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Finding help in hard times

A little credit card overindulgence, a monthly mortgage payment that's hard to make even in the best of times and the loss of a job. Suddenly, you're moving from easy street to the poor house.

"We have families in the Chicago area where both mom and dad are making six figures and are putting all their money into their lives and have no savings," says Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based America's Second Harvest, a nationwide network of food banks and food rescue organizations. "One acquaintance lost her job and had to sell all her furniture except the beds. She has a 5,000-square-foot house and couldn't sell it, didn't have any equity and couldn't afford to move."

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Similar tales are recounted across the country. Household debt and personal bankruptcies are reaching record highs. Combine that with a sluggish job market and escalating health care costs, and it's easy to fall into hard times.

Fortunately, there are places to turn when you hit a rough patch economically. Both governmental and private groups can help with immediate needs, such as food, housing, home fuel, medical care and transportation. Charitable organizations may also offer job training or additional services such as low-cost child care or car repairs.

Of course, you must be willing to look for and accept the help. And in some cases, especially when a government agency is involved, you could be out of luck again if you don't meet specific qualifying standards.

First, some tips on where to begin when times turn tough.

Find your local food bank
Food banks are part of the larger community of help agencies and are often the first point of contact when a family finds itself in financial trouble. In many cases, food banks can offer referrals in addition to food. One program provides leads on free or low-cost car repair, furniture and respite care, as well as job training and placement.

"We do an intake of everyone who applies for food," explains Heather Grenier, director of the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, Bozeman, Mont. "The main reason for the intake is to provide referrals so people don't become repeat clients."

If you have difficulty finding a food bank near you, search (by ZIP code or state) for nearby food banks at America's Second Harvest's Web site or call the group toll-free at (800) 771-2303 for a referral.

Network with local houses of worship
Religious institutions are well known for their charity work. Local churches often supplement food banks with their own grocery programs, as well as operate or sponsor other assistance programs. These range from emergency housing and transportation services to laundry facilities and free showers for the homeless. Checking in with a church or synagogue, even if you are not a member of the congregation, can help you find the help you need.

Ask personal contacts
It can be difficult, but talking with personal contacts can help you locate assistance. A teacher, for example, can probably tell you about food programs the elementary school has for children. Schools also are a good way to locate a low-cost medical clinic where your child can receive free or reduced-cost treatment based on your ability to pay.

Dial a hot line
Many hotlines keep tabs on social services and charities in their area. The Help Center in Bozeman, Mont., staffs a 24/7 help line and maintains a dossier on aid for families in crisis, including substance abuse counseling services and sources for emergency food, lodging or transportation, says Libbie Brey, a Help Center volunteer.

Some states and municipalities also are moving toward special assistance numbers. "In Chicago they've added a 311 number, a non-emergency city number where, for example, you can find the location of summer feeding programs so your children can be fed lunch when school's closed and other emergency aid," says Hofer.

Check with national relief groups
The local chapters of larger organizations such as Goodwill Industries or the Salvation Army are a good place to find aid. Like food banks, these groups often have a finger on the pulse of local charity efforts, as well as run their own programs. Among well-known Salvation Army programs are the provision of school supplies for children of low-income families and winter coats during the cold months.

 

 
 
-- Posted: Sept. 14, 2004
   

 

 
 

 

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