Safety nets strain to meet needs

Tough times put area aid agencies, family support systems to the test

  • government-aid-graphic-11-01-2011

  • Michelle Hanson has been impacted by the current economic downturn and has  fallen out of the middle class. Three years ago, she was living in a comfortable 3 bedroom home she owned with her husband. Now, she is living in Cherry Street Mission's transitional housing.
    Michelle Hanson has been impacted by the current economic downturn and has fallen out of the middle class. Three years ago, she was living in a comfortable 3 bedroom home she owned with her husband. Now, she is living in Cherry Street Mission's transitional housing.

    Last of three parts

    Michelle Hanson did everything right and she still lost it all.

    Just two years ago, the 49-year-old lived in a comfortable three-bedroom house she and her husband owned in South Toledo. It had a two-car garage and a finished basement with a kitchen, perfect for hosting her four grown children and their children for family dinners.

    Today, she doesn't like to think too much about those days. The memories make her too sad.

    After suffering a shoulder injury, she lost her job at a Pepsi warehouse. Then her husband left her with a mountain of debt. Then she lost the house.

    For about a week, she sat around feeling sorry for herself. Then she decided to do something about it. She moved in with relatives. Went back to school. Hit the job market.

    And still, it didn't work.

    Her story shows the lightning speed with which people can fall into poverty in today's unforgiving economy. It also highlights a defining legacy of the Great Recession. After three years of brutal economic conditions, the infrastructure of social services on which people once depended, from family help to government assistance, has been largely obliterated. Life changes such as divorce or injury that once threatened to knock a person down a few rungs on the economic ladder can now knock the ladder over completely.

    When Ms. Hanson found herself without a home in 2009, she moved to Virginia to live with her eldest daughter. Then she did what job-placement experts advise: She got advanced-skills training.

    After a year-long medical assistant training program at Everest College in Newport News, Va., she wanted to return to Toledo, where her other children still lived. She was sure she would get a job.

    She moved into her son's converted garage. It wasn't the Four Seasons, but it was temporary. She began applying for jobs but didn't get any calls back.

    "I put in so many resumes," she said. "I would go to medical offices, but they all wanted two years of experience."

    Eventually she settled for a part-time, third-shift job at Walmart in Perrysburg. She could afford some necessities -- gas, car insurance, food -- but that was it. She was making no progress at all toward getting an apartment of her own.

    Family strife

    This is where many people go quiet or change the subject. Like Ms. Hanson, people who fall on hard times rarely walk out of a home or apartment, blankets in hand, and curl up on a park bench.

    There's almost always an intermediary period during which they stay with friends or family. This is the traditional first line of defense against economic woes.

    But when those woes last not for weeks or months but for years, those old lines of defense begin to break down. This is especially true for the many people who have fallen from the middle class because of the economic conditions of the past three years.

    Many have never had to ask for assistance from family or friends, and, in all likelihood, those family and friends aren't accustomed to offering it. The result, too often, is strife.

    Just before Ms. Hanson moved in with her son, he lost his job as a welder at MTS Transportation. Soon after, his wife gave birth to a baby. With a newborn in the house, and with Ms. Hanson's daughter-in-law, a registered nurse at a local hospital, carrying most of the financial load, tension grew between the two women. Ms. Hanson felt that she had to make a decision: Keep a roof over her head or preserve her relationship with her son. She chose the latter.

    The United Way referred her to Sparrow's Nest, a homeless shelter for women operated by Cherry Street Missions, where she spent most of the summer. Now, she's living in The Oaks, Cherry Street's transitional housing. She's thinking about attending the University of Toledo and becoming a registered nurse. When asked if that scares her, given what happened last time she went back to school, she takes a deep breath.

    "It's time to quit looking back and start looking forward," she said.

    Calls for help

    With family members increasingly unable to help one another, social service agencies are carrying a larger load.


    Sudden Descent, Part 1: Great Recession Begets a New Class of Homeless

    Man's Plight Illustrates Depth of Area's Problems

    Sudden Descent, Part 2: Desperate Times Seize Area Suburbs

    "Jobs Are Everywhere But Here"

    Calls to the United Way of Greater Toledo jumped to nearly 68,000 in 2010 from about 48,000 in 2007.

    The complexity of those calls also has grown. People who might have called for help with utilities in the past now are calling about food and rent assistance.

    At the same time, agencies are taking big hits to their budgets. The United Way usually receives $400,000 in federal emergency food and shelter grants at the beginning of each year.

    But because of the debt-ceiling debate in Congress, that grant money came in July. And when it finally arrived, the amount was only $240,000 -- 40 percent less than in past years.

