Agencies respond to financial drain of quieted construction

Use of housing assistance, utility bill aid on the rise

As the economy continues to sputter and construction work remains slowed to a near halt, local agencies that help those in financial need have had their hands full.

At the McHenry County Housing Authority, the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers continues to grow, and people find themselves waiting 2½ to three years for housing assistance.

With the economy struggling, people are staying on housing assistance longer than before, said Julie Biel Claussen, executive director of the housing authority.

For someone to receive a voucher, someone else has to come off the assistance, Claussen said. “It can make that wait even longer.”

The housing authority periodically will purge its waiting list to make sure whoever is on the list still needs the help. However, about 100 families a month ask for assistance, Claussen said.

To help keep the current housing stock in good shape, Habitat for Humanity is promoting its A Brush With Kindness program, where the agency and its volunteers do repairs on houses, such as fixing roofs. That program now has a waiting list.

Townships, which offer financial assistance for those who qualify, also have been seeing an increase in requests for help.

At McHenry Township, the demand for general assistance has grown.

“We knew five years ago we were heading for some sort of crisis,” said Donna Schaefer, the township supervisor.

Schaefer has to look through people’s finances, mortgages and credit card bills when they request help.

“With what they made, how will they ever pay this back?” Schaefer sometimes thought.

She said most of the people she had to help were somehow affiliated with the housing industry, whether contractors or material suppliers for contractors.

Schaefer said many people were responsible and saved money for a rainy day.

“But no one expected the rainy day to last for two years,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said the township has to refer people to other agencies for help, as well.

McHenry Township has seven people on general assistance, and their financial situation is reviewed monthly.

Each person on general assistance receives $245 a month.

“It’s meant as a stopgap between finding employment and often applying for Social Security or getting unemployment benefits,” Schaefer said.

In 2008, 25 people received General Assistance in McHenry Township. In 2009, it was 30 people. In 2010, it was 37 people. So far in 2011, 34 people have received general assistance. The number of those applying for and receiving emergency assistance also steadily has risen.

“Hopefully, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Schaefer said.

The township also has had to help many people with utility assistance, because people will use their money to pay their mortgage and leave the electric or gas bill unpaid.

Help with a utility bill is emergency assistance, which is an additional service McHenry and other townships offer. People are eligible for that assistance once every 12 months and they need to have an eviction or shut-off notice to qualify.

Food pantries, too, have witnessed ever greater numbers coming through the doors.

The Neighbors Food Pantry of Wonder Lake has had trouble keeping up with demand as food donations have dropped and the number of families asking for help has risen.

At the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Interfaith Food Pantry, it has become common for 15 new families to ask for help each month, said Mary Terese Piemonte, the volunteer manager of the pantry.

In July, the pantry served 250 families, who can visit twice a month. That meant serving 700 people, including 318 children, Piemonte said. But that wasn’t a record. In July 2009, the need spiked to 964 people.

“We have definitely seen an increase,” Piemonte said. “Unfortunately, the economy hasn’t gotten better.”

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