The economic crisis is putting an increased burden on nonprofit organizations, including those that help homeless people. More people are seeking the organizations' services at a time when donations are down and banks and local governments are less willing to help the groups.
There's an emergency meeting in Washington, D.C., Monday called "Nonprofit 911." It's for hundreds of charities, businesses and government officials in the capital region. The groups say the recession is making it harder to help people in need.
SERVE Inc., a nonprofit group in Manassas, Va., provides emergency housing and food. Like many charities, it is seeing a lot more people at its door these days who are looking for help. Its homeless shelter can't keep up with demand, and those who do get to stay are more desperate.
Not long ago, the shelter saw about 15 children a month. In September, there were 58.
The children include 2 1/2-year-old Tristan, an impish redhead who has been here with his mother for three weeks now.
His mother, Heather Buechling, says she is here because she has nowhere else to go. She says her husband just went to jail, and she wasn't working, "so I didn't have any place to stay."
She has been trying to find work, but that's not easy these days, Buechling says. "There's not too much within walking distance. And getting [Tristan] to day care and then getting to a job — it's just ... hard," especially because she doesn't have a car.
A recent dinner at the shelter featured fried eggs, bacon, hash browns and salad. The food comes from SERVE's nearby pantry. It, too, is seeing bigger crowds than it used to. Cheri Villa, the group's president and chief executive officer, says the nonprofit is also seeing a whole new kind of client.
"They're teachers, they're transportation workers, they're hospitality workers," she says. "They're folks who have found themselves falling between the cracks and not having the means to pick themselves up and move forward."
The increase in people needing help comes at a time when donations are down, Villa says.
Making matters worse, across the country nonprofits are having a harder time getting help from banks to make ends meet.
"Lines of credit are very hard to come by. You know, you have to have collateral. And if you have a piece of property that's attached to the real estate market," it's probably not worth what it used to be, she says.
Villa realizes that the same downward spiral is affecting a lot of people.
"Talking to the banks ... we've tried a number of times and a number of ways, and it's really hard because they're just really not talking to us right now," she says.
Like many nonprofits, SERVE gets money from local government to help provide social services. Those payments are also threatened.
"Of course, we're dealing with the economic downturn that's facing our county, our region, our state and our nation. So we're facing what everyone is facing," says Melissa Peacor, assistant county executive in Prince William County, where SERVE is located.
She says 5,000 county homes went into foreclosure this year, driving down property values throughout the county. That has also meant a drop in tax revenues — and an $85 million hole in the county budget.
Peacor says cuts in payments to nonprofits are inevitable, but not in every case — especially when crucial services are involved.
"We're also looking at, can they do it less expensively than we do? And I think you're going to see some examples in this budget where we actually stop providing the service and actually give more money to the nonprofits so they can do it for us," Peacor says.
That could be welcome news, but charities are also worried about something else being discussed here and in other cash-strapped communities: Prince William is rethinking the property tax exemption that it gives nonprofits — a tax break that costs the county a lot of potential revenue. This has nonprofits really nervous and is one of the many dark clouds on the horizon that have led to things such as Monday's emergency summit in Washington.
Terri Freeman is president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, one of the sponsors of the summit. She says there just isn't enough money to go around.
"I think it is inevitable that there will be nonprofit organizations that will go out of business, that will join hands with other nonprofit organizations, that may scale back their offerings and be more specific in what they provide," she says.
Freeman says some charitable groups might just have to pool their expenses for things such as accounting and human resources. She says the important thing is that nonprofits, businesses and government leaders talk with each other and try to figure out the best way to get through the crisis together — and to come up with some innovative ideas so those who are suffering the most will be hurt the least.