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Pinched by Economy, More Bay Area Residents Seeking Social Services

New America Media, News Feature, Viji Sundaram Posted: Dec 26, 2008

Editor's Note: United Way of the Bay Area has seen its volume of calls seeking social service assistance mushroom as the economic crisis grips California more tightly. Viji Sundaram is health editor at NAM.

SAN FRANCISCO A Solano County father of five recently called the United Way with his tale of woe: His home was on the brink of foreclosure, he had lost his job, his wife had left him and he had fallen so far behind on his utility payments that PG&E had put him on a 15-day notice. Worse, he didnt have enough money to feed his children.

Even if he found another construction job, he couldnt take it because he has two children under two, one of whom is not even potty-trained, said Daphne Banash, an information and referral specialist at the United Way of the Bay Area (UWBA). Her call center services Marin, San Francisco, Napa, Solano and San Mateo counties.

Banash, who fielded the call from the father on the call centers 211 referral line, said he sounded "completely overwhelmed.

The man is one of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been derailed by the current punishing recession in the United States that began in December 2007. Since then, the economy has shed 1.9 million jobs and the number of unemployed people has increased by 2.7 million. Just last month, half a million jobs were lost.

California, which until a couple of years ago, ranked among the worlds top 10 economies, with construction leading job growth, is currently one of the hardest hit by the nationwide economic crisis.

Food banks are seeing longer lines, with many people seeking help for the first time. Vacated homes flaunt signs in their front yards that say, bank-owned.

Lot of families are one paycheck away from financial peril, Stokes noted, adding, Many families are choosing between putting gas in the car and food on the table and paying the rent.

The outlook for the states financial situation is dismal with projected $8 billion in shortfalls in both 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 fiscal years, according to the state Legislative Analysts Office.

A survey in October by the UWBA found that 69 percent of the agencies United Way refers callers to reported an increased demand for their services in the past six months.

During this period, calls for housing and shelter were up 50 percent, compared to the same period last year, according to Stokes. Calls for health care were up 87 percent. Total call volume has increased 30 percent.

United Way doesnt provide direct help but refers callers and gives financial assistance to non-profit service agencies like the Salvation Army and PG&E Cares. But we are getting a lot of angry calls from people whove been told funds are running out, Stokes said.

United Way doesnt track callers identity by their race or ethnicity, but nine percent of the calls fielded by its 211 referral line in San Francisco are from monolingual, non-English speakers. Of those, 6 percent are from Spanish-speakers, and 3 percent from Chinese speakers, said Maritza Villagomez, call center manager. With the help of translation services, United Way can handle three-way calls in 150 languages, Stokes said.

Earlier this week, a family of eight, five of them children, living in an unincorporated part of San Mateo County near Redwood City, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. The home was in foreclosure and the electricity had been turned off for lack of payment. The family was powering their appliances with a gas generator in the basement.

UWBA has been able to put together a plan for the father of five with the hope that he will be able to get back on his feet, Banash said.

"When last I spoke to him, his lights were still on, she said.

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