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Aid agencies say don't wait to get help

Don't wait. That's the message of social service agencies to those who are struggling.

Help is available. It might take some time, it will take some paperwork, but there is aid to get you through tough times.

"Don't Suffer Through" is the slogan on 3,000 postcards sent by the Community Action Council this week to Fayette County families making less than $27,000 a year.

Don't wait until your house is in foreclosure or you are six months behind in utilities payments, said Charlie Lanter, program services manager at Community Action, primarily a referral service offering assistance to people in need.

Some programs, like help paying utility bills, have a limit on how much money a person can receive. If you are a month behind on a bill, he said, Community Action can help. But if you are six months behind, you might be over the cap and out of luck. If you own a house and are in foreclosure, it might be too late to turn things around before the bank takes possession.

Community Action runs some programs, such as utility assistance, out of its neighborhood centers, but workers might refer people to other sources of help in some matters.

Most government-funded programs are income-based, but some help might be available for people who exceed poverty guidelines through Community Action's private donations or services offered by area churches.

"If we can't help you, we can help find someone who can," Lanter said.

So ask, even if it's hard.

That's what Cheryl Weiss did. After being laid off in September, just days before she was to receive financing to buy her first house, Weiss went to Community Action hoping to get food stamps so she could at least feed herself and her young daughter.

She found out she was eligible for other services.

"I had no idea when I walked in there," she said.

Since then, she has moved into subsidized housing, she is using food stamps to buy groceries, and she's going to college full-time with financial assistance.

By being aggressive, keeping her paperwork organized and actively seeking help, Weiss helped her caseworker get her the services she needed, but not everything has gone perfectly.

Six months after losing her job, she's still waiting for her unemployment benefits to be approved.

It wasn't easy going from a stable and steady life making $12.50 an hour at an office job to being dependent, for now, on assistance.

"I almost had a nervous breakdown at first," Weiss said. She had been house shopping for months and had told her daughter she was getting a new room and a puppy. When she moved into her basement apartment — clean and spacious, but plain — 4-year-old Jada was confused because she had had higher hopes for their new home.

"I feel like I've taken a step back. It's kind of a slap in the face," said Weiss, who hopes to earn a degree in communications from the University of Kentucky and recently got a part-time job as a waitress.

It's not that social service agencies are needing business. "Overwhelming" is how Lanter describes the rise in need.

From July 1, 2007, to March 11, 2008, before the United States fully slipped into an economic meltdown, 14,282 people sought help paying their utilities through Community Action, Lanter said.

But for the same period from 2008 to 2009, that number increased 43 percent, to 20,409 — and it's still climbing.

A similar increase has been seen in families needing food. In Fayette County, that number is up 40 percent, said Linda Lancaster, who heads the emergency food box program for God's Pantry Food Bank. Her aid organization is helping about 1,500 families a month in Fayette County.

The profile of people who need help has changed. There are a lot of people, such as Weiss, who are using the system for the first time. There are people who are still working but who are finding that their paychecks do not go as far because they are now responsible for family members who have lost jobs.

Both agencies are seeing people they helped 10 or 15 years ago who worked their way into better situations, only to slide back as things have become tougher.

"All of the sudden," said Lancaster, "they are really having a hard time."

There are plenty of reasons people don't seek help.

There are practical stumbling blocks. Some people don't know where to go. (Lanter said most people learn about Community Action by word of mouth.) Some don't have the transportation to get to a food pantry or an unemployment office.

Others don't have the proper paperwork to prove their income or living arrangements. The system can be complicated and difficult to navigate.

Plus, if they have a job, some people do not want to risk losing work hours to sign up for needed assistance, an issue that prompted Community Action recently to expand the hours at its neighborhood centers.

Then there is pride.

"There's a certain spirit among people that they don't want to ask for help," Lanter said.

Lancaster said, "We have a lot of people with zero income." She added that most clients last year lived in three downtown neighborhoods. Now, she said, the food bank is seeing more and more people from traditionally middle-class neighborhoods around Southland Drive and Hamburg Place.

Lancaster said she knows asking for help is difficult.

"People come in and they are embarrassed," she said. But more and more people are teetering financially, she said. The reality is that lots of families who have always been able to get by have run out of options.

Community Action has bumper stickers that say "Poverty Doesn't Discriminate."

Aid agencies can offer a small reprieve. Sometimes the relief of knowing there is enough food in the house helps people better focus on solutions for other problems, Lancaster said.

Weiss, 27, has found a bright spot in her situation. She had always planned to return to college full-time but never made it until now. She hopes that by the time she gets her degree, the economy will have improved. Even with what has happened in the past year, she is optimistic that she will get another opportunity to buy a house and adopt that dog she promised Jada.

Of her subsidized living situation, she said, "I'm not interested in getting comfortable here."

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