While the number and percentage of people living in poverty in Crawford County have declined in the past year, the number seeking assistance from local social service agencies is skyrocketing, according to directors of several agencies designed to assist people in needed.

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show the 2003 data has 10,669, or 12.3 percent, of Crawford County’s population living in poverty.

Records for 2002 show the same statistics as 11,408 persons, or 13.1 percent.

On the surface, one may think the poverty level is causing the increase in requests for help.

However, directors of area social service agencies say that isn’t necessarily so.

Requests are coming from those who are over the income level to get help from the government, but who still don’t make enough money to meet basic needs like rent, food and heat.

“We are seeing increases, especially in utility help (requests),” said Linda Bennett, director of the Center for Family Services, which helps families with financial and other problems.

Double-digit cost increases hit most forms of home heating fuel in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as the storm knocked out utility production facilities. For home-heating oil, the average residential price is about 25 percent above last year’s, while propane is about 15 percent higher but down from its post-hurricane peak, the federal Energy Information Administration said. Natural gas, the state’s most prevalent home heating fuel, shows percent increases anywhere between the teens and whopping 50 depending on the utility company.

Bennett said many of her requests are from families who “fall between the cracks” — those whose income may not fall in the federal poverty level guideline, but who don’t have enough money to stretch to pay all the increases in basic costs.

She also said a factor may be due to greater public awareness of the assistance available. In addition, she said there may be more requests for help in other areas, such as clothing, because as people pay more for utilities, they have to cut back in spending on items such as clothing.

The center offers used clothing for sale at low prices to help families in need.

Statistics from the center shows rental assistance has gone up 84 percent; general housing programs, 136 percent; and utility programs, 136 percent.

“We are getting three new families each week” for clothing requests, she said, noting there are 1,100 families who use that program. Also up is the number of requests for “household goods, such as bedding, curtains, and pots and pans,” she added.

The Meadville Soup Kitchen, which provides a hot lunch for anyone needing one every day, also has seen an increase in the past year, according to Bev Nutter, director.

“We have been lately (seeing an increase) from what I was seeing a year ago,” she said. “We are getting about 20 more a day,” she added. That’s an increase of 30 percent — up from 65 a day in 2004.

Lunch is served to anyone who shows up with no questions asked, so there is no documentation about why the number has increased.

Sandra Rossi, director of the United Way of Western Pennsylvania, also has received a huge increase in requests for help —particularly in utility payment assistance. “We have seen a 100 percent increase,” she said.

“The amounts people are needing are a lot more,” she noted, adding one reason for that is a change in Public Utility Commission regulation. Previously, gas couldn’t be turned off during winter weather. That is no longer the case.

The regulation has been changed so that the utility can’t cut off the gas or electric if the “client has contacted the utility and is acting in good faith,” she said. That means the client and the utility have worked out a payment agreement and the client is keeping those arrangements. “Sometimes there is a difference between what the utility believes is good faith and what the client believes,” Rossi said.

In addition, the cost of pro-pane has doubled. “What once cost $300 to fill up a tank, now costs $600,” Rossi said. “Some people just don’t have that.”

She also noted many of her requests are from people who make too much money to qualify for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program or because the agencies administering those programs have spent all their allocations.



Jane Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at jsmith@meadvilletribune.com

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