While many experts agree that Pittsburgh is weathering the current economic crisis better than other comparable cities, local Jewish service agencies are already seeing a dramatic increase in community need, and bracing for the situation to grow worse in the coming year.
“Because it is taking people longer now to find new jobs when they are laid off,” said Joshua Donner, associate director of planning and funding at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, “more and more people are seeking help through the agencies to get through the transition period.”
“It usually takes three to six months for a job transition,” Donner continued. “Now it takes six to nine months. Unemployment doesn’t go that far, and family and friends are strapped, too.”
As a result, many people who had never before used various social services are now forced to seek outside assistance.
While most agencies say that they are currently able to handle the influx of people needing help, they are cautious about the future.
“It’s been very interesting, and we’re watching it very closely,” said Susan Friedberg Kalson, CEO of the Squirrel Hill Health Center, which provides primary and preventive health services to anyone in the community, regardless of whether they are covered by insurance. “We definitely saw an increase in the percentage of uninsured patients; it was up about 5 percent in the month of January. We weren’t surprised. And we’re waiting for the tidal wave to hit us.”
The number of young adults who are not covered by health insurance has also increased, Friedberg Kalson said.
“These are people in their 20s, just out of college, and are no longer covered by their parents’ health insurance.”
Friedberg Kalson said that in tough economic times, people are most focused on food and shelter, and that “health care gets pushed to the back burner until it can’t anymore.” But at some point, health care needs have to be met.
“We figure we’re going to be watching this very closely,” Friedberg Kalson said. “We need to be prepared to take care of people, which we are. But at some point it could become difficult financially as well as logistically.”
The Squirrel Hill Health Center is funded by a grant from the federal government, and is not a beneficiary of the UJF. Although the Jewish community created the organization, it is not faith-based, and does not turn anyone away.
“I think we haven’t begun to see the impact yet. It’s just starting,” Friedberg Kalson said.
Most leaders in Jewish service agencies agree that the face of those in need is changing.
“We’re seeing different types of clients,” said Aryeh Sherman, executive director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service. “There are people who thought they’d never need the food pantry taking a long time to find a job, and have used up all their resources.”
People with strong educational backgrounds, and solid work experience, are having a surprisingly difficult time landing new jobs, and find themselves seeking aid for the first time from the Career Development Center of JF&CS.
“There was a 55-year-old chemical engineer who was laid off, and has been out of work for four months,” said Linda Ehrenreich, associate executive director, JF&CS. “He’s having an enormous amount of trouble finding a comparable job.”
The Career Development Center has seen not only a different type of clientele these days, but also a huge increase in the numbers of people seeking help.
“We had about three times the number of usual intakes in January,” said Ehrenreich. “We had about 85 intakes (new people) in January. The typical month is about 30.”
Likewise, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry has seen a 25 to 30 percent increase in need each month beginning last August, said Becky Abrams, the pantry’s director. Many of these people have never before had to use the food panty, while some had become self-sufficient, but have recently fallen back on hard times.
“We’re seeing more families with young children and more young people,” said Abrams.
Need for help with essentials such as food, shelter, job placement and health care has risen significantly in recent months, said Donner. Accordingly, additional services, such as affordable day care and summer camp, have become essential as well.
When both parents need to work full time in order to provide for their family, day care “can be the piece that breaks the tenuous system apart,” Donner said. As a result, agencies such as the Jewish Community Center have seen a huge increase in scholarship requests for such services as day care, and before and after school care.
The number of people seeking relief from the Jewish Assistance Fund has also increased dramatically, said David Maretsky, president. Whereas typically the organization — which gives cash gifts to those needing immediate financial help with such things as food, rent or medical bills — sees about five to eight clients a week, it now helps 15 to 20 people each week.
“We’ve never had this vast consistent number of people with problems,” Maretsky said. “We’re looking to the Pittsburgh community to get us through this crisis.”
Maretsky said that his organization is also seeing types of people who had not previously needed to seek help from the Jewish Assistance Fund.
“We had an I.T. person with four kids come in,” Maretsky said. “His wife left him. And he was laid off. He had nowhere to turn. He said, ‘A year ago I had a nice job. Now I have nothing.’ We’re there to help.”
Maretsky lamented the fact that contributions to the fund have decreased, just as need has increased.
“The shame of it is we’re not getting the contributions in because people are worried about the economy,” Maretsky said.
That sentiment is echoed across the board by each agency, struggling to provide necessary help, while looking at the possibility of shrinking reserves.
“Pittsburgh lags behind the rest of the country, but we’re starting to catch up,” said Ehrenreich. “So far, we’re coping as best as we can. But we anticipate the trend to continue, and to see more need. It’s getting pretty tight around here.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)