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Bleak Outlook : Charities Face Declining Donations but Increasing Cries for Help

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After waiting six hours in line, Dorothy Moore entered the Salvation Army office in Oxnard to apply for about $30 worth of food vouchers and a gift for her 9-year-old son.

“I was hoping to have something a little special for Christmas,” said Moore of Oxnard. “I work . . . there’s a printing shop in Saticoy that calls me when they need me. But no one has called. Times are hard now.”

Times are also hard for the Salvation Army, the United Way, food banks and other charitable organizations, spokesmen said. More people than ever are asking for help, but so far, donations are much lower than in previous years.

Capt. Paul Fanning of the Oxnard Corps of the Salvation Army said he expects more than 600 families to ask for Christmas aid before Tuesday’s application deadline. That’s about 50 families, or 250 to 300 more people than applied last year, he said.

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Because of higher prices at the grocery store, the Salvation Army also increased the amount of food vouchers that can be redeemed at participating stores for anything except alcohol or tobacco.

“I remember four years ago we thought we’d never even need to serve 400 families,” Fanning said. “Times have changed drastically.”

In addition to giving food and gifts during the holidays, the Salvation Army provides year-round emergency shelter, free meals and help with medical bills.

In the past two years, Fanning said, the number of people turning to the organization for this help has doubled.

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And people who donated to the Army in the past are cutting back.

This time last year, 25 families had volunteered to be sponsors in the Adopt-A-Family Christmas program, in which the host family buys gifts, food or a Christmas tree for a needy family. So far this year, only six families have volunteered, Fanning said.

“It seems a lot of people are being extra careful,” he said. “They’re afraid that if they spend too much now they might be here themselves next Christmas asking for help.”

Officials at United Way, which channels money to area organizations, said the rise in need and the drop in donations is a nationwide problem.

“What we’ve been seeing is that people who used to contribute in the past are now asking for the help,” said Sylvia Schnopp, director of marketing and communication for Ventura County United Way.

Another organization facing difficulties is Food Share Inc. The Oxnard food bank supplies about 180 other service agencies throughout the county with food and distributes lists of needy people.

The organization’s annual canned-food drive ends at noon today, and fewer than 14,000 cans were collected by Thursday, compared to last year’s 18,000 cans, spokesman Mike Reynolds said.

“Our goal was to hit 20,000,” Reynolds said. “I’m trying to be optimistic, but I don’t know. It’s pretty slow this year.”

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While donations are down, applications for food “are coming out of our ears,” said Virginia Riddle, treasurer of Food Share.

“We were swamped all day,” she said. “It’s at least doubled from before.”

And Fillmore Voluntary Services, which gives out food baskets during Christmas and feeds the hungry year-round, is experiencing similar difficulties. About 20% more people have asked for assistance, but donations are down about 30%, said Ramona Golson, executive director.

The local chapter of Toys For Tots, run by the Marine Corps Reserve in Port Hueneme, has been flooded by requests for holiday gifts.

“The recession is making things a lot harder,” said Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Boh, project coordinator.

“More and more people are applying for the program, but the toys are getting more and more expensive. It’s possible that we might have to cut back this year. But it’s hard to say because people don’t start donating to us until about the second week of December.”

The charity services run by Mary Star of the Sea Church in Oxnard will cut back 50% compared to last Christmas, coordinator Alice Hammond said.

“As far as contributions are concerned, this Christmas doesn’t look very promising,” she said.

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