Last December, Amanda did her Christmas shopping in a church basement in Bellevue. The single mother of two would’ve gone to Toys ‘R Us or Walmart, if she had the money. But her finances were strained, so the gifts her 3-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter would find under the tree would be selected from tables laden with donated toys that the North Hills Community Outreach Holiday Toy Shop offered for free. From time to time last year, she had also relied on the nonprofit’s food pantry to help stock her kitchen cabinets during the tougher months.
Amanda is college educated. She holds a full-time job with a social services agency helping troubled teens mend their lives, although recently she hasn’t been able to count on
steady hours. She has health insurance. "But, I avoid going to the doctor. The copayment is too big," she said.
Her circumstances are not unlike those experienced by several thousand others who turn to the North Hills nonprofit for help now and then, especially during times of national and
regional economic distress. "We see a lot of people in need who are educated and are working," said Eric Kofmehl, a retired health care executive and North Hills Community Outreach board member, who was serving as a volunteer at the toy shop when Amanda
Those who rely on the social safety net in times of hardship or whose incomes are not high enough to require them to pay federal income tax became a high-profile topic of debate during the past national election. Nonprofits whose work accounts for part of the safety net offer a glimpse of this population, which by no means is homogenous.
The demographics and economic condition of the communities a nonprofit serves are among the factors that can influence the general characteristics of the population of people who turn up in need of support, as is the type or range of services a nonprofit offers.
North Hills Community Outreach, for instance, covers 48 communities, mostly in the Pittsburgh north suburbs, which are notable for the absence of neighborhoods with dense populations of families living in poverty.
The nonprofit offers a wide range of services at its six locations, including two weekly food pantries, emergency relief and utility assistance, employment coaches, budgeting help, legal advice, winter coats for children, used cars at below Kelly Blue Book prices, and senior citizens programs, such as drivers to get them to and from doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. And it does so by stretching limited funds with an army of volunteers and a knack for getting everything from office space to the chairs they sit on donated.
North Hills Community Outreach provided more than $1.6 million in funds, services, and other support to 6,083 families during the past fiscal year with a paid staff of 30 people and about 1,400 volunteers. To receive support, families must register and show that they meet the nonprofit’s financial qualifications, which, for the most part, require household incomes
to fall within 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, with the exception of some programs for seniors.
Executive Director Fay Morgan estimates that about 30 percent of the people the nonprofit serves have disabilities and are unable to work and another 19 percent are senior citizens. "The other 51 percent are basically the working poor. Some are working part-time or working for minimum wage. We see a lot of people who get their hours cut, especially in a bad economy.
Some don’t earn much and go a couple of years without getting a raise, but their expenses still go up. They may not have benefits, so if someone gets sick, that’s a hardship. Or they might be a single parent with young kids and childcare is eating up a lot of their income."
People make their first call to the nonprofit for a number of reasons, but the most common is for help paying for a utility service that is about to be terminated. A close second is the need for food. Another is they don’t want their children to do without. "They’ll go without a coat that fits or that is warm. But they don’t let their kids go without coats. Like at the toy shop, they go there because they don’t want their kids to go without on Christmas," Morgan said.
The number of households in Allegheny County and Southwestern Pennsylvania that report having difficulty making ends meet is not insignificant. More than 21 percent of residents in Allegheny County report that they sometimes, often, or always have trouble paying for basic needs such as housing, food, and utilities, according to the 2011 Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey conducted by the University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research and PittsburghTODAY, a regional indicators project. The same level of hardship is reported by nearly 24 percent of residents across the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area.
"With my salary I qualify for food stamps," Amanda said as she selected a World Wrestling Federation action figure at the Holiday Toy Shop for her son and a Bath Beauty Belle doll for her daughter, who she describes as a "girly" girl. The nonprofit also gives the children a scarf and a coat, stocking stuffers, and other gifts. “When I have the amount of food stamps that we need, I don’t have to go to the food pantry. When I don’t have enough food stamps is when I have go, but if there’s food there that I don’t like to eat, I tell them to leave it there for someone else.”
That evening, the line began forming at 4:30 p.m. for the 5 p.m. opening of the nonprofit’s North Boroughs Food Pantry in the Allegheny General Hospital Suburban campus in Bellevue. It included several Bhutanese refugee families, who had fled ethnic strife in their country to settle in the neighborhood.
“Most people who come to the pantry come right at the beginning,” said Morgan. “We tell them we will be open until 8 o’clock, but when you are almost out of food or don’t have anything to eat that night, you are going to show up at 4:30.” Charlotte was among the early arrivals. She’s employed full-time as a security guard. Her husband, a former truck driver, suffered a serious neck injury in a motor vehicle collision and is not able to work.
They own a home, where they live with three of their children and two of their grandchildren, including a 10-month-old. Charlotte was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years ago. Although drug therapy had succeeded in holding the symptoms in check much of time, they have returned, making her job more physically demanding and future employment uncertain, which is a concern. “I keep working because we need the benefits,” she said.
She and her husband have other concerns. Like many working families who rely on the food pantry, their household finances are fragile. Even with her salary and her husband’s disability check they worry that pending property tax reassessment could make their house payments unaffordable. And feeding her family is always a challenge. The food she would later receive from the pantry — five bags filled with canned goods, produce and other items — “doesn’t last long, about a week and a half or two weeks,” she said. “But without it, we wouldn’t make it.”
Charlotte was one of about 80 north boroughs residents scheduled to receive food from the pantry that evening. Volunteers and staff had worked through the afternoon to stock two rooms with items donated by local grocers, individuals, and organizations and prepack
bags for the families who would soon arrive.
When the doors opened, the shelves were heavy with cereal, pasta, sauce, peanut butter, canned beans, lettuce, potatoes, bread, desserts and more. “By the end of the evening,” Morgan said, “most of it will be gone.”