Toledo’s economy continues to struggle mightily, based on year-end numbers released by agencies that assist the unemployed and working poor. But officials on the front lines of the fight against poverty say many families are giving up hope and struggling even more as a result.
Lucas County Job and Family Services (JFS) provided food stamps for more than 87,000 people in 2009, a 16 percent jump in the number of clients compared with 2008. The number of people on Ohio Works First cash assistance also jumped by more than 11 percent in 2009.
The United Way of Greater Toledo’s 211 call-takers made 3,700 more referrals in 2009 than the year before in a five-county service area of Northwest Ohio. The agency’s 211 website received 50,000 more hits last year than in 2008.
The number of foreclosure filings in Lucas County also set a new record in 2009. 4,160 foreclosure cases were filed with the county clerk of courts office, slightly more than 2008’s record of 4,093 filings.
Latino families continue to struggle. The 43605 (East Toledo) and 43609 (Old South End) zip codes, where most Latino families in Toledo live, are the top two zip codes showing the largest growth numbers-wise for food stamp recipients last year.
Those same two zip codes are in the top five for the number of foreclosure cases that resulted in properties seized and sold at sheriff’s sale in 2009. 43605 had the most sheriff’s sales of foreclosed properties last year with 224. 43609 came in fourth place with 193 sheriff’s sales, but just six properties behind the number two zip code.
But it’s the more recent trends that have officials even more concerned that the region’s economic crisis is growing wider and deeper—straight to the suburbs.
According to statistics provided by Lucas County Job and Family Services, the area showing the largest percentage increase in the number of food stamp recipients last year is 43571 (Whitehouse). 43522 (the Grand Rapids area) and 43528 (the Holland area) made the top five in that dubious category. More affluent sections of Toledo bordering Sylvania—zip codes 43617 and 43623—round out that top five.
Two of the top five zip codes for foreclosure-related sheriff’s sales also may surprise—43613 and 43612, areas of West and North Toledo long considered to have stable, working-class neighborhoods within them. 43613 had 199 properties go to sheriff’s sale in 2009; 43612 was not far behind with 197 properties.
“The number of clients that are new to us continue to come in,” said Deb Ortiz-Flores, director of Lucas County JFS. “The type is changing a bit from a single mom with a child to adult males between the ages of 18 and 24 who are living from house-to-house. There is no employment they can secure at this time, there may be drug and alcohol or health issues.”
The desperation is so great, Ms. Ortiz-Flores stated some people are even trying to prove disability in order to secure medical coverage through her agency, which is proving to be labor-intensive for her staff.
“I’m not seeing people giving up on seeking assistance,” she said. “What I’m seeing is a little bit more despair in ‘this is just the way my life is going to be in a sense that I’m going to live on food assistance, some cash assistance, and I hope my kids have some medical.’”
The overall number of 211 calls in the last six months of 2009 dropped in Lucas County by nearly 2,000 when compared with the same period the year before. While referrals for holiday assistance went up by double digits, the number of referrals for help such as utilities, food, and clothing dropped significantly.
“Our 211 numbers for 2009 demonstrate a bit of a leveling out, but I don’t buy it,” said Bill Kitson, president/CEO of the United Way of Greater Toledo.
“We think people are giving up. They stop calling. They know there’s no help. So they’re not connecting or reaching out, because their situation is so desperate, they’ve been unemployed for so long.”
The United Way president and CEO stated in past years, 211 operators referred families in need to one or two local agencies. Now those referrals are being made to as many as four, five, or even six other agencies.
In Wood County, for example, the calls to 211 dropped by nearly 20 percent in the last half of 2009, compared to the same six-month period the year before. Yet the number of referrals increased by more than 300, or 13 percent.
“I think families are still in need, we actually are doing more with those families that call in, and what they’re calling for is far more dramatic and far worse for our community than the year’s previous calls,” Kitson said.
