When the economy sucks, everything sucks. Tight pocketbooks can lead to problems with shelter, health, abuse, hunger, crime, and on and on. At times like these, we need social service providers more than ever. The problem is, money is tight for them, too.
So who are the people holding up the safety net in our community? The ones who keep trying to catch us when we fall, despite the fact that it's getting harder? We talked to a few of them about their triumphs and their challenges, along with their own motivations for helping others. We kept the conversations brief, because these folks are all busy and need to get back to work.
Geraldine B. Bernard: Brisk business at the food pantry
Clients at Mt. Zion Baptist Church's food pantry are polite. "People are so appreciative," says Geraldine B. Bernard, the pantry's manager. "They come in and say 'Thank you,' 'May I?' So courteous. Folks are just wonderful."
Bernard has worked with the pantry since 2000, when it was started by the south-side church. These days business is brisk. The pantry served 96 people in January, 103 in February and 125 in May. "They're kind of swinging a little heavier now than they were this time last year," she says of the numbers.
Indeed, last month the pantry saw standing-room-only crowds, the kind usually only seen during the holidays. "Many people have lost their jobs, or don't have jobs," says Bernard, who came to Madison from New Orleans in the 1960s and has the Crescent City in her voice. "We have a lot of new families, and I think it's going to grow."
Bernard oversees a volunteer staff of about 20. Her pantry is open the second Tuesday of each month in the evening, and the third Monday in the morning. The pantry serves clients countywide, like other outlets in the Dane County Food Pantry Network.
"They call 211, and United Way has a list of who's open that day," says Bernard. When they visit the pantry, the clients - "families, all sizes, and a lot of seniors" - can choose from foods like canned vegetables and cereal. "Most of the time we have meats."
The pantry gets supplies from Community Action Coalition and the Second Harvest Food Bank, and it is supported by donations. Lately those are not what they were. "I had individual persons, and they had to drop out," says Bernard. "One stipulated she would give $25 a month, then had to stop. I understand that."
Helping the pantry's clients is a pleasure: "We always have food to give them, and that makes us feel good, too."
- Kenneth Burns
Greta Hansen: The path to self-sufficiency
Community Action Coalition began in 1966 as part of LBJ's "War on Poverty." 43 years later, the war is still going on.
"There's a level of anxiety these days, of 'Is my job going to be next?'" says Greta Hansen, executive director of the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin. "But for many of our folks, they didn't have 401Ks anyway."
CAC is one of 16 Community Action agencies in Wisconsin; it serves Dane, Jefferson and Waukesha counties with programs from food pantries to housing assistance, with the goal of putting people on the path to self-sufficiency.
Hansen, 59, has been involved in community work since the mid-1960s, in her hometown of La Crosse and later Milwaukee. She pegs the biggest problem in Madison and Dane County as affordable housing:
"It takes the largest chunk out of people's paychecks. When people lose their jobs or become underemployed, then [CAC] works to ensure that they can stay in their housing. Because it's a lot easier to keep somebody in housing than it is to help them through the shelter system."
Some stimulus funds will aid in this goal, she adds: "The intent is not just to stimulate the economy but to stimulate the reconstruction of the working class."
Of CAC's many programs, community gardens are the closest to Hansen's heart. It's what drew her to CAC from Milwaukee eight years ago: "When I saw the garden component in this job, I thought, 'This is an organization that understands the holistic needs of people.'"
Gardens are now being established outside of Madison; so are "pantry" gardens - plots where volunteers grow produce for food pantries. "People are not aware of the chronic need for fresh produce in pantries. When you have a food drive, you get nonperishable foods."
CAC has seen a 20% increase in demand at pantries in Dane County over last year at this time. Hansen credits the pantries with the ability to offer those in need "choices, rather than the standard bag," which leads to dignity and greater efficiencies. "People will take what they will eat."
"It's a blessing to be able to do antipoverty work - with the exception that we shouldn't have poverty in the first place," says Hansen.
"We have a shared responsibility to make the world a better place than what we found it. This seems to be a pretty good way to do it."
- Linda Falkenstein
Hal Menendez: Working for their benefits
From an early age, Hal Menendez knew he wanted to be a lawyer. And because of the way he grew up - the only child of a single mom struggling to get by in the South Bronx - he also knew what kind: "I always saw myself being a lawyer for people who need help."
