Increase in demand puts strain on Salvation Army

The recession has caused so many people to seek help from the Salvation Army that the charity is making its own plea for assistance.

‘We're feeling a crunch like I've never seen before," said Maj. James Seiler, the organization's metro Atlanta commander.

The Salvation Army, which has a 2010 annual budget of $20.6 million, said many people who never sought aid before are now seeking help with their mortgage payments, household bills, food and shelter.

From 8 a.m. to noon on July 7,  the faith-based nonprofit fielded 46,000 attempted calls from metro Atlanta residents trying to make ends meet. So many calls came the system crashed twice.

For the first eight months of the fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, the nonprofit provided $1.1 million in direct assistance to clients.

Under that strain, the Salvation Army recently issued a "Call to Action" asking metro area residents to donate $50 or more to help raise $300,000 by Sept. 30. It is also seeking an additional $500,000 from major donors, corporations and foundations.

"The problem is the phone is ringing off the hook," Seiler said. "There's unprecedented need. One of the first questions we ask clients is whether this is the first time they've come to the Salvation Army for assistance. We're seeing that the answer ‘yes' is up 50 percent."

Connie Smith falls in that category.

The Marietta woman recently found herself seeking help to pay her electric bill.

When the economy tanked, Smith's home-cleaning business was hit hard. When money is tight, paying someone else to clean your house is a luxury many people are willing to give up. Smith said she lost clients "boom, boom, boom."

"I'm not someone who just wants my power bill paid," she said, "but I was so overwhelmed and running out of money. "

When she called the Salvation Army, Smith was told by the caseworker that she had seen 20 clients that morning. Smith broke down in tears. The social worker said she would get back with her. Within minutes she did -- with financial help.

Seiler said his organization has had to meet the increase in demand with "the same number of caseworkers and staff, so it puts pressure on the pipes."

"People are working overtime," Seiler said, "and literally every time you pick up the phone it's someone in crisis."

He said the organization is not planning to reduce staff or cut services. Instead, he said, its weighing its options. Some expenses may be cut -- office supplies may be refilled less often, and repairs at local offices may be deferred.

The demand keeps coming. Last month, more than 800 people showed up at the Salvation Army's Lawrenceville Corps Community Center for a fair and free school supplies. The center only had enough for about 500 children.

The tough times have hit other nonprofits. During the first five months of 2010, 40 percent of public charities and private foundations reported that contributions fell, compared with 28 percent that remained the same and 30 percent that increased, according to a survey by GuideStar, a Washington, D.C.-based source of information about nonprofits.

Eight percent of nonprofits surveyed said they were in imminent danger of closing. About a third said they are increasing their reliance on volunteers.

But it's not just stagnant or declining donations affecting nonprofits. State governments are also facing a financial crunch and passing that along to nonprofits with whom they contract for services such as running food banks and shelters.

"Almost every state has a budget shortfall, and they're saying, ‘Sorry, we can't pay your contract or we'll pay six months from now, but we still need you to provide those services,' " said Sara Koslow, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Nonprofits. "People don't  realize how much nonprofits rely on that kind of funding as opposed to individual giving and foundations."

Donations may be made by using the Call to Action link at www.salvationarmyatlanta.org, by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY or by mailing your donation c/o Call to Action, The Salvation Army, P.O. Box 49247, Atlanta GA 30359.