“The volume of calls may not be there numbers-wise, but what we’re helping those families do is staggering. The real story is in the desperation of some of the people calling.”
24 United Way agencies in Lucas County provided holiday-related assistance to 4,329 families during this past Christmas season, the top 211 need for December. However, rental payment assistance as an unmet need, jumped from 61 requests in December 2008 to 334 requests last month.
Even the Toledo chapter of the American Red Cross saw firsthand the effects of the worsening economic crisis across Northwest Ohio in 2009, as the agency assisted fire victims in the three-county area it serves.
Red Cross officials say that families would “double up” to save money, a condition that became more commonplace as foreclosures and job losses mounted.
“We would go into what we would assume was a single-family home and there would be multiple family members,” said Jodie Tienvieri, local Red Cross communications manager. “Not just mom and dad and kids, but sometimes it would be grandma or grandpa, an aunt or an uncle, and sometimes even children from other family members as well.”
In many cases, a fire at a single-family home became a multi-family disaster. As a result, the Red Cross stretched its resources to the limit following a fire, because there were more people who needed emergency assistance than normally would be expected.
Exact numbers are not known, because Red Cross statistics on fires affecting multiple families don’t differentiate between whether a fire occurred at a single-family home or an apartment building where several rental units may be involved.
“Those disasters are highly personal and highly specific,” said Kitson. “It is rare today that we’ll go to a fire and not have two, three, and four families affected in a single home. They (Red Cross) have very real numbers about how multiple families are in places designed for one and the space heater falls over, catches on fire. That goes down as one disaster—but the number of people they’re helping has tripled.”
Over the past two years, the typical Lucas Co. JFS client family has changed from a single mom with three kids to a couple with two children who suffered a recent job loss. The agency also has seen its emergency cash assistance programs begin to dry up, as state government cuts funding in the wake of a budget crisis.
Where the county social service agency used to provide a monthly utility voucher, cash assistance, family medical coverage, and food stamps, JFS now is only able to give a reduced food stamp allotment and Medicaid insurance.
In response to the region’s deepening economic crisis, the United Way has formed a new Financial Stability Collaborative—a group of local non-profit organizations and businesses working to help people to become more financially stable.
For example, the collaborative already is offering a set of quick and free financial education courses alongside its free tax preparation services for low and moderate-income working families who may qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“It’s kind of staggering that we have to help them wind their way through a system,” Kitson said.”Where the 211 system, in its opening days was simply information and referral, now we’re hearing a story, a series of situations affecting that family and we’re helping them figure out the best path.”
The collaborative is part of a “no wrong door” approach the United Way has adopted to ensure those seeking help receive a broad array of assistance to meet their needs.
“We’re trying to help agencies understand that regardless of how a client gets to you, it’s your job to help them get to the next step in their journey,” Kitson said. “If you end up at the Urban League because of a workforce training situation, they’re going to make sure you get to the Friendly Center to get some financial stability information.”
Northwest Ohio is not alone in its economic struggles.
The annual State of Poverty in Ohio report shows 13.7 percent of the state population is living below the federal poverty level, an increase of nearly 42 percent since 2002 and approaching a 20-year high. For the typical Lucas Co. JFS client family of four, that equates to a household income of just over $22,000.
Nearly one-third of all Ohioans had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level—widely used as the level to cover food, housing, and other basic needs.
The report underscored education, noting that nearly one in four Ohio adults without a high school diploma was living in poverty in 2008 compared with only one in 12 with some college or an associate’s degree.
According to Lucas County JFS statistics, more than half of the agency’s clients on food stamp assistance don’t have a high school diploma or GED.
Ohio’s unemployment rate climbed to 10.9 percent in December. The same month a year before the state jobless figure was 7.4 percent. County unemployment figures across Northwest Ohio have hovered in double digits for more than a year now.
Ohio has gone nine straight months with double-digit unemployment — the longest stretch since one that ended in early 1983.