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Published: Sunday, 10/25/2009

Toledo area charities report surge in 1st-time clients

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Yvonne Soldan could sense her hard-won, middle-class life slipping away, although she never anticipated the eventual depths of her economic misfortune - a homeless shelter.

All was fairly well until February, 2008. Ms. Soldan had been making $19 an hour as a registered nurse and nearing the finale of her mortgage payments on a manufactured home in West Toledo. But that month, she took a nasty fall at work, severely injuring her right knee.

She said the injuries resulted in her being let go from her nursing job and forced her to quit another nursing job soon afterward because of the pain. The employer, she says, fought her workers' compensation claim.

Meanwhile, bills piled up as Ms. Soldan, now 61, exhausted her modest savings.

She eventually turned in the keys to her home and for two weeks slept on the couch at a friend's house. Her next stop was the Sparrow's Nest shelter for women, a part of Cherry Street Mission Ministries, where she stayed for four months begin-ning last fall.

"I felt a lot of shame - just the fact that I had to come to a homeless shelter," Ms. Soldan said. "I met quite a few women of my age and station in life who are not drug addicts and who lost jobs, and their families are not able to take them in because of the economy."

As economies in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan founder, area social service agencies are reporting steep increases in year-to-year requests for help, particularly among first-time applicants such as Ms. Soldan and other fallen members of the former middle class.

"I've noticed lots of new requests from people who have never asked for help before, especially with utilities, mortgage, and rent," said Joyce Garvey, director of the help hot line at the United Way of Sandusky County. "A lot of times, the first words out of somebody's mouth are, 'Do you know anyone who's hiring?' So it's not that they don't want to work."

Julia Jurgenson organized a donation drive in the Bedford school system for Tent City that yielded several boxes of clothing and hygiene supplies. She was inspired by a presentation on those helped by past Tent City events. Julia Jurgenson organized a donation drive in the Bedford school system for Tent City that yielded several boxes of clothing and hygiene supplies. She was inspired by a presentation on those helped by past Tent City events.
JETTA FRASER Enlarge

The Salvation Army of Northwest Ohio, which will begin its annual Red Kettle Drive on Nov. 13, this month reported a 52 percent year-to-year increase in requests for assistance, from utility bills to food, and so far has helped more than 18,500 Lucas County households this year.

With cold weather imminent, officials there fear things may only get worse.

"We're seeing more and more families who have lost jobs or can't find jobs," said Tracy Knappins, the Salvation Army's special events coordinator. "We've heard so many times, 'I've never had to ask for help before - this is my first time.'•"

Government statistics bear out the grim anecdotes.

The latest Census Bureau figures showed Toledo as the nation's eighth-poorest city in 2008, with 24.7 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

The official unemployment rate last month was 11.3 percent in Lucas County and 10 percent in Wood County, although those figures don't include workers who have given up looking for work or whose hours have been cut.

Unemployment remains higher in southeast Michigan, where it was 14.9 percent in August in Monroe County, 16.5 percent in Lenawee County, and 17.8 percent in Hillsdale County.

Cherry Street Mission Ministries in Toledo also has seen big increases in need this year and major jumps from 2007 levels.

The number of men spending the night in its shelter at 17th and Monroe streets rose to an average of 164 this year, compared with 155 last year and 131 the year before, the charity reported. Meanwhile, the number of women sleeping at its Sparrow's Nest shelter is averaging 62 per night, a 51 percent increase from last year and a 63 percent rise from 2007.

The number of people calling the United Way of Greater Toledo's 211 assistance information and referral hot line is also growing, with 67,278 calls received from Oct. 1, 2008, through the end of September.

Service agencies say the recession has frayed common social safety nets such as family support, which typically kept many down-on-their-luck individuals from entering shelters or waiting in assistance lines.

Dee Swafford, 38, is a single mother of three in West Toledo who said she has been unemployed since February, when a work slowdown affected her job at a parts inspecting company.

She wasn't the only one in her family facing a layoff.

"At one time, my sister, my mom, my dad, and myself were unemployed," Ms. Swafford recalled. "That's just staggering when you think about it, and most of it's due to no fault of their own."

Ms. Swafford said that her parents, who for years had a solidly middle-class life, filed for bankruptcy and traded their 2008-model vehicle for a 1991 Oldsmobile.

Her father found work but makes about half of the more than $20 an hour he had been paid as a shop foreman.

Even with unemployment benefits, life lately has been a struggle for Ms. Swafford.

She said she narrowly avoided a utilities shut-off this fall thanks to last-minute help from the Salvation Army and the Lighthouse Church on Alexis Road, which together paid her $178 in past-due bills.

