Increased demands in social services strain local churches

The yellowing trees on Hemphill Street are golden paint strokes against the gloomy sky on a chilly Tuesday morning, the leftover of a November thunderstorm the night before. Against this backdrop, several men, most of them wearing jackets, gather outside shabby auto-shops that have yet to open, looking – hoping – for a job.

Hope is the only currency to barter with in this run-down neighborhood, and many find themselves turning to the steeple in times of hardship. Two churches, First Presbyterian Church and Southside Church of Christ, stand guard on this one-third-of-a-mile stretch of Hemphill Street, nourishing not only the soul but the body as men, women and children flock outside the church’s door to get groceries.

Inside the church, volunteers ask those in line for a picture ID, a proof of residency and verification of income. The church saves its limited resources for the needy in local communities. Once neighbors have presented documentation, they wait to be interviewed by church staff.

Southside provides food to more than 400 families every month through its Food Pantry program. Glynatta Richie, coordinator of the Food Pantry program for Southside, said each family or neighbor is allowed about 40 pounds of food once a month, including nonperishable goods and fresh produce when available.

Southside not only helps its neighbors through independent programs like Food Pantry, but it also pools resources with 10 other churches to help the needy in local communities. The church is part of a 20-year-old initiative called the South Central Alliance of Churches, which provides assistance to residents in ZIP codes 76104, 76109 and 76110.

The social services offered by the alliance have experienced a surge in demand as communities under the strain of what pundits call the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression turn to local churches for relief.

The church’s pantry room is a beehive, with about 10 volunteers diligently bagging groceries after an earlier visit by a Tarrant Area Food Bank bus delivering fresh produce. Richie said the church has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of people requesting food in the past six or seven weeks.

“We just keep our fingers crossed about the Food Bank being able to furnish our needs,” Richie said, adding that food donations also contribute to the pantry.

Helping hand

Like other similar nonprofits, the South Central Alliance of Churches, housed by Southside, offers in-kind assistance, such as food, diapers, bus passes, prescription medication and clothing. But the alliance also offers much rarer financial aid to meet emergency or one-time needs of community members.

Neighbors may receive in-kind assistance once a month, whereas they may apply for financial aid only once a year.

Tiel Jenkins, director of the alliance and its only employee, said the program aims to help families or individuals – clients – who can usually meet their needs but are struggling with unexpected expenses or going through a difficult time. The alliance may provide up to $150 for utilities and $300 for rent, which are paid directly to the renter or the utility company. The alliance does not pay clients’ entire bill but what they are short on, Jenkins said.

When a potential client calls, Jenkins interviews the caller to find out whether the person’s income would usually meet his or her needs and then asks the caller to come to her office with proof of income: a Social Security award letter, paycheck stub or employment verification letter. There are always more requests than money available, so Jenkins said she evaluates requests in depth to determine who needs the help the most.

Jenkins said the alliance helps an average of about 120 clients every month, including those who receive in-kind relief. She said she refers those who are ineligible to receive aid, such as people who are not residents of the program’s service area, to other social service agencies in Fort Worth.

Beyond denominations

The alliance’s total income in 2007 was about $53,000, Jenkins said. Some member churches donate cash while others contribute in-kind items, she said.

Mike Cooley, president of the alliance board and member of First Presbyterian/Hemphill Fellowship, said the alliance’s financial contributions have not been affected by the economic slowdown yet because churches have already made commitments for the year, but the alliance might see changes in January. Some churches’ contributions fluctuate because they prefer to pursue similar programs for their own congregation, but those changes are offset by increased donations from other members, he said.

Vernon Lee, board representative for University Christian Church, said the alliance budgets together at the beginning of the year, then adjusts as the year progresses. The board meets once a month, he said.

“We keep a small reserve to see us over bad times,” Lee said.

The alliance is an ecumenical effort to better reach out to residents of low-income neighborhoods, Lee said. The member churches and the alliance have a synergistic relationship, cooperating with each other’s programs so that a program may readily supply resources to another one if needed, he said.

“There are very few people in our neighborhood who need help,” Lee said, noting that fewer aid requests come from the 76109 ZIP code than the other two ZIP codes in the alliance’s service area.

Love thy neighbor

As the holidays approach, the alliance picks up the pace for its seasonal projects.

Carol Lee, board secretary and member of UCC with husband Vernon Lee, said about 408 families signed up this year for the annual turkey basket program. Neighbors pay a $5 fee in exchange for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner – a 13-pound turkey and a sack of groceries that includes cranberry sauce, dressing, vegetables, fruit and dessert.

“If you’ve ever seen about 1,200 bags of food and 400 turkeys stacked in a room, it’s quite a sight,” Vernon Lee said.

For Christmas, churches in the alliance sponsor a certain number of children, and members in each church commit to getting a toy and clothing for each child, Carol Lee said.

But the Good Samaritan may have to deal with a reluctant stranger. Even though dozens line up outside Southside seeking help, many do so with a feeling of wounded pride.

“People don’t understand how hard it is for someone to ask for help,” Jenkins said. “And a lot of times people don’t ask for help until it is too late.”