Demands double for utility assistance programs, Food Bank services

San Juan Island Community Foundation will award $50K to local non-profits to alleviate impacts of economic downturn.

Most years, the Town of Friday Harbor's utility payment assistance program gets only a few requests and money in the fund is carried over to the next year.

Not in 2009.

The fund was exhausted by July 2, with 11 households representing 23 individuals asking for help paying their water bills. That's up from five households in all of 2008, according to Joyce Sobel of the Family Resource Center, which administers the program for the town.

Two households had to be turned away because they had already received assistance; the program limits participants to help once a year.

July 2, the Town Council voted to postpone work on the wooden deck at Sunken Park and use the $2,500 to replenish the utility payment assistance fund. And utility rate payers may soon have the option on their monthly bill of rounding their payment to the next dollar or making a donation, with proceeds being used to bolster the fund.

The idea was proposed by Town Councilman Noel Monin, who noted that OPALCO offers that service on its monthly billings and asked if the town could do the same. Town Administrator King Fitch said the town's new billing system could make that happen, and said he would explore it.

Fitch said some $3,900 was spent helping pay the water bills of those in need. He didn't know how much the town could expect from rounding up and donations, but the potential is there; the town has more than 1,300 water customers.

Sobel said demands on the town's utility payment assistance program is only one sign of tougher economic times. She administers a similar program for OPALCO; from November to early May, there were 85 households that received assistance paying their energy bills, up from 60 the same period the previous year. This year, six households needed help again and were referred to other possible sources of assistance.

The Lopez Island Family Resource Center helped 56 households pay their energy bills, up from 45 last year; and helped 20 people pay their rent, up from 11.

Sobel said some people who seek help have been laid off or expect to return to work soon. "They've been laid off, or they were supposed to start work today but the job's been held up for a couple of weeks, that sort of thing," Sobel said.

More people are using the services of the Friday Harbor Food Bank too. More than 100 households a week get food at the Food Bank, up from 30-40 a week a year ago when the Food Bank was open Wednesdays only.

"When we opened Saturdays a year ago June, it jumped to 50-60. Then when the economy hit, it went to 100 a week," said Sobel, who is also a Food Bank board member.

The Food Bank does not ask customers for proof of income, and Sobel expects that some customers can afford to buy groceries but are trying to cut some corners. But those people are few, she said.

"It's pretty humbling to say 'I can't feed myself' and stand near the biggest parking lot in town," she said.

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