Seattle Courant

Groups Helping the Poor, Struggle to Keep Pace with Demand

By Robin MacPherson
February 7, 2009 04:02PM

“We're looking at about a 17 percent increase from last year,” Claire Acey, of Northwest Harvest said. The hunger relief agency has seen a 20 percent increase in operating costs.

The Gospel Mission has seen a similar increase in demand. Last year, the faith-based organization handed out 1,000 more sandwiches than the year before and saw an increase of 3,000 overnight stays in their shelters, said Sharon Thomas-Hearns the Gospel Mission director of public relations.

To make matters worse, January is historically a slow month for giving.

“We expect a drop in fund raising in January, it always happens,” Thomas-Hearns said. “However the drop this January was more than expected. We are down from what we raised in Jan. 2008 and we are 12 to 15 percent under goal for Jan. 2009. If this trend continues at the rate that it is, we are going to have to cut services and lay off staff.”

Neither the Gospel Mission nor Northwest Harvest receive government monies to operate. They rely solely on the support of individuals, corporations and foundations to keep their doors open.

Established in 1932, during the Great Depression, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a faith-based outreach organization. More than just a roof and a kitchen, the Mission today provides numerous services for the homeless and those in need, including pro bono legal assistance and dental care, shelters for women and children fleeing domestic violence, addiction recovery programs, after school programs for youth and outreach programs for the elderly.

Northwest Harvest is a privately run organization that got its start in 1967 when a group of Seattle community leaders formed The Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry. The interfaith organization sought to provide assistance to the poor and disadvantaged. Now Northwest Harvest distributes 18 million pounds of food to nearly 300 food banks across the state every year.

“We have to be very careful stewards of this food and funding because we're anticipating a rather dry season in the spring and summer months ahead,” Acey said.

The increasing demand is reflected in the homeless and unemployment statistics for King County. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate increased 1.6 percent in the second half of 2008, going from 86,800 unemployed to 119,300 in just six months. And with the ongoing waves of layoffs at Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks, those numbers are likely to increase.

More difficult to quantify is the homeless population in Seattle. The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness completed its annual One Night Count on Jan. 30. The results show a 2 percent increase over the 2008 count, with nearly two-thirds of the individuals surveyed from Seattle alone.

However, despite the rising costs, diminished funding and increasing need, both Northwest Harvest and The Gospel Mission have seen an increase in donations and volunteers. Thomas-Hearns said there’s been a 7 percent increase in volunteers at the Gospel Mission, and over at Northwest Harvest, Acey said, “We’ve had a lot of people and companies coming forward during the holiday seasons giving even more.”