Toys of Hope featured in Crains New York: Number of needy New Yorkers growing at alarming rate

Toys of Hope featured in Crains New York: Number of needy New Yorkers growing at alarming rate

As seen in Crain’s New York (This Week in Crain’s: Dec. 5, 2011 Download)

Food banks, soup kitchens struggle to keep up with demand as funding drops.

By Miriam Kreinin Souccar @miriamsouccar

Melissa Doktofsky has been receiving so many calls for help at her charity lately that her phone system crashed last week.

Since September, Toys of Hope—which gives new clothes, household items, toys and other forms of support to some 65,000 needy people in the New York area—has been fielding 400 calls a day, up more than 35% from the same time a year ago. The requests, which had come primarily from homeless shelters, now include families who until recently lived comfortable lives.

“This is the largest demand and the most varied demand I have seen since I started this in 1994,” said Ms. Doktofsky, the founder of the Huntington, L.I.-based nonprofit. “I never found so many people that used to own homes and cars who are now selling off their belongings just to feed themselves.”

Hidden problem

The recession has technically been over for more than a year. But social services workers say the situation is getting worse for a growing segment of the city’s population. In a city filled with the fabulously wealthy, where reservations at the priciest restaurants still need to be made weeks in advance, there’s a growing undercurrent of dire need. In fact, food pantries have so many new customers they can’t feed them all.

“There are so many needy New Yorkers who are totally hidden,” said Margarette Purvis, chief executive of the Food Bank of New York City. “While people are sitting at work, there are lines around the corners at food pantries.”

The number of children living in families that could not afford enough food rose to nearly 500,000, or one in four, between 2008 and 2010, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. That was up 37% from the previous three-year period. Overall, 1.47 million New Yorkers, or one in six, are struggling against hunger.

“The number of people in poverty in New York City is larger than the entire population of Philadelphia,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the coalition. “It’s the worst I’ve seen it in a few decades.”


Savings run out

Nonprofit executives blame the high rate of long-term unemployment for the increased demand. Many of the people who were laid off during the recession were living on unemployment benefits or savings, which have since run out.

“Being unemployed for two months is bad, but being unemployed for a year spirals your family out of control,” said Richard Buery, chief executive of The Children’s Aid Society, where housing-assistance requests are up 40% this year.

Robert Doar, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, said the city is doing everything it can to assist the needy. It has made getting food stamps much easier, for example, doling out $3.5 billion worth in 2011, up from $1.5 billion in 2009.

“We have come through a pretty severe national recession, and coming out of it has not been as strong as we’d like,” Mr. Doar said. “But New York has done better than every other city. We wouldn’t agree that things are worse than ever.”

On the front lines of need, however, the situation is grim. At the city’s 1,100 soup kitchens and food pantries, demand is up an average of 12% this year, and government and private funding is down.


Turning away customers


or 1 in 6, now live in poverty, a local nonprofit said

The Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger in Brooklyn, which runs a supermarket-style pantry, has been registering more than 12,000 visitors a month. That is up from 5,000 a month in 2006 and 9,000 a month in 2009. Recently, the pantry had to turn away 158 people because there wasn’t enough food.

“I have been in business 14 years, and this is the worst I have ever seen,” said Melony Samuels, founder and executive director of the Bed-Stuy Campaign. “We can’t keep up with this demand.”

At Love Kitchen Inc., a pantry and soup kitchen in Inwood, about 530 people have been coming to the soup kitchen each week for meals, up from 450 a year ago. There are so many people visiting the pantry that the organization has to turn away about 40 people a week.

In July, the 23-year-old nonprofit nearly closed down but was saved by an emergency shipment of food from the Midwest Food Bank in Illinois.

“People are going from one pantry to the other to try to get as much as they can, and you can’t blame them,” said Jewel Jones, founder and director of Love Kitchen. “People keep coming up to me saying, ‘I’ve never been in this situation before.’ They don’t know how it works.”


Reluctant newcomer

Grace, one such newcomer to the system who wanted only to be identified by her first name, lost her job as a kindergarten teacher last year after sustaining a serious back injury that required surgery.

Initially, Grace moved in with relatives, used her savings, and tried to hide her situation from her children, ages 12, 11 and 2. Now they live in low-income housing in Manhattan, and Grace spends her days going from one food pantry to another to piece together meals. She receives food stamps and has been getting assistance from Toys of Hope. Still on pain medication for her back, Grace remains unable to work.

“Everything was fine before this; I was paying my bills alright,” said Grace, still mystified at how quickly her life changed. “It’s a very difficult struggle now.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 5, 2011 print issue of Crain’s New York Business.

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