500 available to furloughed federal employees who are residents of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington or Westmoreland Counties.
The availability of these loans is a departure from HFL protocol, which typically requires borrowers to have an income in order to be eligible, according to Aviva Lubowsky, HFL’s director of marketing. Because of immediate needs created by the government shutdown, however, the board of HFL voted to make an exception.
Although repayment of HFL loans is usually required to begin within 30 days, that time will be extended until furloughed employees are reinstated.
In another departure from usual procedures, the loans will be made directly to the borrowers, rather than to the entities providing goods or services the money is intended to cover, said Lubowsky.
The HFL loans are available to applicants regardless of religious affiliation. Federal employees who are Jewish can also contact the Jewish Assistance Fund for help, she said. The JAF provides grants for certain necessities and requires no repayment.
HFL is “expecting to make a lot more loans,” Lubowsky noted, and because the HFL has “a limited amount of funds,” the agency is “asking for donations from the public.”
The JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, which serves more than 1,200 people living in the 15217 ZIP code and kosher clients from the Pittsburgh area, is facing increased demand as well.
“Many federal workers furloughed or working without pay live paycheck to paycheck and may not be able to cover the grocery bill,” said Matthew Bolton, director of the Food Pantry. Additionally, recipients of federal program benefits like SNAP (food stamps), may be affected by cuts or suspended benefits if the shutdown continues.
SNAP benefits for the month of February will be fully funded, according to the USDA, but the February payment was issued on Jan. 18 rather than the first of the month. This could cause some confusion with recipients who will need to understand that the payment is not a bonus, but must last until the end of February, according to Bolton.
Inventory at the Food Pantry is being affected by the shutdown as well. The Food Pantry relies partially on federal distributions of food commodities that are being delayed due to the government closure, Bolton said. The Food Pantry is therefore seeking an increase in donations from the community. At least 15 different local nonprofits, including schools and congregations, have started to collect food. The Food Pantry is also encouraging monetary donations and grocery gift cards.
“We distributed a quarter million pounds of food last year,” Bolton said. “We rely on a stable environment, and this is unknown territory. We are being proactive in reaching out to the community, and we are asking congregations to spread the word.
“We want to assure our community that we will be there in this time of crisis,” he stressed.
JFCS also is being proactive in explaining the change in timing of SNAP benefits to many refugee families with whom the organization works, according to Leslie Aizenman, director of Refugee & Immigrant
Services at JFCS.
The organization is informing staffers, interpreters and community leaders that the early payment of February benefits must last until the end of that month.
“A big chunk of their food bill is covered by SNAP,” Aizenman noted.
For immigrants receiving legal assistance from JFCS, closure of some federal courts is delaying their cases, according to Jamie Englert, director of immigration and legal services for JFCS.
Free or discounted legal services are provided to immigrants for citizenship proceedings, green card applications, deportation representation and other matters. The JFCS program represents about 1,500 people a year.
While detention hearings are proceeding in the Third Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, immigration courts are closed, Englert said.
“Problems arise because we can’t get information regarding cases, and there are no judges to rule on our motions,” she said. For the asylum seekers being represented, “we can’t get information regarding cases, and there are no judges to rule on our motions,” she said. For the asylum seekers being represented, “we can’t get decisions, and it is all stalled at this point.”
Immigration cases are generally “stressful in the best of times,” Englert added. “This is creating more stress.”
At Jewish Residential Services, which supports adults with psychiatric, developmental or intellectual disabilities, leaders are bracing themselves for a possible impact if the shutdown continues, according to Nancy Gale, executive director of JRS.
A few residents of JRS facility Krause Commons receive government vouchers that are applied to rent, she said. If those payments are delayed, the residents would need to come up with an additional $300 or $400 per month, which could be a challenge.
At the Jewish senior living facility Riverview Towers, delivery of services to residents is not affected by the shutdown, according to Hanna Steiner, Riverview’s executive director.
Riverview provides apartments to low income seniors, receiving compensation from HUD to subsidize below market rents. While HUD subsidies have been frozen due to the shutdown, Riverview has sufficient monetary reserves to “continue business as usual,” for approximately two months, Steiner said.
A planned renovation to the facility financed in part by government tax credits could be delayed due to the shutdown, Steiner said, but will not be otherwise affected. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.