Tom Eblen

As jobs disappear, the Nest fills up

The poor are always with us, even when the economy is booming. So what's happening now that almost everyone is feeling the pinch?

You can get a glimpse by visiting the Nest, otherwise known as the Center for Women, Children & Families. It is a private, non-profit social services agency whose mission makes it an early barometer of economic distress.

Three months ago, 10 or 15 people would come to the Nest each day seeking emergency help — food, clothing, diapers, toiletries, emergency child care or money to pay their utilities. Now, the number is two or three times that.

"It's hard for many of them to come through the door and say, 'I need help.' They've never had to do it before," said Eileen O'Malley, the Nest's executive director.

She expects to see many more in the coming months, as jobs disappear in rural Kentucky and people move to Lexington seeking work.

Things started getting tough when gasoline spiked to $4 a gallon and food prices shot up, O'Malley said. Gas prices dropped, but food prices generally haven't. Thousands of jobs have disappeared as companies have cut back, causing many families already on the edge to fall over it.

O'Malley thinks it's no coincidence that several cases of child abuse have hit the headlines recently. Child abuse always rises when more families face economic stress.

Because the Nest is often one of the first places the newly poor go for help, Mayor Jim Newberry and the Blue Grass Community Foundation will be there Monday to announce the creation of a new special-needs fund. Local companies and foundations are creating the fund to help non-profits such as the Nest provide emergency assistance. Organizers also are seeking donations from the public.

Lexington is a generous community. You could see that Friday when the Nest held its annual Reindeer Express giveaway. Parents could come to get food, books, toys and clothing. The gifts came with wrapping paper, so children think they come from Mom, Dad or Santa, not from charity.

More than 200 families with 500 children were helped this year, thanks to contributions from several local businesses, churches and organizations.

One major donor was Stivers HVAC Inc. Rick Stivers, the owner, has seen his own business decline sharply this year as home construction has ground to a halt. But he knew others needed his help. "I believe anything you give comes back to you tenfold," he said.

O'Malley said the Nest checks with other charities to make sure clients aren't double-dipping, and she's amazed at how few even try. For example, clients receiving help through Reindeer Express were checked against the 5,000 children being helped by the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program. Only about 10 names showed up on both lists, she said.

The Nest provides services such as parenting classes for 11 Central Kentucky counties. But much of its focus is on the north Lexington neighborhood where it is located, a place that shows how wealth and poverty can ebb and flow over time.

The Nest is housed in one of Lexington's first grand mansions, built in 1810 by entrepreneur and philanthropist William "Lord" Morton. The threadbare mansion now belongs to the city, and the grounds are called Duncan Park.

For decades, this has been one of Lexington's poorest neighborhoods, although determined residents have made a lot of progress in bringing it back to life. Still, the surrounding streets are filled with low-income rental units, and O'Malley has noticed more and more evictions in recent months. They're easy to spot: piles of belongings stacked out on the curb.

While the Nest provides a lot of emergency relief, the staff tries to get to know families well enough to figure out their underlying needs and issues and help make them stable and self-sufficient. Sometimes that means counseling, financial literacy training or help in finding a job.

"I think, 'How can I breathe hope into this person?'" said social worker Susan Mahoney. "The goal is always self-sufficiency. I have a lot of clients who are very motivated to improve their lives."

O'Malley, who joined the Nest six years ago, isn't a social worker by training. She studied economics, earned an MBA and spent much of her career owning and running furniture stores in her native New Orleans. It has helped her understand the economic forces that can keep people poor if they slip through the cracks.

"It is expensive to be poor, because you're often so limited in what you have access to," she said.

For example, many people must pay $5 or $6 for a gallon of milk at a neighborhood market because they don't have transportation to a suburban superstore that has it on sale for half that.

"They don't have the transportation we have," O'Malley said. "If they have a car, they're probably driving your hand-me-down, which you got rid of because it wasn't reliable or burned too much gas."

Low-wage workers often get fired because they miss a day or two of work because of illness or emergency. Lack of education makes it hard for some people to keep jobs, or navigate the social-services bureaucracy between jobs.

Many people have few money-management skills. Lack of credit forces them to pay high interest rates to payday lenders and rent-to-own stores.

Cheap rental housing is often drafty, which causes high utility bills. Bad habits and lack of insurance contribute to bad health. The cheapest and most available food in many parts of town has little nutritional value.

While some people will always be poor, O'Malley is concerned about the people who fall into poverty during economic times like these. Without the right kind of help, some will never pull themselves out.

"My concern is that if we see it this early in the downturn, what's going to happen when it gets worse?" she said. "There's a lot of need out there. This is going to have to be a community effort."

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