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Recession strains social agencies
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 Aftershocks from the recent economic downturn - touched off by a rising tide of foreclosures sweeping the nation - are having a ripple effect throughout the county, affecting area food banks and other aid organizations.

While requests for aid at FaithWorks, a local nonprofit which provides emergency financial assistance to households that have fallen behind in their rent and utilities, have remained fairly steady, volunteers report a change in the demographics of people requesting aid.

"We've seen a change in the people coming in," said FaithWorks Chairman

Bob Furnad.

In the past Furnad said many of the applicants seeking aid have been people making $8 an hour at discount stores or working as waitresses at roadside diners.

"We now have skilled workers who have either been laid off or can't find work," Furnad said. "We've had a dramatic increase of people who are in foreclosure or are in pre-foreclosure. We're doing a brisk business. We're busy all the time when we're open."

FaithWorks will only offer financial assistance once a year to households. While church contributions, which make up the bulk of donations to the organization, have not dropped off, Furnad said he has seen a slight decrease in personal contributions recently.

Approximately 23 percent of the city of Covington's utility accounts were past due at the end of April. City Clerk John Groether said he expected two-thirds of those 11,162 accounts would be paid up by the end of the month. At this time last year, Groether said the city was looking at a 21 percent delinquency rate.

Rosalee Thompson, director of the Community Food Pantry, said since the pantry reopened on May 5 after being closed for three weeks while the organization moved to its new location next to FaithWorks, 30 families - a high number - have received food aid. Thompson said she has another 16 families signed up for food packages this Tuesday.

"We've been getting a lot of them," Thompson said of requests for food packages.

According to Thompson, many of the new applicants for food aid are families which have recently experienced a job loss.

While requests for food have gone up, the food pantry has had to stretch its dollars further than ever to purchase food. According to the Consumer Price Index, the rate of inflation for food has increased by 4.4 percent since last year.

Thompson said she has seen large price increases on items that the pantry regularly stocks such as flour, corn meal, sugar, rice and canned goods. Popular foods such as canned meats, Hamburger Helper and cereal have become luxury items and are rarely seen anymore.

"Right now [the pantry is] still doing okay but I'm afraid it's going to get tight as time goes by," Thompson said of the food situation. "Individuals have to tighten up their budget and so they're going to tighten up on us. They won't be able to donate as much to the pantry."

The Covington Post Office recently wrapped up a food drive for the food pantry and the Newton County Minister's Union's Youth Department plans to hold another food drive on May 17.

To receive aid from the Community Food Pantry, applicants must have a referral, which can be obtained from their church, the Department of Family and Children Services or the Health Department. Applicants must be county residents and can receive food packages once every four months.

Applications for food stamps from Newton County households have also increased in recent months. According to Leona Benkoski, economic support administrator for Newton County Department of Family and Children Services, from December to January food stamp applications increased from 414 to 661 in the county. In April there were 595 applications, the majority of which were enrolled she said.

There was also a large jump from December to January in the number of Newton County unemployment insurance claims with the Georgia Department of Labor - 400 to 708. In April there were 560 claims, up from 453 in March.

Unemployment across the GDL's northeast region, which includes Newton County, was at 5.3 percent in March - a 1.3 percent jump since last year. Georgia's unemployment rate also stood at 5.3 percent in March, one-tenth of a point below the national average.

"The home builders are gravely concerned with the short-term future of housing," said Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce President John Boothby, adding he hasn't heard from any other specific business sectors in the county who are facing equally challenging times.

Boothby said that because Newton County is so heavily represented in the construction trades, when the housing market experiences a downturn, the reverberations, from it are felt quickly.

"We feel it in the lunches that they buy when they're working and the cars and trucks that they don't buy [when they are not working]. It filters down throughout the whole economy."

Boothby noted that not all economic news was grim for the county. In April FiberVisions Inc. announced that its Covington plant would undergo an $18 million factory expansion which is expected to create 40 new jobs.

"We're seeing some prospective activity, some from Europe, where the weaker dollar makes investing in our country more attractive," Boothby said. "At present we're still moving ahead."