    The combination of increased needs and reduced budgets has created a nightmare situation for Toledo's poor. The number of needs local agencies are unable to meet for things such as food, rent, and utility assistance has more than quadrupled in the past three years, to more than 8,100 in 2010 from nearly 1,700 in 2007, according to the United Way.

    In just the first 7 1/2 months of this year, 8,969 needs have gone unmet.

    Widespread problem

    It's the same all over town. The Interfaith Hospitality Network, which houses local homeless families in churches throughout the city, is turning away 40 families a week, its director said. Cherry Street Missions' shelter population has grown 19 percent in the past year. The number of meals the organization serves has increased 25 percent.

    The demographics of the shelter also have changed in recent years, said Dan Rogers, president and chief executive officer. Ten years ago, most were from the central city, and nearly all were there because of poor choices. Today, more are coming from the suburbs and about 22 percent are there because of economic forces outside their control, he said.

    With the erosion of family assistance and private aid, the final line of defense -- government help -- is being sought at record rates. More than one in five Lucas County residents receive food stamps, an increase of 26,000 people over the past four years. More than 10,000 county residents have been added to Medicaid. And wait times of more than two years are commonplace for those seeking Social Security disability benefits.

    At the same time, local, state, and federal governments are facing massive deficits of their own. Oftentimes, their answer is to scale back aid for the poor.

    A family's journey

    In many ways, Arnett Gadson's life is less stable now than it was during his two military tours in Iraq. The difference is that in Iraq, at least he knew his family was secure.

    The 28-year-old Army veteran has been homeless for several months. He, his wife, Nicole, and their three children, ages 1, 3, and 5, are living at Beach House Family Shelter, just north of downtown Toledo.

    Their accommodations -- a single room with four twin beds and a crib for the baby -- are some of the best they've had since April, when Mr. Gadson was injured in a motorcycle accident. He had just taken the bike -- a sleek 2002 Suzuki GTS-R -- out of storage when a sport utility vehicle ran a stop sign and slammed into him. "It looked like scrap metal," Mrs. Gadson said of the bike.

    So too does the inside of her husband's body. After extensive surgery, it's full of plates, rods, and screws. One leg is a quarter inch shorter than the other. He walks with a cane or crutches, which are tricky on the Civil War-era staircase to the family's room. What bothers him most is that he can't roughhouse with the kids.

    After losing their apartment and selling their minivan, the Gadsons, who are from the Detroit area, stayed in hotels for about a month and a half. During that time, they tried to get into an apartment. Mr. Gadson was getting an unemployment check -- he had been a maintenance worker at apartments in Ann Arbor -- but landlords wouldn't accept unemployment as a valid form of income.

    Where to go next?

    When their savings ran out, they began staying with family members.

    "We probably moved 20 times since the accident," Mr. Gadson said. "It's not easy with a family of five."

    They stayed for a month with Mr. Gadson's father in the Detroit suburbs, but he was diagnosed with cancer and told his son he would need space of his own as he began chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Next they stayed with Mr. Gadson's aunt, then another aunt, then a cousin, then a friend, then a friend's fiance. Finally, they moved in with Mr. Gadson's grandmother, but she lived in a retirement community that restricted the number of occupants, and the Gadsons feared their presence might threaten her own housing situation. As they were planning to move out, they got a call from Beach House in Toledo, one of the many shelters where they had been on the waiting list.

    Government aid

    During all of that time, the Gadsons have tried to access various forms of public aid. The Social Security disability office is waiting until after a second surgery this month to determine whether Mr. Gadson qualifies. His unemployment benefits were recently cut in half because of an error at the unemployment office. They've been restored. The family applied for cash assistance but were told they didn't qualify. They appealed that decision and were approved to receive benefits, but they haven't kicked in yet. The Gadsons aren't sure why.

    Such red tape is only likely to grow, especially in the Gadsons' home state of Michigan. Facing steep budget deficits, the state's Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature are reducing aid for the poor.

    Under new restrictions enacted this year, unemployment benefits have been cut to 20 weeks from 26, food-stamp recipients will lose their monthly stipends if they have more than $5,000 in certain assets, and an estimated 40,000 people were purged from the state's welfare rolls because of a new four-year limit on benefits.

    The Gadsons, however, are slow to complain. They praise Beach House and its staff as well as the Veterans Administration, which has paid for Mr. Gadson's medical bills and recently helped the family secure a public housing voucher. In the meantime, they're trying to create as normal a life as possible for their children. "For the most part, they think it's been a big summer vacation of visiting family," Mrs. Gadson said.

    It's a vacation she hopes they'll be able to forget.

    Contact Tony Cook at: or 416-724-6065.