Need for safety net services in Montgomery rises -- Gazette.Net


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As the economy struggles to rebound, more people in Montgomery County have begun turning to government and nonprofit services for aid.

“The long-held idea of what poverty looks like in this county has changed and it looks like every single person here,” said Marie Henderson, executive director of the nonprofit aid organization Interfaith Works Inc. “Your neighbors are hungry.”

Compared to four years ago, the number of people aided by food stamps, temporary cash assistance and Medicaid, as well as the number of children receiving free and reduced meals in schools, has increased.

In February, 27,341 Montgomery County households received food stamps, up from 11,397 households in February 2008, according to county data. A total of 47,483 individuals received Medicaid in February, up from 30,029 in the same month of 2008. Temporary cash assistance was provided to 1,013 households in February, compared to 648 households four years earlier.

"We have seen an absolute uptick in need," said Uma Ahluwalia, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services.

Of Montgomery County Public Schools' 146,499 students, about 32.5 percent, or more than 47,000, receive free or reduced meals, said school system spokesman Dana Tofig. He did not provide comparative figures for past years.

“Our FARMS rate has been steadily on the rise over the years,” he said.

Because of the Great Recession exacerbating the county's high cost-of-living, those turning to what Ahluwalia called the safety net have increased.

Revenues have not kept pace with need, Ahluwalia said, but the county's committment to the safety net and the support of organizations like Interfaith Works, which as nonprofits are able to leverage the private sector, are helping bridge gaps.

“There are a lot of new poor and new homeless,” said Henderson, whose nonprofit, nonsectarian organization provides shelter, clothing and food to the county's homeless and poor.

Henderson described how some of the clients who now come to Interfaith Work's clothing center because they cannot afford to clothe themselves or their children, were once donors.

“Just a course of events can move a person from donating to receiving service,” she said.

She told of a client who served three tours in Iraq but now lives in one of Interfaith Work's shelters because she was laid off due to her injuries from war.

Interfaith works serves about 35,000 clients year, through the help of about 7,000 volunteers and a budget of about $4.5 million.

Its homeless and housing programs, which includes three shelters and numerous properties owned by the organization for housing formerly homeless families, provide 135,000 meals and 100,000 bed nights annually.

Its clothing center provides $5 million in clothing and household goods free to 17,000 people each year and its Emergency Support program provides more than $200,000 in emergency cash assistance to families in financial crisis each year.

While many of the clients receiving social services might exceed federal poverty thresholds — $18,530 for a family of four — many fall below Montgomery's self-sufficiency standard and struggle to afford basic necessities such as housing, food, clothing and medicine, Henderson said. The average price of renting for a new tenant was $1,442 in 2011, according to county figures, more than the monthly income of a full-time worker paid minimum-wage.

According to Maryland Community Action Partnership, a family of four requires $82,877 annually to be economically self-sufficient in Montgomery County.

kalexander@gazette.net