And that's just what he became, as a public-interest lawyer for the last three decades. Menendez, 54, came to the UW-Madison as an undergrad and stayed for law school. Afterward, he got a fellowship to work at Legal Action of Wisconsin for two years, beginning in 1979. He's worked for federally funded Legal Services programs since, mostly in Madison but with brief stints in New York and Chicago.
Madison's Legal Action office has nine attorneys, handling a wide range of cases. For the past several years, Menendez has been working almost exclusively on public benefits, like W-2, food stamps, Medical Assistance, Social Security and the like.
His job is to help people get and keep the benefits to which they are entitled. It's not as easy as it should be.
Many clients lose benefits, he says, because "they don't live their lives documenting everything they do." In one case, Menendez helped a mom recover food stamps and a caretaker supplement cut off when she either failed to turn in - or her caseworker lost - pay stubs for her teenage son's four-hour-a-week job, which would have not affected eligibility.
In recent years, Menendez has seen growing demands that clients prove their identity or citizenship; many are citizens who just can't produce the paperwork. And, as the economy has gone south, there's been an increase in people seeking Medical Assistance - although that may owe in part to the state's expansion of BadgerCare eligibility for children.
Menendez talks to about 50 people a month and always has a couple dozen active cases. "It's frustrating," he says of his job. "I feel powerless and helpless a lot of the time." But it matters that he's there for people in need - just as he always wanted.
- Bill Lueders
Bobby Peterson: A way out of medical debt
As the recession grinds on, Bobby Peterson has seen an increase in the number of people seeking the assistance of ABC for Health. "Our phone rings off the hook," says the director of the nonprofit public-interest law firm.
Peterson's devotion to helping people navigate complex health-care systems and surmount staggering medical bills dates to the summer of 1985. Working as a clinical law student at the Center for Public Representation, Peterson was dispatched to northwest Wisconsin to assess rural health needs. He surveyed the uninsured and analyzed court records to determine who was being sued for medical debt.
Compiling the case studies, Peterson came to understand that providing patients with health-benefits counseling could preclude their problems while helping hospitals and clinics recoup payment for their services.
In 1988 - after law school, a tour of Europe and a brief professional detour - Peterson returned to CPR when it secured a federal grant to fund such counseling. Advocates and Benefits Counseling for Health was fledged out of that program in 1994.
Peterson, 49, continues to lead ABC for Health, now in its 15th year. "Keeping the revolution going a little bit," he says, referencing the agency's recent move into the former home of the Mifflin Street Co-op. His commitment is sustained by the opportunity to help clients - many of them families with dependent children - avoid the crushing medical debt and resulting low credit scores that can lead to what he calls "electronic debtors' prison."
He and his staff are adept at cutting red tape, challenging denials of health-insurance coverage and ferreting out third-party resources for which ABC clients are eligible. "There's a sense of satisfaction when you can tell a client you've been able to solve their problem and their $30,000, $40,000 bill is gone," Peterson says.
If his drive to serve these populations has meant sacrificing a few of the creature comforts enjoyed by some other attorneys, he doesn't miss them. "ABC suits my ideals," says Peterson, who savors the intangible perk of "looking back at the end of the day with pride."
- David Medaris
Dean Loumos: Street-smart housing provider
Dean Loumos knows how cruel mental illness can be.
"One of the insidious things about this illness is that it strikes in early adulthood," says Loumos, the executive director of Housing Initiatives Inc. "So people go through high school and college and do quite well. I've got people with master's degrees. But at some point they can't maintain."
Loumos finds a silver lining, saying that people with illnesses like severe depression, schizophrenia, bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders are "capable of living independently."
Thirty years ago, Madison was a leader in the movement to treat the mentally ill as outpatients, rather than locking them up in institutions. "One of the key factors for managing mental illness is stable housing," Loumos says.
Housing Initiatives was founded in the early '90s to help mentally ill people find housing. Loumos was hired a couple of years later as its executive director. Today, Housing Initiatives owns 59 housing units at 14 sites. It also provides rental assistance to mentally ill people living in other housing units.
"I've been doing this work for a long, long time," says Loumos, 58, "and it suits me."
Loumos affects the air of a straight shooter. When Madison threatened to tax nonprofit housing agencies this year, Loumos was the loudest and angriest protester, urging the Common Council to defy the advice of its attorney.
That toughness, he says, comes in part from his clients. "You have to be able to recognize a hustle when you see it and then deal with it," he says. "You have to have the ability to tolerate ambiguity. You've got to be able to read people, and those are difficult skills to develop without being on the street."
