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Less help as more need aid

An economic downturn, a wave of foreclosures and anemic state and local budgets are combining into a stark reality for those who work with housing and the homeless: People need more help at the exact time that there’s less help available.

“We’re already seeing some budget cuts from the state, and there are other budget cuts that are going to come,” said Major William Raihl of the Las Vegas Salvation Army. “A lot of families are living on the edge. These tough economic times are pushing them over the side.”

Shelters, food banks and assistance programs are all reporting increased requests for service because of a perfect storm of economic misery: higher food and gasoline prices, higher health care costs, layoffs, and a foreclosure rate that’s the highest in the nation.

But perhaps most telling is that people who were once donors and volunteers now need assistance.

“Many of the people we’ve seen in the past who gave us donations — now they’re in a position where they need help,” said Phillip Hollon, residential services director for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada. “They’re embarrassed. That’s very hard for them. But it’s something that’s required to take care of their family.”

Clark County numbers show the trend as well.

A program that provides rental vouchers served almost 10,000 people in the past fiscal year.

In the current budget year, though, the county’s on track to process almost 13,000 people through the same program.

Budget numbers show that, too.

Last year the program cost $7.2 million, about 14 percent more than was budgeted.

That’s not unusual, said county spokeswoman Jennifer Knight: “You have to estimate every year how many people are going to need aid.”

This year, however, costs are expected to reach $8.8 million, which is 31 percent higher than budgeted.

The demand is also showing up in other areas.

Requests to the county’s social services department in the first three months of this year were 33 percent higher than the same period in 2007.

“We’re seeing a new demographic,” Knight added. “We’re seeing more families. People who previously had more resources and were more prosperous are now coming to us.”

With a slow economy and tax revenue down, will the dollars be there for these services?

“That’s a good question,” Knight said. “We just have to take it on a year-by-year basis.”

Catholic Charities has seen demand double at its food bank, to more that 100 bags of groceries a day from about 50.

The organization also provides food to The Shade Tree, which houses women and children.

The residents there have numbered about 120 in the last 10 days, more than double the normal amount, Hollon said, with foreclosures getting the blame.

There are about 250 men in a separate program for people having trouble finding housing, a 25 percent increase from two months ago, he said.

“We are planning for much higher impacts” as the year progresses, Hollon said. “The funding from the legislative session and Clark County is getting smaller. We’re looking to really work smarter and make our resources go longer.”

The Salvation Army’s emergency shelter, meanwhile, sees about 500 people a day, roughly a 25 percent increase from two years ago, Raihl said.

And the clients are not as monolithically older men as they used to be.

“Anecdotally, the increase is just obvious to us,” Raihl said. “Our priority right now is women and children, because that’s a need that’s exploded over the past year.

“There really is a lack of facilities in Las Vegas. There’s really no place for intact families to stay.”

The Salvation Army’s biggest worry, though, is a cut to its drug and alcohol addiction treatment program, which serves 1,600 people a year. It stands to lose $380,000 in state funding because of revenue shortfalls at the state level. That’s about a third of the program’s $1.2 million budget.

“That’s substantial. We’re scrambling,” said Raihl, who said he “turned white” when he heard that news.

There’s also bad news over at HELP of Southern Nevada, which offers an emergency rental assistance program.

They’re expected to have $200,000 less in the next budget year, even though that budget already is inadequate.

“We usually run out of funding. It’ll probably be gone by the middle of this month,” said Terrie Stanfill, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “Next year, it’ll probably run out in April.”

The news isn’t all bad. For instance, state cuts spared $1 million in homeless funding, $600,000 of which is slated for housing in Clark County for 375 homeless people.

But that’s a slim ray of hope. When budgets are cut to make ends meet, programs that can prevent or cut short homelessness suffer, noted Linda Lera-Randle El of Straight from the Streets, a homeless outreach organization.

“The beginning of homelessness starts with these budget cuts,” she said. “We don’t ever save anything. We just look good on paper.”

The Salvation Army’s Raihl was equally grim.

“I’m generally an optimist. But I’m a pessimist for the rest of this year,” Raihl said. “By the time we hit Christmas, we’re going to be in some difficult times.”

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate @ reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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