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Down and Out at Thanksgiving

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Many social advocates across Rhode Island point to a "perfect storm" of adverse forces -- the fiscal crisis, budget deficits in RI, the foreclosure mess, high unemployment, etc. -- as we move into the holiday season. In this week's Phoenix, I write about this and some of the fallout.

In a possible harbinger of similar efforts by other social agencies, Westerly Area Rest Meals (WARM) recently launched "A Dollar Makes a Difference!," a campaign in which it is seeking donations of $1 a week, from October 1 through March, 1 to help Westerly's most needy residents keep warm this winter.

"People do not have the same resources that they had six months ago," notes Leah Eagen-Stoddard, WARM's development associate. Seeking such small donations doesn't make people "think whether they're going to have to dip into their family's budget. It almost takes the decision away, it's so nominal . . . It does reflect the environment we're in now, because people are thinking a lot more carefully about where their money goes."

Some other signs of the current moment:

-- Officials at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank say donated food is leaving almost as quickly as it arrives.

-- According to the most recent figures, there are more than 6000 homeless people in RI, a number that doesn't include many others, including those doubling up with friends or relatives.

-- The level of other social needs is up across Rhode Island. Some agencies cite a strong community response, but this is hardly uniform.

At the Comprehensive Community Action Program in Cranston, one of eight such programs around the state, public donations to provide a Thanksgiving food basket to a needy family have dropped every year since 9/11. Social services director Joanne Gregory attributes the decline to the deteriorating economic plight of many Rhode Islanders.

As a result, the number of baskets offered by the program, formerly 600, has fallen to 300, and Gregory is hopeful that sufficient contributions will be received to maintain that number this time around.

 -- At the Johnnycake Center in the Peace Dale section of South Kingtown, the increased demand for food is so great that the center is doing away with its annual holiday baskets, focusing instead of the general food needs of its clients (although it will still have holiday items.)

-- Perhaps most seriously, there's a general belief that bad economic conditions will persist for a few years.

Going forward, though, the current bad situation can be expected to get worse due to the dire condition of the state and national economy. "It's the perfect storm," [says COMCap's Joanne] McGunagle, citing the combination of different factors influencing the situation. Looking ahead, she says, "I'm not quite sure what to expect, in all honesty."

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