By ALICIA LEONARD
In mid September, The St. Petersburg Times was heralding Walton County as having the lowest unemployment rate in Florida. Robert Trigaux wrote, “Once again, Walton County had the lowest county unemployment rate in August 2008 of 3.8 percent, while Hendry County remained the highest at 14.2 percent.”
Those figures are quickly eroding with the preliminary statics showing up for November from the labor market statistics (LMS) in the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. With a national unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, across the state Walton took a big jump up to five percent and local charities are backing up those statics. The last time unemployment was at five percent in Walton County was in 2001, according to the Haas Center.
Nationally, 533,000 jobs were lost in November, which brings the overall unemployment rate to 6.7 percent. News of more layoffs and instances where families are barely making it from paycheck to paycheck, are becoming an everyday part of life for those who help others in need. “It really seemed like we started seeing a big rise in people asking for our services after the first big bailout, somewhere near September, middle of October,” said Rex Golden, director for Caring and Sharing of Walton County Inc.
“Every day, it seems I see more and more people standing in our doorway and needing help. A place where many would rather not be, but they are living paycheck to paycheck, and one sudden, unexpected expense can cost them everything,” said Golden.
Most are seeking relief to help pay power bills and many have told Golden the same story that other charities are hearing now in our area, “Layoffs, I hear that word a lot more these days.” Golden said they are happy to help those in need – that’s what they do – but agrees with the new unemployment statics. “We are definitely seeing an increase, more than normal, even for the holidays.” Right now, said Golden, “Our pantry is full,” but many other food service charities have near empty cupboards.
Golden attributes Caring and Sharing’s ability to continue to help others being due to community donations. “Gulf Power, Army Aviation and many others have food drives for us and help out, especially around the holiday season.” Utility bill help and emergency food supplies for three days are just a few of the services that Caring and Sharing helps community members with. Golden said donations are always welcome, needed and can be made in person, by phone or mail. To make a donation to Caring and Sharing of Walton County, Inc., call 892-7656.
The Walton Cares cupboards are nearly empty, according to volunteer Cathy Davis, “We have been seeing a big increase in people needing help with just the basics, like food, as to not go hungry. Our pantry is pretty slim pickins right now and our entire program is run by volunteers.”
Davis said she hears everyday how the American Dream is going south for many. “A young couple came in for emergency supplies just yesterday. They had moved here, both had good jobs. They bought a house and now both of them are laid off. They lost their jobs, home, and had to move in with another family member all with in a matter of a month or so.”
Davis is also concerned about the elderly in our area, “We have had a few elderly couples that need groceries. I worry especially about them.” Davis said she had noticed the need for help steadily increasing over the last six months. “We are certainly seeing a big increase in requests. Walton Cares is also an Angel Food Ministry outreach location. Families can order a box of groceries worth $70 for only $30. All are top shelf goods and can feed a family of four for a week. Orders are due on Jan. 12 and the last day to mail out the orders is Dec. 31. The groceries will be distributed Jan. 24. (Look for the menu in this week’s Herald-Breeze) If you have extra can goods, want to become a volunteer or want to make a donation please contact Walton Cares, Inc. at 892-6616,” she said
The COPE Center concurred with the other social services in our area as far as seeing an increase in referrals for emergency food and help with basic living expenses. Case manager Karen Miller said, “We are seeing a big increase as well in people seeking help, especially families and those on Medicaid or Medicare. Many are having benefits cut right now and a lot are losing their jobs. We also have no homeless shelter here in Walton. We seem to kinda get lost in between the other counties. They have many more programs in Holmes and Okalooosa than we have. We started getting a real increase in request for referrals long before Thanksgiving this year. Our pantry is restocked, but we don’t know how long it will last.” To make a donation of money or non-parishable items to the Cope Center, call 892-8045 or drop them off at the front desk for out patient services.
The Tri-County Community Community Council is another agency that understands how locals are being impacted by the economic downturn in the area and there was not any better news there, either. Staff at Tri-County Community Council told the Herald that their funds for the Li-Heap program, which helps with winter utility costs, was already used up for this month and they would be overjoyed to receive any donations this time of year. To make a donation to Tri-County, send checks to P.O. Box 1218, Bonifay, FL 32425.
Pastor Ben Barton with the World Evangelism Outreach Church told the Herald that they have had a steady stream of people requesting help ever since May of this year. “It has been continuous. And these are not the same people coming back time after time. They are all different people. First people had problems with the gas prices, then they dropped, but people started getting laid off from their jobs, no work and their electricity bills soared,” he said.
“Just the other day I had a 62 year old gentleman come in and you could see he didn’t want to ask for help. He had never asked for help in his entire life. A family came in today and needed help buying shoes for their kids. The kids shoes were falling apart and off their feet. Many of the families we have helped this Christmas season are asking for clothes for their children, not toys, just clothes, that’s how bad it is.”
Barton had high praise for another area church, “The First Baptist Church of DeFuniak (FBC) has really stepped up in helping families and people in need in our area. We made be able to give them a little and FBC matches it. So, they are playing a big role in helping people get through these hard times in our area right now.” To help Pastor Barton and his congregation help others, call 892-9362 or get information on donating to FBC by calling 892-2722.