Nonprofits feel effects from sour economy

CONYERS - Word that the state's unemployment rate hit a 15-year high in August was not news to many nonprofit organizations in Rockdale County.

The Georgia Department of Labor announced this week that the state's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in August, up 1.9 percent from August 2007. This marks the seventh consecutive month that the state rate is above the national unemployment rate, which was 6.1 percent in August. The last time Georgia's unemployment rate reached this level was in March 1993, and there has not been an over-the-year decline in jobs this great since June 2003, according to a press release from the Department of Labor.

Ashley Roesler, executive director of Rockdale Emergency Relief, said her organization really began to see the effects of the weakening economy at the first of the year. RER provides financial assistance for rent, mortgages and utilities for people living and/or working in Rockdale County who are experiencing some sort of calamity beyond their control that creates a financial hardship for their families. RER also operates the county's food bank.

"In January and February, when the economy started really tripping up, it directly translated out to the people," she said. "Our donations have remained steady - we had an outstanding season for our food bank last year during the holidays and we have steady donations to our housing program - but our donors are unable to do as much as they have in the past."

Roesler said the most recent data available from RER shows that this year, the food bank has experienced a 37 percent increase in services over the previous fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

Those who were living paycheck to paycheck were the ones hit first when the economy began to turn sour.

"Those who are affected by small differences in their incomes, like a reduction in hours at work and increases in their bills like gas and food, felt it first," Roesler said.

But lately, she said, some who have never before experienced a financial need - indeed, some who have previously been donors to RER - are seeking assistance.

"We're finding the complexion of who is seeking help, or who needs to seek assistance and are not necessarily asking, is changing more substantially than in the past," Roesler said. "We're seeing so many people who never had to reach out for help before and they are experiencing the same type of crises ... it's a very leveling experience for a lot of people."

It's this increased need that has prompted the United Way in Rockdale County to step up its fundraising efforts this year. The annual fundraising campaign kicked off in August with a goal to raise $285,000 - $9,000 more than last year.

"The need is great ... and we need to dig a little deeper in our pockets," Claire Cline, executive director of United Way Rockdale, said during the kickoff luncheon held Aug. 21.

Jean Yontz, who now works with the United Way as a project manager, said the campaign is beginning slowly. One of the first fundraising efforts is the community-wide barbecue lunch sponsored by Jim 'N Nicks Bar-B-Q and the Rockdale Career Academy.

"If this gives you any indication, the barbecue is Thursday, and last year, we sold 2,000 (plates). Currently, we have sold half of that," Yontz said.

At the same time, she said, an interesting phenomenon appears to be at work.

"More people are giving, but they seem to be giving in smaller amounts," she said.

Perhaps another sign of tough economic times is the number of people seeking public housing.

Bobbie Hill, the director of the Conyers Housing Authority, said each of her department's 290 units is occupied, and applications continue to come in.

"We are full and we have seen an increase in the number of people applying for housing because they lost a job or have moved to the area and can't find a job," she said.

Apartments at Conyers Housing Authority are as small as studio apartments or as large as five-bedroom homes. Hill said it is difficult to determine how long an applicant will be on a waiting list since the size of the family determines the size of the unit.

"Lately, since the economy has gotten so bad, we're seeing more young, single mothers who need two or three bedrooms," Hill said.

Roesler said RER volunteers and staff are gearing up for a tight holiday season.

"One thing we have experienced this year is we have been at what could be described as a high plateau of volume all the time," she said. "I think truly this is a real, living, breathing picture of what is happening across the country."

To donate to Rockdale Emergency Relief or the food bank, call 770-922-9210 or e-mail ashley@rockdaleemergencyrelief.org. To give to the United Way in Rockdale, call 770-922-7227.