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Social service agencies seeing increased demand

 | Published on 8/28/2010

People working in social services in the Tri-Cities are seeing a rising demand despite the relatively stable local economy.

They also are seeing government funding cuts for welfare programs and reductions in charitable giving, leaving more and more people falling through the cracks even as the Tri-Cities remains one of the only places in the country seeing consistent job growth.

Directors of three local agencies told the Columbia Basin Badger Club on Friday the statistics are disheartening, especially when they're seeing less money invested in prevention programs that could save society costs in the long-term.

John Neill, executive director of the Tri-Cities Food Bank, and Mark Brault, board president for Grace Clinic, said both nonprofits are seeing rising demand for the services they offer.

They're troubled not only by reduced funding, but a lack of volunteers.

Neill said the amount of food distributed by the food bank increased by 15 percent from 2008-09, and likely will have increased another 5 percent to 10 percent for 2010, when the Richland, Kennewick and Benton City food banks collectively are distributing 16 tons of food per week, but the number of hours put in by volunteers has remained relatively flat.

"This is concerning to me because we're running out of retired people like myself," Neill said.

The food banks are entirely volunteer-run, which Neill said keeps the overhead down to about 17 cents for each of its more than 100,000 clients.

Grace Clinic also is volunteer-run, and Brault said one of the biggest issues the free clinic faces is a lack of primary care physicians willing or able to donate their time.

The clinic sees about 23,000 patients per year -- all uninsured and with incomes below 200 percent of poverty level, or $44,100 for a family of four, according to 2010 federal poverty guidelines.

Brault said a patient survey told clinic officials more than half of those using the clinic wouldn't have sought health care at all -- not even from an emergency room -- if Grace Clinic didn't exist.

He said demand for the clinic's services nearly has doubled among working-age adults as employers have been unable to provide health insurance or cut employees' hours so they no longer qualified for benefits.

"Many of them are devastated to be there," he said. "They never thought they'd see themselves in a free clinic."

Despite rising demand, the clinic can't expand care without volunteer physicians.

The third member of the Badger Club panel was Beverly Weber, president and CEO of the United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties, who said her biggest concern when it comes to services for those in poverty is the reduction in preventive programs.

Weber told a story about a village of thatched-roof houses being attacked by flaming arrows fired from an ogre on a mountainside. The villagers eventually decide they have to find a way to stop the ogre instead of just running around putting out fires.

"As a community, it is obvious we have thatched-roof houses on fire," Weber said. "We're seeing more flaming arrows coming into our community every day. Like the villagers, we have to come together and be smart about how to put out the fires."

She said the Community Solutions plan is designed to slay the ogre. Community Solutions is a regional health and human services plan intended to address the Tri-Cities' most pressing needs in education, health, safety and self-sufficiency.

Weber said as the plan is implemented over time, it will help change the way poverty is tackled in the Tri-Cities.

"We can't do everything at once," she said.

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