Social service agencies bracing for Hanford layoffs

October 19, 2011 

Tri-City charities aren't worrying too much about how layoffs at Hanford will affect them -- mostly because they're already busy coping with increased demand and fewer resources.

Effects from the layoffs are likely to be more indirect for the region's social services, but they could be touched by the ripples emanating from Hanford if the overall local economy takes a hit.

"I'm worried about the service industry people on the retail and restaurant side who will be laid off as a result of not enough business," said John Neill, executive director of Tri-Cities Food Banks. "Those are the minimum wage people who are really going to need us."

The local food banks and the homeless shelter operated by the Union Gospel Mission in Pasco already are seeing high levels of demand as inflation in rent, gas and food prices has forced the working poor -- the people not earning Hanford-level salaries -- to make tough choices.

Neill said the demographics he is seeing at the three food banks operated by his organization in Kennewick, Richland and Benton City has changed in recent months to include not only the chronically poor, but college students, senior citizens and the unemployed or underemployed.

"We're seeing a drastic difference in the mix these last six months," Neill said. "It's becoming more and more noticeable."

And the rising demand has taken a toll on the supply of food available. Neill said the shelves are nearly bare, and it will be weeks before the food banks start reaping the results of holiday food drives.

"We won't see any food or money until November," Neill said. "It's going to get tough by the end of this month."

Don Porter, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission, said the men's shelter in Pasco is nearly full, and the mission is turning women away from the women and children's shelter.

While he doesn't think the layoffs will necessarily send former Hanford workers into homeless shelters, like Neill he sees possible ripple effects if the overall economy slumps and lower-wage workers start losing jobs.

"We are bound to feel some of that," he said. "Normally the layoffs at Hanford don't affect us unless we have a downhill effect. ... The layoffs themselves won't affect us with people through the door. It will be the folks down the line."

Another possible ripple effect is that fewer people in the community working higher-wage jobs could translate into fewer donations to charities at a time demand is rising and government contracts or grants are drying up.

Kathye Kilgore, director of Second Harvest Tri-Cities, said people who have been writing $100 donation checks now are writing checks for $50 or $75 as they tighten their belts.

"They've got to take care of keeping roofs over their own heads or food on their own tables," she said.

The agency -- which provides food for 55 food banks and pantries in Benton and Franklin counties -- is stepping up its efforts to raise donations, particularly of non-perishable food.

"It's not as healthy (as perishable) but it's better than not having anything at all," Kilgore said.

Colleen Miller, social services director for the local Salvation Army, is worried that donations will drop off and her meager staff of three might have to be reduced.

"Our organization relies heavily on donations from the community," Miller said. "Ultimately it'll be donors who donate directly and indirectly who affect our services, because the money won't be in our budget for the necessary staffing."

The Salvation Army provides shelter assistance, eviction prevention, clothing and household items for people in need throughout Benton and Franklin counties, and food assistance in Franklin County.

Miller said demand has risen in particular for housing assistance as rents have climbed.

"Rents have increased, but wages haven't," she said. "There is a large amount of people who can't afford the rents. ... The economy hasn't affected the middle class so much. I think who it is affecting are those who are making minimum wage."

Many local charities rely on grants from the United Way to keep their doors open, and the agency's fundraisers are aware this year's campaign is more important than ever.

Marilyn Davis, vice president of United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties, said as fundraisers, they are emphasizing the rising need as they're talking to people in the community.

"Very definitely their charitable contributions are needed now more than ever," she said.

United Way fundraisers have set a goal this year to raise $4.7 million. More than $560,000 has been raised so far. Last year's campaign also had a $4.7 million goal and brought in about $4.5 million.

Davis said it's too early to tell whether Hanford layoffs will affect this year's campaign.

"I know when we're out talking with people in the workplace we're really urging them to appeal to their concern for those who have been laid off, and more than ever to dig as deep as possible," she said.

w Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricity herald.com

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