Residents of Pinellas County have become accustomed to periodic appeals from food banks and other social service organizations when their cupboards are getting bare and they need some extra donations.
But there was nothing typical about the tone of their latest appeal, reported recently in the St. Petersburg Times. Those who run these charities are overwhelmed by a rapidly rising tide of people who are seeing the financial foundations of their lives washed away.
Some food banks are reporting a 50 to 75 percent increase in people seeking help.
"We're just seeing a huge increase in the number of people desperate for help," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. "And it is only going to get worse."
It isn't hard to predict that because foreclosures are still occurring, inflation is rising and companies are laying off workers, people who already were living close to the edge may tumble off.
But a not-so-evident reason the picture will worsen is that on Oct. 1, the new fiscal year begins. And many charities that depend on funding from government agencies will lose some or all of that money as the impact of Amendment 1 and falling property values kicks in. The charities will have less money to spend and will be able to help fewer people, even as the crowds coming to their doors are swelling.
The resulting trauma will cut across all age groups and backgrounds. Transients, families and elderly people are coming in for help, so all will be affected. Charities report that many of those asking for help are first-timers.
"Month to month, it increases dramatically," said the Rev. Lionel Cabral of the Suncoast Haven of Rest Rescue Mission in Pinellas Park. "It looks to me like the economy is getting worse rapidly. We're not seeing homeless people as much as families."
It isn't just food and money that people need. Snyder said that whole families are "couch surfing" — bedding down in someone else's home after losing their own, and shifting to the couch in another home when they have to move on. The street is their only other option.
Desperately needed are more programs like Home Share, which matches up homeowners who can't cover all their bills with renters who can't afford typical market rents. The program, in Tarpon Springs, had four times the number of calls in the first six months of this year as it had in the same period last year.
During the Christmas season, Pinellas County residents usually step up and give a little extra to the charities of their choice, hoping to ease the burden of those who don't have enough. The message from charities this year is, don't wait for Christmas. Give now, whatever you can.