BY CASSANDRA SPRATLING
A record number of Michiganders are turning to public agencies, private organizations and religious institutions for help. Those agencies are being fueled by staff and volunteer support, government funds and donations.
But as needs increase, the fuel is running low.
Calls for assistance to the United Way of Southeastern Michigan's 211 hot line are expected to top 408,000 by the end of this year, surpassing last year's record of 393,439, according to the most recent statistics from its downtown Detroit office.
"The No. 1 request is for gas bill payment, followed closely by food, and third is rent payment assistance," said Kristen Bolds, operations manager for 211.
Unemployment is the biggest driver of need, said Gerry Brisson, a vice president for Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.
"The month of July we distributed 3.2 million pounds of food; that compares with 2.4 million pounds of food in July of 2009," Brisson said. "We're planning to see double-digit increases in need each month.
"Until jobs come back, people will be running out of resources. They have to depend more and more on emergency resources because their own resources are just not there."
With the national economic downturn deep into its second year, and Michigan's recession stretching beyond five years, help agencies and organizations are squeezed tighter than ever.
The food pantry at St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Riverview has had to limit its service to Riverview residents, because there isn't enough food to assist people from surrounding communities. The church went from serving 12 families a week six years ago to providing food to about 70 families each week, said Sister Ann Kasparek, co-director of Christian service.
Pantry organizers often worry about running out of food. Whenever the cupboards begin to look empty, they put the word out to parishioners for help.
"It's really sad. People have lost work. They've lost benefits," Kasparek said. "We see professional people who can't find work. Riverview has traditionally been a pretty middle-class neighborhood. If it's affecting us, it's got to be affecting others."
The calls are coming in steadily, all day and all night at 211, metro Detroit's leading help line.
"We have 15 call handlers during the day; we could use 25 to 30," said Kristen Bolds, operations manager for the line operated by the United Way.
Bolds said 211 expects to receive 408,000 calls this year. That's 14,561 more calls than last year's record-setting 393,439.
"Recently we had to change our voice-mail message from 'We'll call you back in 48 hours' to 'We will call you back within five to seven business days,' " said Delphia Simmons, program director for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Recovery Program at the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS).
Often, Simmons said, those asking for help are not chronically poor; they are folks who are out of work but have established lives.
"There's a myth that welfare recipients only live in poor, urban areas," said Doug Williams, former director of the Oakland County Department of Human Services, who's now director in Wayne County. "The registration of new applicants in Oakland County exceeds that of any county outside of Wayne County. In Farmington, there was a 59% increase in the number of applicants for food assistance this year compared to last year."
Lisa Cain is executive director of God's Helping Hands, a nonprofit food pantry in Rochester Hills, where people who need food can pick up nonperishable goods Wednesdays and Thursdays.
"We're seeing more and more people every month," Cain said.
"We help anyone in southeastern Michigan, and people are coming from just about every city there is. You don't think about people living in Bloomfield Hills needing help. But there are people in every city who are struggling."
"We're seeing more and more people needing and using emergency food services," said Gerry Brisson, senior vice president of Gleaners Community Food Bank, one of the oldest food banks in the country. "Are our partners worried? Yes. I'm hearing from some partners that they're giving less, rationing to make sure everybody gets something."
At the two-year-old Fish & Loaves Community Food Pantry in Taylor, clients have the unusual option of shopping the aisles and selecting their own food -- instead of being handed prepackaged boxes and bags of food.
The pantry, which started as a collaborative effort among six Downriver churches, served a record 1,402 families in June.
"I never thought I'd be in this situation, widowed and disabled," said Shannon Meyers, 40, of Taylor. She recently shopped with her son at Fish & Loaves, following a referral from a friend. "They don't make you feel bad that you got to get food."
Clients have to make appointments to shop there and must qualify in advance based on income, number of people in the household and other factors that determine need. They also have to live in one of the six communities served by the pantry: Taylor, Allen Park, Southgate, Brownstown, Romulus and Dearborn Heights.
The pantry is open four days a week and is operated completely by volunteers.
"I like helping, paying it forward," said Rosemary Toporek, 64, of Taylor as she washed fresh fruits and vegetables with two other volunteers, sisters Molly Pohutski, 18, and Jenna Pohutski, 16, both of Trenton.
The pantry's general manager, Russ Newsome, also a volunteer, said he began working there to do something after he retired from Ford, where he was a supervisor and buyer.
"What was supposed to be a little bit of volunteering turned into a full-time job," said Newsome, 60, of Southgate. "I served in Vietnam and I worked at Ford for more than 30 years and came out with all my fingers, so it's just a way of paying it back."
Most the food comes from Gleaners, Forgotten Harvest and donations. Fresh vegetables -- tomatoes, peppers, squashes, lettuce and more -- come from a garden in back of the pantry.
"This place is heaven-sent. I don't know how I would make it if it weren't here," said Deanna Rayburn, 38, of Dearborn Heights, who's disabled and the primary caretaker for two children and her father.
"They treat you with dignity and respect, like you're one of them."