Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 08 June 2010 14:41
Linda Ogden, CIS director, said she had four contacts in a single day last week from families facing financial shortages for such things as utilities, rent and other essentials.
“We average three calls a week, but we are out of money,” Ogden said.
In recent years, CIS has facilitated a partnership with area churches and agencies called the Marion County Family Financial Assistance Network to provide resources to meet those need through its Marion County Family Financial Assistance Fund.
In 2009, CIS provided close to $12,000 to 79 families in the county—including about 150 children—facing the loss of utilities, transportation to employment and even the roof over their heads because of a household financial crisis.
When combined with contributions from ministerial alliances, agencies, civic organizations and the families themselves, Ogden said the bills they covered easily exceeded $25,000.
“It’s all about collaboration,” she said of the effort.
So far in 2010, 34 families have received a financial boost through the assistance fund—that’s an increase from 29 families at the same time last year.
Meanwhile, CIS has reported that the support from city councils and other civic sources in the county has dropped from $9,538 in 2009 to $2,568 in 2010 as local budgets have tightened. (See table.)
At present, Ogden said she has been looking to ministerial organizations in the various communities to carry the load.
“When we run out of money, it hurts all the other resources, and vice versa,” she said. “Now, everybody has to go to other sources. The Salvation Army has been out of money since February. Now, all of our funds are just diminishing.”
As funds began dwindling, the network lowered its maximum contribution of $200 per need.
“We’re trying to keep it between $50 and $100 now, which is hard unless you scrounge up money elsewhere,” she said. “(Fifty dollars) just doesn’t take care of the bill.
“We’ve actually been able to function OK because the ministerial alliances have been pretty generous.”
Families in need
Who are the families who seek help from the Family Financial Assistance Fund?
By requirement, the household must include children or a pregnant woman. Ogden said about 75 percent of the families have at least one employed adult.
“Most of them are employed in fast food, or they drive to a factory job out of the county, which decreases their available funds because they use so much for fuel,” she said.
Ogden said most low-income families are caught in a negative cycle where they can never get ahead financially.
“Many times they have cars that are not fuel efficient and live in homes that are not fuel efficient,” she said. “It costs them more than it does for those of us who can purchase a car that goes 40 miles to the gallon, or insulate our house or buy new energy-efficient windows.”
Family crises typically involve utilities, but could include hospital and pharmacy bills, food, auto repairs, rent or mortgage payments and occasionally taxes.
In one case, funds were sent to the State of Texas so a local family could secure a copy of their children’s birth certificates, which are required when applying for aid in Kansas.
“A lot of people are just one paycheck away (from crisis),” Ogden said. “They’ll get sick and miss two weeks worth of work. They work an hourly wage, so they don’t get paid and their paycheck is half of what it was. Plus, they probably had extra expenses to buy medicine.”
Some families have children with medical cards through the state’s Health Wave program, but Ogden said the waiting time to get assistance is so long these days that children can go months without any insurance, and families have no way to pay their other bills.
Ogden said a household cannot receive assistance through the Family Financial Assistance Fund more than once in a 12-month period. When they do come for help, it’s usually as a last resort.
“By in large people are very humble, they’re very grateful,” Ogden said. “Some are tearful. Some are angry. Most of them are just so grateful they don’t have to jump through so many hoops.
“I don’t think we enable people,” she added. “But there’s no sense in making it harder than it needs to be. They already have enough hoops to jump through.
Requests are processed
When Ogden is contacted by a family—usually through referral by a city office, school or other agency—a procedure kicks in.
“I don’t ask for any documentation of their income,” she said. “Many times they’re Head Start families, and Head Start has very low income guidelines. So I know they’re low income.
“The only thing they have to do is give me documentation of the bill,” Ogden said. “Then, they also have to give me information (about the family and financial situation) and give me permission to release their name, if needed to tell pastors, or whomever, so we can coordinate the payment.”
Ogden then summarizes the situation—using a case number not a name, for confidentiality reasons—in an e-mail to a task force comprised of a representative from Early Intervention Services, Central Home Care & Hospice, Mid-Kansas Community Action Program and Prairie View.
Also, the e-mail is copied to designated pastors from Hillsboro, Marion and Peabody.
Based on their feedback, a plan of action is implemented.
“We are a resource broker,” Ogden said, meaning that she will try to connect a family to whatever resource is most able to help meet the need.
One of the first things Ogden does is send a packet to the family that includes a food-bank voucher, a resource directory and a copy of local classified ads pertaining to jobs.
She said the Family Financial Assistance Fund has been so low on money lately that the USD 410 central office, where her office is located, has agreed to cover the $1.52 it takes to mail each packet.
In many situations, the utility companies themselves become key players.
“I?work very closely with the utility companies,” Ogden said. “Atmos Energy has a hotline that only financial-assistance agencies can call—and we are on a first-name basis (with those who take the calls there).”
Thanks to the Kansas Corporation Commission, utility companies cannot disconnect household in frigid weather. But even beyond that prohibition, most companies are actually generous when it comes to helping customers who can’t pay their bills, Ogden said.
“Westar (Energy) and Atmos both have payment plans that (customers) can get on if they call,” Ogden said. “If they keep their bill paid up, they can get payment plans that are unbelievably low.
“If (customers have) broken their pay agreement, Atmos will let them play half now and half later, just to get the utilities back on. That’s a good deal,” Ogden said. “The only problem is, when the next bill comes, the other half is added to it. But it’s about all we can do sometimes. You hope the (family’s) paycheck is bigger this month.”
City governments are generally less flexible, and have on occasion disconnected customers regardless of the weather, Ogden said. If the network is able to find a way to help a family keep current on its local utility bill, everyone wins.
“It costs (the cities) even more money to pay the disconnect fee and the reconnect fee,” she said.
Community In Schools of Marion County gets its funding for its regular programs primarily through grants. But the money used for the Marion County Family Financial Assistance Fund is strictly by donation.
Ogden said none of the money is used to compensate her for the time she invests to administer the fund.
Through the years, the donations have come from businesses, civic organizations, individuals and city governments. Ogden said she has been impressed by the generosity of most communities.
“The neat thing about this is, it has given me the opportunity to get to know all these wonderful people who are ready to help,” Ogden said.
She said she encounters the occasional skeptic who thinks families needing assistance are “living off welfare.”
“We all to some extent get welfare—if not from the government, we all have somebody we can ask for help,” she said. “We’ve all had our parents do something for us. Farmers get subsidies and don’t think of that as welfare. Or we get Social Security or Medicare when we reach a certain age.
“We all have somebody who will help us. So what’s the difference? Nobody’s taking advantage here. They really aren’t.”