Community Assistance Program helps during tough times

Published on Thu, Feb 27, 2003 by Meg Olson

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Community Assistance Program helps during tough times

By Meg Olson

Local residents who hit a financial rough spot and need some help fast to meet their basic needs have always had a number of programs available to assist them, from utility assistance through the city to Salvation Army vouchers for enough gas to get to a job interview. What they didn�t have was a coordinated way to find the help they needed. Now, through the Community Assistance Program, they do.

The program is the next step in the evolution of the �hardship fund� that local churches started six years ago through the Peace Arch Ministerial Association. When Brent Brentnall was asked to take over the fund he thought it could use some reorganization and a larger mandate. �This has been an outreach program of the churches to the community,� he said. �One person would take it on and eventually it would grind them down. I figured what we needed was a different organization with a group of volunteers to spread the opportunity and get a broad base of support.�

The group now has a dozen volunteers, some of whom work as husband and wife teams monitoring a small office donated by Northwoods Alliance Church. Volunteers work a one week shift monitoring the Community Assistance Program voice mail for messages from people who need emergency financial help. �Most of us check several times a day and volunteers are encouraged to get back to people in 48 hours or sooner,� said volunteer coordinator Lynne Chapman. �Most of our calls are for energy assistance but they can vary from a need for food to propane.�

Volunteers match calls with the appropriate source of emergency funds. Besides funds raised through the Peace Arch Ministerial Association, the program also distributes vouchers for city utility help and Salvation Army vouchers which can be redeemed with selected local vendors.

�We get about 15 calls a week and we can help two-thirds of those,� Chapman said. Of those, half are single mothers, Brentnall said.

Brentnall said the program specifically focused on getting people over small unexpected hurdles. �We don�t bolster welfare,� he said. �If someone knows rent is coming, that isn�t an emergency. If they ask for a large amount for food because they want steak for dinner, that isn�t an emergency. But if there is a sudden hospital bill, a sudden crisis and you use the utility money to cover it and then can�t pay for your utilities, that is an emergency.�

To reinforce the emergency nature of the program, assistance is only available once a year to each family in the Blaine, Birch Bay and Custer areas, with one exception. If someone who the program helps can pay the funds back, they are eligible again during that year. �We tell people that this is all donations,� Brentnall said. �If they pay us back we can help somebody else and it resets their clock.�

Funding limitations also mean the program can only solve smaller problems. They don�t provide rental assistance or pay medical bills, and most of the amounts stay under $100. �The real problem is not that we wouldn�t like to, but every penny we have is from donations and we can�t do big ticket items,� Brentnall said. �If somebody has to have $50 for medicine we can cover that, but an $1,800 medical bill we can�t.� Salvation Army vouchers also have specific limits on how much can be given to help with gas, or groceries. Blaine police also provide Salvation Army vouchers to help transients. Whatcom Transportation Authority emergency bus passes are also available through the Community Assistance Program.

Last year the community assistance program or the agencies it represents got 200 calls for assistance and were able to help 130 households, spending a total of $9,801.

Brentnall and Chapman said they were looking for more volunteers and community donations to be able to help everyone who calls in as quickly as possible. �Many people try and work it out themselves and will get in a panic situation with 48 hours left,� Chapman said. �That�s why it�s important we�re here.� City utility customers are asked to round up their utility bills to donate the extra cents to the city utility assistance programs and potential donors or volunteers can directly contact the Community Assistance office at 392-8484. Community members who need emergency financial help are encouraged to call the same number.