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Agencies known for giving, now seeking help

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

In the wake of a national crisis involving struggling financial markets, failed banking institutions and shaken consumer confidence, organizations that normally depend on charitable contributions have been among the hardest hit.

As the demand for services provided by non-profit organizations in the Southern Crescent has increased, many non-profit, social-service agencies are cutting back, due to a lack of public and private funding.

"With people feeling the financial crunch, our donations are really slim," said Dawn Murray, founder of House of Dawn, a Clayton County-based housing assistance and life-skills-training program for homeless, young mothers.

"Our private donations have really been down this year. We're down by more than half of what we normally get by this time of the year. Even from businesses we normally get donations from, in-kind donations, we haven't been able to get a lot this year," she said. "We are, right now, having to cut down on some of the services that we give to our residents."

Non-essentials once available to House of Dawn participants, such as cable television, have been cut to save money. Rather than buying groceries from the supermarket, the program has been depending heavily on food banks. Mothers of different households have had to schedule their children's' doctors appointments together to cut down on program transportation costs.

"In the last year, I haven't seen anybody go under, but everybody is afraid of where it is going to go," said Murray. "I think it's important that we do more fund-raising on our own, because a lot of the grant money that we have depended on is going away."

Marjorie Lacy serves as executive director of Haven House. It is a domestic violence shelter in McDonough, which also helps with case management, temporary protective orders, and therapy for abuse victims. She has gone to extreme measures to save money, including replacing all of the office's overhead lights with lamps using compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Lacy said the state of the economy has had a "huge impact" on the services Haven House provides. After seeing a $143,000 cut in government funding going into FY2009, the shelter has had to cut some of its staff positions.

"We used to have two people around the clock at the shelter, and it allowed us to provide transportation 24 hours a day," said Lacy. "Now, we can only provide transportation from 8 a.m., to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Now, our residents have difficulty getting home from work.

"It's really important for the women who come in, because they don't usually have a vehicle and we don't have public transportation [in Henry County]," Lacy said. "A lot of times, because these people have low-wage jobs, they give them nightshifts ... the shifts that nobody wants. If we can't get them transportation, then they can't do that."

The absence of support comes at a time when Lacy is noticing an increase in the number of people in need of services. She said a rise in local unemployment has contributed to a rise in domestic violence, which in turn, has brought more women to the shelter.

"We have a food pantry, and two times over the summer, it was completely bare, which has never happened while I have been here," said Lacy, whose organization has had 501c3 status since 1989.

Local food banks also have felt the strain of high demand and little supply. Allyson Lewis, executive director of Feed My People, a faith-based food bank and thrift store in Stockbridge, said the number of people picking up groceries rose from 949 in August to 1,244 in September.

"Ninety percent of the people we see are unemployed right now," said Lewis. "Stores are closing and people are not giving. I am paying for more than what we get for free."

Lewis said despite the rise in demand, she has kept her shelves stocked with food by bartering overstock items with other food banks and ministries.

While the future is uncertain for many non-profits, their organizers are keeping a positive attitude, and clinging to their faith, to get them through the crisis.

"I think that right now, the people who are helping people are the people whom God is going to bless," said Lewis. "I believe that as long as we continue to meet the needs of the people, we don't have anything to worry about. God will supernaturally provide."

"I'm trying not to be afraid," said Lacy. "You have to keep a positive attitude about it. This is not a time to deny people help."