With charity dollars becoming scarce and the need for help rising, a coalition of Indiana County social service agencies is working to coordinate their efforts and resources to help people pay their utility bills and meet other emergency financial needs.
The Indiana County Department of Human Services is directing the effort after gathering agency representatives Tuesday morning to compare their experiences and explore ways to stretch the assistance dollars they have available.
A database of social service clients and their needs would be the anchor of the unified service program.
Government and publicly funded organizations such as the Human Services Department, Indiana County Community Action Program (ICCAP), the Open Door, Aging Services Inc., and Indiana County Children and Youth Services are in the coalition, but so are many church-based organizations such as St. Vincent DePaul Society, Grace United Methodist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Catholic Charities, and Penn Run Church of the Brethren. The organizations’ missions and available resources are just as varied as the needs that they serve.
Human Services Director Bonni Dunlap said that coordinating the agencies is not a new concept, but this project is different.
“Human services in Pennsylvania are diverse because every county gets to set up their own system. So in some counties like Allegheny or Venango, all the human services are under one umbrella,” Dunlap said. “They have databases and all their operations get shared. It doesn’t mean the churches participate. I think this is unique in that we’re bringing the faith community into it. We have nonprofits, governments and churches.”
The agencies have been helping people to pay electric, gas and water bills, rent and deposits, car repairs, medical bills, insurance and taxes. Some have limits on the amount of money they provide, and some have residency requirements.
Dunlap estimated that the agencies had donated well over $200,000 to people in need in the past year.
Some agencies provide referrals to others, and some require people to apply for help from other agencies before considering their requests. A few set waiting periods for clients before they can return to ask for more assistance.
The agencies offer a range of counseling services. Some conduct extensive interviews and require clients to take household money-management training in order to qualify for help, while others are prohibited by the government from requiring such counseling.
Some of the representatives said the kind of help their agencies offer is restricted by the sources of their funds, such as government grants.
At ICCAP, for example, the agency must return some government grant money for the fiscal year that ended Monday (Sept. 30) because few clients could meet requirements to receive funds.
“People are required to be homeless and moving into housing, but do not have money to pay for utility security deposits,” said Michelle Faught of ICCAP. But the government sets a maximum on the monthly rent they pay, and few clients have found suitable houses or apartments within the rent limits.
From a grant of $5,000, ICCAP will be refunding almost $1,000 to the government, Faught said.
Other agencies’ ability to help depends entirely on support of the communities they serve.
“In the fiscal year that ended Monday (Sept. 30), we distributed more than $98,000 in Indiana County. We have tried to partner with other organizations, whether it’s Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, or whoever,” said Jim Froelicher, representing the St. Vincent DePaul Society.
The society once had only a few thousand dollars available to help people, according to Chuck Spadafora, the new president of the St. Vincent DePaul Society board, but the amount has multiplied since opening a thrift shop next to the Bi-Lo store in the North Fourth Street Plaza in White Township.
“So keep taking your extra clothes and knick-knacks to that thrift store,” Spadafora asked the group. “That’s where we get major dollars that we’re fortunate enough to give away, through the volunteers that work at the store.”
Doris McAnulty of Grace United Methodist Church said the church has provided about $12,000 in cash assistance so far this year, and operates a food bank.
The Rev. Tim Monroe, pastor of Blairsville Presbyterian Church, said the church has a mission fund and a trust fund of about $2,500 administered by the pastor.
“When someone shows up at our door, they get a lot more attention than if they call on the phone,” Monroe said. “When you do that, you get to understand a lot about the person’s situation and needs.”
Indiana County CYS is a little known source of help, but the aid is limited to client families, said representative Sandra Harris. She said the clients need to exhaust all other resources before they qualify for aid.
At Trinity Methodist Church, Pastor Greg Golden said about two-thirds of the charity budget of $6,000 goes to utility assistance.
Gary Alsop, of Coral, said the Luther Chapel maintains a food bank but also stores household goods such as paper products and baby supplies, but has minimal cash available for utility assistance.
On the other hand, Catholic Charities has several full-time employees handling an average of 100 requests for assistance each day and provides $80,000 to $100,000 of aid annually. For the four-county Greensburg Catholic Diocese, the office already has built a database of 30,000 clients, according to representative Donna Hagan.
Nearly every agency requires people in need to complete an application or fill out a form, but the information they collect differs from office to office.
In the unified system under development, each agency would enter client information into the database and make it available to other agencies, saving the time needed for a client to fill out a form at every agency where they ask for help.
The agencies that participate in the program would be required to sign a contract with Indiana County, in which they would pledge to keep all the information confidential and promise to not use the database for any other purpose.
While agencies could review the factors used by other agencies to grant or deny requests for help, Froelicher cautioned that clients should still be entitled to confidentiality of some of the information they provide.
“Some will not sign the form because they don’t want their information such as church membership shared,” Froelicher said. “How do we deal with that? We have to find a way to respect that and still provide help.”
In the roundtable discussion, Spadafora suggested that certain offices or churches could be designated to specialize in certain kinds of assistance, such as providing baby clothing, storing furniture or conducting personal-finance counseling programs, in order to avoid duplication throughout the county.
According to some of the agency representatives, the coordination of the assistance could help the poor meet more of their needs. For example, some agencies might limit cash aid to $50 but a heating oil company requires a minimum order of $100 for a fuel delivery. But by networking the resource information, agencies could help needy people find a combination of assistance to get the $100 to fill their fuel tank.
“What strikes me … is that we’re looking at a quarter of a million dollars that we’re giving out in utility assistance. That’s a lot of money and we’re giving it away piecemeal,” Dunlap said. “So the purpose of our meeting today is to decide how we want to collaborate, how we want to put this information together and go forth.”
The core group will met again Oct. 15 for an introduction to the online database and a proposed joint application form that clients would use to request assistance from all the agencies. They also will arrange for training for agency representatives to use the system and set a date to start the program.