The bleak economy is forcing strapped Tampa Bay region residents to seek help covering grocery, rent and utilities bills in growing numbers, the area's primary social welfare referral group reports. Many of those unable to cover such basic living costs are middle class and making their first contact with safety net agencies, group leaders say. And at all economic levels, those reaching out are more frantic. "It's much more desperate," said Micki Thompson, executive director of 211 Tampa Bay Cares. "Folks are struggling, you can definitely tell there's community stress." Thompson's group connects callers to 211 with nonprofit and government programs that offer affordable medical and mental health treatment, rent subsidies and other services. Not surprisingly, 211's nonprofit partners also report a spike and say their resources are severely taxed. Kip Corriveau directs social services for the Salvation Army of Upper Pinellas County. Six months ago, his group got about 25 requests a day for help with housing and utilities bills. Now, he said, it's more like 125. More striking than the increased need, Corriveau said, is who's stepping forward for help. "These are middle class people who've never asked for assistance," he said. "These are all new people."
Times staff writer Camille Spencer contributed to this report.
A comparison of the number and type of calls made in Pinellas during two 12-month periods (Sept. 2006 to Aug. 2007 and Sept. 2007 to the end of August) suggests the dismal economy has more residents scrambling. Overall requests for help were up just over 6 percent, going from 60,308 to 64,152. Yet requests for aid for basic household costs surged.
Rental or mortgage help: Up 46 percent to 6,754 requests.
Help with utilities: Up 29 percent to 8,992.
Food aid: Up 58
percent to 2,974.
In Hillsborough, total requests went up 4.4 percent — 93,676 calls from October 2007 through last month — compared with the same period last year.
Rental or mortgage help: Up 8.9 percent, to 10,304 requests.
Help with utility requests: Up 47.1 percent, to 9,916.
Food aid: Up 9.3
percent, to 1,081.
The total number of 211 calls for July and August increased 34 percent, to 4,974, over the same months last year. Almost half were for utilities. "The majority is related to the economy," said Susan Arnett, president of the United Way of Pasco County. "People are needing more help with utilities and food."
Rental or mortgage help: Up 13 percent, to 462 requests.*
Utility help: Up 42 percent, to 1,274. *
Food aid: Up 34
percent, to 329.*
Overall requests to the Hernando helpline are up, concentrated in key areas like mortgage, food and utility help. But Kathy Jones, Hernando County United Way's executive director, said workers are hearing from more people who need help paying for their medicine. Requests for prescription assistance were up 41 percent during the past two months compared to the same months last year, with 61 calls.
Rental or mortgage help: Up 35 percent, to 178 requests.*
Help with utility requests: up 175
percent, to 399.*
Food aid: Up 125
percent, to 254.*
*Hernando and Pasco county data is a two-month comparison of July-August 2007 compared to July-August 2008.