Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh is reporting a 40 percent increase in the number of calls from people seeking help as the country continues to struggle with the economy.
Not only is the increase a significant change from this time last year, according to executive director Susan Rauscher, but "we are also seeing an increase in the complexity of the situations."
Some who had been able to get from paycheck to paycheck are finding that the rising costs of gas, food and utilities "have put a significant strain on their income, which can no longer cover their expenses," she told the Pittsburgh Catholic, newspaper of the Pittsburgh Diocese.
Others have lost their job or suffered an illness or car-repair bill, causing "an upheaval in their ability to manage their budgets," she said.
Some, she said, "seem to have been simply pounded down by the current economic situation with shut-off notices, eviction notices and medical bills all pressing for payment immediately."
The agency is responding by "doing our best to simply be able to return all the phone calls. This alone has proven to be a monumental task," she said.
At the same time, Catholic Charities is reassessing its current resources to determine if it can provide additional support to these clients.
"This is no small task since needs have already drained half of our annual budget for that department in the first two months," she said.
Rauscher also said the agency is varying its programming to meet increasing demand and trying to work with other service providers "in a more efficient manner in order to better serve clients."
Officials are trying to organize teams of volunteer advisers to lead regional workshops to educate people on ways to avert problems before they become a crisis by covering information on budgeting, financial literacy, regional resources, resume writing and interviewing skills.
"We are working with counties to try to facilitate needed responses on a broader basis," she said, noting that Catholic Charities offices throughout the Pittsburgh Diocese are seeing increases in calls for help.
The agency wants to work closely with parishes, Rauscher said. "It is more important than ever that we don't duplicate services and are conscientious stewards of the resources entrusted to us."
This summer the agency added two bilingual caseworkers to its information and referral staff as the calls for help increased, one for Spanish-speaking clients and the second to help ease the backlog.
"It was the significantly higher number of calls related to emergency assistance that is the indicator of the current crisis," she said.
Another concern is the approach of cold weather.
"There is a very real sense of urgency," she said. "It is vitally important that people seek assistance as soon as they anticipate a problem. Many issues are easier and less expensive to resolve before a utility is shut off or an eviction is enforced.
As for the agency's own finances, "this is truly one of those instances where you prepare for the worst and pray for the best," she said.
She noted that for almost 100 years Catholic Charities "has been blessed by the trust our neighbors have bestowed on us. We witness it daily, in their acts of kindness, their willingness to volunteer and their financial support of our work. We join our neighbors in a commitment to doing the work of God."