Our neighbors need our help, as does the 211 help hot line that is a lifeline for many

It was Thursday of last week, and the mother on the other end of the phone line was terrified.

She was less than 36 hours from eviction. Her entire family, including her autistic son, was out of options.

"I just don't know what to do," she said, her voice trembling. "We have no family that can help and nowhere to go. I'm terrified and getting very discouraged."

The scenario was as scary as it was unimaginable. Her husband had always worked. They were proud, self-sufficient people. Begging was not part of their constitution.

But as the recession deepened, his work shifts dried up, along with the family's savings.

Suddenly, they were hours away from homelessness.

Fortunately, before the clock tolled 5 p.m. on Friday, the Altamonte Springs family got help — thanks to Heart of Florida United Way's 211 hotline.

The hotline has been a saving grace for thousands in Central Florida. It matches struggling families with agencies that provide counseling, emergency assistance, food, shelter — and sometimes provides direct assistance through the United Way's Basic Needs Fund.

The bad news, however, is that the well has almost run dry.

Many local charities have bare shelves and depleted bank accounts.

And the Basic Needs Fund — the pot of money that sometimes helps families in dire situations — is down from nearly $1 million to $100,000.

Yet the demand is still growing.

Last month, 211 hit a depressing new record, fielding more than 17,000 calls in July — up 50 percent from a few months before that.

The vast majority came from people who had never before called for help.

Most had children.

They were people who had tried to hang on during a rough economy but had finally exhausted their savings accounts or jobless benefits.

"These are individuals like you and me," said Larry Olness, who helps run United Way's 211 program. "They are individuals who did the right things in life and, through no fault of their own, found themselves in a bad situation."

And yet the lifeline to which many of them grabbed hold is now frayed. The money to help them is almost gone.

We can do better.

My wife and I have long supported the United Way and other local charities. But after we spent some time looking at the staggering statistics of late — the growing despair and particularly the children involved — we decided to make an additional contribution to the United Way's Basic Needs campaign.

But we need to do more.

We hear a growing number of politicians arguing that government has no business involved in social issues; that private citizens and nonprofits can best meet those needs.

Well, somewhere along the way, we came up short.

There is hardly a nonprofit in town that has the resources it needs to meet the growing demand.

And though not everyone can help, many can.

That includes Central Florida's corporate stakeholders, which have the best potential to make the biggest difference.

A strong community takes care of its own.

And make no mistake: The people in need are not lazy and shiftless. At least not the vast majority of those that United Way helps after vetting their circumstances.

"These are not slackers," said United Way Vice President Jill Hamilton Buss. "They are just in trouble. And we've got to help them."

Many of them have trouble even mustering up the courage to ask for help in the first place.

In fact, the mother I spoke with last week sought help without her husband's knowledge.

Her husband is a proud man. A man who never expected to need help or wanted others to know about it. A man who, as it turns out, spent most all of his volunteer time in recent years helping other charities — even running a blog that spotlights local nonprofits.

And last Wednesday — less than 48 hours before he was to be evicted — the husband was still updating his blog, encouraging people to donate … to others in dire need.

To donate to or get more information about the United Way's Basic Needs campaign, visit hfuw.org or call 407-835-0900. None of the money goes to pay administrative costs.

And if you or someone you know needs help or guidance, call 211.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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