- Joe Tarr
Kelly Anderson: Rape Crisis crusader
Approximately one in four women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. Dane County's Rape Crisis Center, one of the first in the country, provides valuable and free services to victims and strives to educate the community about sexual assault. And as executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, Kelly Anderson is the glue that holds the organization together.
Anderson, 41, works less on the front lines with victims and more behind the scenes, making sure the organization has the resources to continue its work. From media interviews and grant-writing to hiring decisions and campus networking, Anderson ensures that the Rape Crisis Center has the support it needs.
As an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Michigan, Anderson spent two years volunteering for the campus sexual assault crisis line. She quickly realized she had found a social issue she cared about.
"The work is very rewarding," she says. "Hearing from clients that their lives wouldn't be the same without us - I am proud to be a part of that."
Like most nonprofits, the Rape Crisis Center struggles to find funding. The last six months have been particularly trying, not only because of funding cuts, but also due to an increased need for services. People who can no longer afford paid services come to the RCC for free counseling.
Despite the challenges, Anderson feels that tough times have the potential to build supportive, interconnected communities.
"I think that when people come through crisis, it can leave them with a lot more empathy and humanity," she says. "And for our work, we need this awareness, compassion and willingness to confront these issues in our society."
- Clare Milliken
Angela Jones: A place for ex-offenders
Prisoners are people too, and we all benefit when they become law-abiding citizens after serving their time. That's why Angela Jones of the United Way helped create the Journey Home, a program that makes it easier for Dane County's ex-offenders to find their footing on the outside.
"When they come back into the community, many of them don't know where to go," says Jones. "They're used to a structured life in prison, and it's difficult for them to navigate the system."
The Journey Home hosts a monthly event at the Villager Mall that serves as a one-stop-shop for ex-offenders. They can hook up with social-service providers to find shelter, employment, support and treatment, sometimes immediately.
Since the Journey Home began in 2006, it has helped over 2,000 people and seen a recidivism rate of only 7.9% among its clients. By way of comparison, Dane County's recidivism rate is about double that.
Jones, a forty-ish Racine native, administers the Journey Home among her many other duties at United Way of Dane County. She also serves as a minister at her church, where her husband is the pastor. Clearly, helping people comes naturally to her. "That's who I am," she says. "I like being able to have an impact on individual lives."
Jones is an extraordinarily positive person to talk to. Asked if she feels frustrated about the ever-dwindling resources for social needs, she won't take the bait. Instead, she emphasizes the fact that budget cuts have forced social-service groups to collaborate in productive ways.
No, Jones won't let anything stand in the way as she tries to make our community a better place.
"There's always going to be a challenge," she says. "It's just a matter of how you work with it. Do you let it overcome you, or do you overcome it?"
- Dean Robbins
Jim Blanchard: Housing for the homeless
The significance of homelessness and affordable housing came into acute focus for Jim Blanchard between 2004 and 2007, during his tenure as chair for United Way of Dane County's Vision Council. A place to live, he realized, is the cornerstone that can stabilize families.
Blanchard, 69, believes it's critical to change from a reliance on shelters and think in terms of "Housing First," particularly when it comes to homeless families. "Success goes up the sooner you get families into their own units, as opposed to shelter," explains the retired GTE executive.
Stability fosters better relationships with caseworkers, he notes, citing a 2006 Housing First pilot project in Madison that has helped 12 families achieve equilibrium. The success of that effort led to the January 2009 launch of a second Housing First initiative here that aims to serve 45 families per year.
Blanchard's continuing efforts to convene focus groups to address homelessness and forge affordable-housing partnerships in the community are driven by the effectiveness of the Housing First approach. "It's twice as expensive to put a family in a shelter for a year than to put them in an apartment," Blanchard observes.
His commitment is reinforced by the urgency he perceives when he volunteers at his church's food pantry. He says a growing number of people are relying on the pantry, and he discerns a more positive outlook among those pantry users who have secure housing. But his own optimism is tempered by the knowledge that the need for affordable housing may continue to grow during the recession, and lag behind recovery.
"If you're spending more than 30% of your gross income on housing," he cautions, "you're just a paycheck away from being homeless."
Blanchard acknowledges the gratification that comes with volunteer work. "As my wife says, my days at the pantry every week are the ones when I come home uplifted."
- David Medaris
ABC for Health
Community Action Coalition
Community Shares of Wisconsin
Housing Initiatives Inc.
Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc.
Mt. Zion Baptist Church's food pantry
Rape Crisis Center
608-251-5126, Crisis line: 608-251-7273, danecountyrcc.org
United Way of Dane County