Her voice grew heavy with emotion recalling more prosperous days.

"In years past, there were times when as a family we would put our money together and we would go to the Salvation Army to adopt a child or a family, and we would take them Christmas presents or a Christmas dinner," Ms. Swafford recalled. "We had that abundance, so we wanted to bless other people. But now it looks like we'll be standing in line at the Salvation Army to receive help."

The plight of the poor was not unknown to Ms. Soldan, a former Salvation Army officer who in better years assisted the homeless and destitute through area churches and the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center.

Until last year, the divorcee with four adult sons and three grandchildren had never experienced such poverty herself.

She said none of her sons could take her in because of various circumstances in their lives, such as overseas military service or single parenthood. Meanwhile, her savings dwindled. "I think they had a real hard time struggling with seeing their mother not in a position of strength," Ms. Soldan said. "I was always helping people who were down and out so to speak, and now I was in that position."

Ms. Soldan said she knew of the Sparrow's Nest shelter from when she assisted the poor. She also knew that she might better qualify for housing and other government assistance if she were living in a shelter rather than a friend's house.

In her first weeks at Sparrow's Nest, she slept on a floor mat and shared one three-toilet bathroom with more than 60 women.

Although Ms. Soldan arrived with her own toiletry products, it wasn't long before those ran out.

"It was very humbling to have to say, 'Do you have any shampoo or toothpaste?'•" she recalled.

Also humbling was the time she met a woman at the shelter who was once in a recovery group at a central city church that Ms. Soldan years earlier helped facilitate.

"My first feeling was shame," said Ms. Soldan, who would approach and embrace the woman. "But I said to myself, 'Yvonne, are you going to let shame rule you or are you going to face this?'•"

Ms. Soldan said she felt fortunate to have Sparrow's Nest as an option. Yet she noted how shelter life can make even the smallest details of old daily routines, such as a morning cup of coffee, seem like luxuries.

"We were really lucky if there was any coffee in the house," Ms. Soldan said.

Although less than a year earlier, she said, "I would go to Panera's and wouldn't think anything of spending maybe five or six dollars to get a bagel and coffee. I was making good money, so I wouldn't think anything of it."

Desperate for cash, she said she soon started donating her blood plasma at a clinic for about $25 a visit.

Ms. Soldan said she developed depression during her shelter stay and exacerbated her knee problems.

She was thankful to receive free medication and counseling through Unison Behavioral Health Group.

Ms. Soldan also credits her religious faith and support from Sparrow's Nest staff with helping her rebuild her life during those four months at the shelter.

In January, Ms. Soldan said, she started receiving disability payments and was able to leave the shelter and moved into Vistula Manor, a Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority complex near downtown Toledo.

Her monthly rent started at $25, yet was still a challenge to make.

Eight months later and fully qualified for Social Security disability benefits and back payments, Ms. Soldan said, she moved from Vistula to the two-bedroom apartment in West Toledo where she now lives.

She continues to volunteer through her church, Good Shepherd Parish in East Toledo, and said that Medicare and Medicaid will help her to get knee replacement surgery that may enable her to return to nursing.

Toledo is receiving additional funds to help with economic issues facing those such as Ms. Soldan. Just last week, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) announced more than $700,000 in federal money coming to the area.

The Toledo Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Toledo were awarded the money and plan to make it available to local nonprofits.

The devastating effects of unemployment, home foreclosures, and the cycle of poverty will be in the public spotlight this coming weekend during 1Matters Tent City, formerly the Homeless Awareness Project Tent City, on Civic Center Mall downtown.

Volunteers will distribute clothes and meals to the area's homeless and provide free services such as medical and dental care.

Julia Jurgenson, a sophomore at Bedford High School, organized a district-wide donation drive for Tent City at four Bedford schools, filling almost five large boxes with clothing and hygiene supplies.

The 15-year-old, a member of Youth Leadership Toledo, said she was inspired by a recent video presentation of those helped by past Tent City events.

"It kind of hit me in a spot that I haven't been hit before," the Lambertville teenager said. "It makes you realize how much you actually do have - to wake up in the morning and have a roof over your head and parents who love you."

Tent City's community-wide clothing drive continues through Tuesday, and items may be dropped off at all city of Toledo fire stations and suburban stations in Perrysburg, Perrysburg Township, Maumee, Rossford, Oregon, Monclova Township, Springfield Township, Lake Township, Sylvania, and Sylvania Township.

Organizers said they are in exceptional need of jeans, gloves, and long underwear.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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