When the unemployment ran out, the bottom fell out for the Payson roofer who used to work steadily. His wife left him with their 3-year-old to raise. Now he was one day from eviction with no where to go.
So he talked earnestly, desperately and shamefacedly with St. Vincent de Paul Vice President Bob Close, who explained as gently as he could that the frayed, safety net charity didn’t have the $570 he needed to catch up on his rent.
On another day, in another home haunted by the downturn, a middle-aged man who had never needed help at all was about to lose his electricity. St. Vincent President Su Hubenthal listened sympathetically. A handyman, he just was getting by until the knee surgery. His diabetes complicated his recovery and he couldn’t go back to work yet. He needed $207 to keep the lights on just another month. Hubenthal said they would write a check to APS.
Earlier, Hubenthal had visited with another desperate young man — who missed five days of work while he was in the hospital and couldn’t pay his rent. Ironically, the young man with two kids he was raising alone was also giving shelter to his neighbor, who’d fallen on hard times. Hubenthal came up with the money to help him too — but just barely.
Close and Hubenthal and the 18 other St. Vincent de Paul volunteers are on the front lines of the economic battle these days, as the now chronic 10 percent unemployment rate pushes the working poor and even middle class families to the edge of their paycheck-to-paycheck juggling act.
Crippled by state budget cuts, some state agencies that provide emergency help with things like late rent and utility bills have run out of money — adding to the load of private charities. The Community Action Program (CAP), funded mostly by the state and Gila County, used to help people throughout the month, but now often exhausts its monthly budget in a week or two.
St. Vincent de Paul has long run the Rim Country’s largest food bank, which was nearly out of food before a community fund-raising drive raised $20,000 and 50,000 pounds of food. About 40 people a day line up for food boxes and other staples, generally cleaning out the shelves by the end of each day.
The food bank has been keeping pace with the 50 percent increase in demand, but the charity’s financial assistance program that helps out with things like utility bills and rent has nearly run out of money, said Hubenthal.
Last year, the charity gave away about $113,000 in cash grants and about $566,000 worth of food. The charity logged about 24,000 visits, with a once every 10-day limit on helping people. All told, about 7,000 families received some form of assistance, said Close.
Last year, the charity spent $49,000 paying rent to avert evictions, $23,000 in utility bills, $2,000 in medical bills and $3,800 to provide transportation, often crucial in helping people keep their jobs.
But recently, the account for cash assistance had dwindled to just $200.
The charity never offers assistance without a home visit, partly so that people will have a chance to tell their story with dignity on their own turf — partly to make sure that the people are making a real effort to keep their lives together.
The volunteers talk to landlords and talk to the people at Arizona Public Service, trying to get a sense as to whether a little help at a crucial moment can make a difference — since the charity can only come up with a couple hundred dollars at a time.
Hubenthal said they see a whole range of struggles, many made much worse by the downturn. Normally, the group does about 10 home visits a week. Lately, it’s been more like 15 to 17.
“Mostly, you see broken homes — single mothers, single fathers, grandparents taking care of the grandchildren. Finances are breaking up families,” said Hubenthal.
“When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, just a little thing happens and suddenly you can’t pay the rent. You’ve got seniors on Social Security — then you have a $600 bill to fix the car or $100 to fix the washing machine and you can’t pay the rent.”
Congress’ refusal to extend unemployment benefits has trapped some people — the bureaucracy itself frustrates others.
“With DES (Department of Economic Security), if you miss your appointment, you start all over. If you don’t dot all the i’s, you start all over — and you can’t pay the rent for the month,” said Hubenthal.
Many clients are seniors struggling to take care of the children of their unemployed children.
“Maybe they were doing fine on $700 a month, but now they have three kids and they’re going under. They get very, very stressed out about it,” said Hubenthal.
Every visit, the workers struggle to find that happy ending.
Close recalls the visit to the young roofer, as his 3-year-old played quietly in the living room.
“They had a beautiful relationship. He said ‘I’m going to talk to this man here for a bit, why don’t you just play.’ And the boy played very quietly. And I said, ‘we’ll see what we can do.’ So we said a prayer. And he says to his son, ‘come on over here, we’re going to pray.’ And the son at the end says ‘amen.’ So I could see the quality of life that father was trying to install into the child.”
Close then went to talk to the landlord, but got little encouragement.
As he was about to leave, the roofer ran up to him, beaming, waving an envelope.
He had qualified for a federal rent subsidy program. As a result, he needed less than $300 to avoid eviction the next day.
That, St. Vincent de Paul could afford.
“That was a quick answer,” grinned the young man, recalling the prayer.
A quick answer and another month — both for him and for the charity with its cupboards, and its bank account somehow never quite bare — an updated story of the loaves and the fishes.
Heck, maybe it’ll all turn around — and people will need roofers again, willing to work hard and raise their kids up right.
Maybe. You never know. Miracles come in all sizes.