Long Road Back: As need grows, Modesto-area nonprofits forced to make cuts

April 19, 2010 

  • About The Series

      In a continuing series on the valley’s economy, The Bee today examines nonprofit agencies. The series will analyze what has happened and, more important, what’s ahead. Will we pull ourselves out of the recession or is this the new norm? And if so, how will people cope?

Women who have been beaten or abused by their husbands may have to wait two weeks before they can see a counselor at Haven Women's Center in Modesto.

Waiting lists are just one of the painful choices that nonprofit agencies have made as they cope with the recession that has buffeted the Northern San Joaquin Valley for nearly three years.

Agencies that feed, clothe and shelter people and counsel them when they are in crisis have laid off staff, not filled vacant positions, relied more on volunteers, and reduced hours and services to make ends meet -- despite a steady increase in demand.

They have had to work harder to raise money as government, foundations and donors have been slammed by the downturn and reduced their support.

"We've dropped ... staffing and moved to a smaller office," said Belinda Rolicheck, executive director of Haven, whose services include a shelter for women and children and a clinic for domestic violence restraining orders. "We're in about half the space and paying about half the rent."

Haven had 45 to 50 full- and part-time employees in 2006 and is down to about 25, Rolicheck said.

She said there has always been a waiting list to see a counselor, but before the recession a client could typically see someone within a few days.

"We know that counseling makes a big difference in the healing process," Rolicheck said, "especially with sexual assault victims."

But as much pain as the recession has inflicted across

the region, nonprofit leaders say there are some bright spots.

Many say they have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people who give what they can despite their own hardships. And the economic downturn has pushed nonprofits to rethink how they deliver services and raise money.

Tougher times expected

Still, the consensus among area nonprofits is that things will get worse for them before they get better. When recovery does come, they agree, it will reach them last.

"When the job market improves, when housing prices start rising consistently, when people feel more comfortable they will have resources next month and more predictability about what the future holds, then things will turn around," said Larry Hostetler, director of marketing and fund development for Sierra Vista Child and Family Services. "Nonprofits are lagging indicators. The amount given to charity by individuals is discretionary. The mortgage, food and shelter are necessities."

Nonprofits are bracing for more funding cuts from state and local governments. The state has to close a nearly $20 billion budget deficit; local governments in Stanislaus County must cut tens of millions of dollars before the start of the July 1 fiscal year.

As public agencies continue to provide fewer social services, more and more people who have lost jobs or had their wages cut turn to nonprofits.

For instance, Modesto's Inter-Faith Ministries expects to give food boxes to 12,000 people this year, a 20 percent to 25 percent increase from 2009.

Turlock's United Samaritans Foundation is helping more people with emergency food boxes. Executive Director Barbara Bawanan said the supplies her group handed out in March fed 656 people, compared with 535 in March 2007.

Her agency is providing food to more single adults -- the disabled, seniors on Social Security or adults working minimum-wage jobs. Whatever their circumstances, their budgets have been stretched thin by the recession.

The Salvation Army in Modesto has seen more people requiring long-term help. In the past, a family might need help with food or the rent to get through the month. Now that family might need help for several months or more than a year, said Maj. Darvin Carpenter.

He also has noticed more desperation among the homeless. A homeless person who once made $10 sweeping a business's parking lot can't do that anymore. Carpenter said the business owner saves the $10 by sweeping the lot himself.

Dick Hagerty has been on the board of directors for The Salvation Army in Modesto since 1971 and serves on other nonprofit boards. He says this has been the worst time for nonprofits that he can recall.

"Nothing even remotely compares or comes even close to this," said Hagerty, a commercial real estate developer.

Carpenter has noticed that more people who once gave to The Salvation Army now need help. He estimated that in the past about 1 percent of those the Army helped once had been donors. Now, he estimates, former donors make up 5 percent to 10 percent of the people seeking help.

Donations are down or flat for most nonprofits. For example, the United Way of Stanislaus County is on track to bring in $1.9 million for its annual campaign this year, which ends April 30. That would be 10 percent less than last year. The United Way brought in $3.1 million in 2007 just as the recession was gearing up.

But there is reason for hope, even in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where foreclosures are among the worst in the nation and unemployment is near 20 percent.

"As tough as things have been and as bad as the situation is in the valley, this community continues to be very generous in its donations to charitable organizations and nonprofits," Rolicheck said. "We have seen an amazing outpouring of assistance and support. That, frankly, surprises me. I know it's hard for everyone."

Maj. Debi Shrum with The Salvation Army in Turlock said that, for the most part, her big donors continue to give. But she's noticed more and more $5 and $10 donations.

"Those who are considered middle class and working class are giving more," she said. "When you are giving out a food box that costs $40, $5 is quite a bit. So it matters."

Carpenter said the Modesto area is known in Salvation Army circles as an especially generous community.

He said while donations to Salvation Army Christmas bell ringers were down in Modesto last year, they were down throughout The Army's Golden State Division, which stretches from San Francisco to Bakersfield. Modesto had the smallest decline in the division, he said.

Eager to help in some way

"I have groups and people calling every week," Carpenter said. "They want to help even if they can only give their time. 'Can I paint a wall? Clean the shelter?' They have time on their hands and don't want to sit around doing nothing. And they are tired of looking for jobs that don't exist."

The recession has pushed nonprofits to be even more focused on what they do, said Francine DiCiano, the United Way's president and chief executive officer.

She said nonprofits are looking at ways to collaborate with each other and be more efficient, such as sharing office space and a receptionist. They also have to do a better job demonstrating the effectiveness of their programs as donors and governments become more targeted in their funding.

"The public wants to see the change you have made in someone's life through the programs they donate to," she said in an e-mail.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or 578-2316.

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