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Philadelphia-Area Social Service Agencies See Increased Need for Food, Mental Health Resources

Life is not going back to normal anytime soon, and local Jewish organizations are preparing to help clients struggling with pandemic-induced unemployment, food insecurity, housing access and mental health challenges through the fall and winter months.

Jodi Roth-Saks, executive director of Jewish Relief Agency, said the organization’s food distribution program has seen a significant increase in community members reaching out for support since the start of the pandemic, a trend she expects to continue.

“I would say we’ve seen, between March and August, 500 new households. We typically average 24 new households a month, and now we’re averaging 72 households a month,” she said.

JRA clients receive a 15-pound box of food on a monthly basis, and the agency has recently added safety supplies like hand sanitizers, masks and toilet paper to the relief packages. Last month, JRA packed and distributed 3,865 boxes of food and 100 toiletry bags. Before the pandemic, the average number of monthly boxes packed hovered between 3,200 and 3,300.

Increased need for food means increased need for JRA volunteers and staff.
“We have this incredible group of volunteers that we call upon, and we also are always asking for more volunteers from the community to help us get all the food we’re packing out to individuals in the community,” Roth-Saks said. “And the thing that we’re doing to help us be successful right now is we’re relying on the volunteers to actually deliver the food, but we’re also relying on a new labor force that we’ve hired to help us pack all the food.”

Due to social distancing requirements and safety protocols, the number of volunteers allowed in a warehouse at a given time is limited, which slows the packing process significantly. Roth-Saks knew it would take more than volunteer shifts to meet the growing need for food, so the organization hired contracted employees to speed up the process. In addition to food packers, the organization hired warehouse cleaners to make sure the work environment is safe.

An expanded staff and expanded inventory can’t happen without expanded funding. Roth-Saks said JRA has been able to bring in more funds via grant writing and partnerships and plans to host its 20th annual fundraising event, “Whatever It Takes: A Livestreaming Show to End Hunger,” on Oct. 25.

Brian Gralnick, director of social responsibility at Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said most of the organization’s agencies anticipate an increase in clients as long as there is no vaccine.

Mitzvah Food Program is looking into setting up more outdoor pickup points with tents and portable heaters for volunteers, as well as maintaining food delivery outside their pantries. Gralnick also said KleinLife is keeping an eye on the impact of colder weather and mental health concerns for senior clients who have been isolated for months.

Hebrew Free Loan Society of Greater Philadelphia, which provides community financial support in the form of loans, has created a new COVID-19 loan designed to help people address short-term costs.

“We didn’t want people to take on additional and uncomfortable debt, but it just might be that bridge in a short-term difficult financial situation or to solve a really immediate problem,” said Amy Krulik, president of the board of directors.

She is anticipating that the pandemic will linger for at least six months to a year. The organization is planning accordingly, but the economic uncertainty makes it hard to predict what kind of loan requests it will face in the upcoming months.

“What I suspect is that we may find some requests from some unexpected places,” she said.

People may take out fewer loans for cars and more for home improvement, as more time spent at home puts more pressure on plumbing and heating systems.

Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia staff have carefully monitored eviction moratoriums for clients struggling with housing payments.

Courtney Owen, JFCS’ director of individual and family services, said that although moratoriums have helped delay rent payments, they haven’t solved all housing issues, and renters who have benefited from the moratoriums may still be unable to pay several months of back rent and utilities. Owen said it is still crucial for clients to know their rights, and access any benefits they may be entitled to.

She also said JFCS has witnessed an increased need for mental health services and anticipates the number of requests for telehealth counseling will remain high well into fall and winter. The organization maintains a hotline for isolated seniors in need of support and has formed several support groups on topics ranging from parenting during the pandemic to suicide prevention.

The organization is looking to increase its counseling staff as it strives to help clients cope with overwhelming uncertainty.

“Mental health has always had such a big need in all of our communities, but right now it’s something that’s impacting everybody. And we know that that’s sort of snowballing the longer this goes on,” Owen said.
She and her colleagues encourage clients to take action before a problem becomes an emergency, whether that means keeping up with as many bills as possible, reaching out to landlords before back rent comes due or seeking mental health counseling.

“We don’t want people to wait until it becomes a crisis point to reach out to us,” Owen said. “If people feel like they need financial or social support, or they’re unsure of what to do right now, or they’ve lost their job or have any situation that could be supported and they’ve maybe never reached out for help before that, we’re here. Those are the individuals that we really want to connect with, because the sooner we get involved to help somebody, the better we can meet their needs.”; 215-832-0729