By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
They come seeking help - things like food, clothing, a little extra to make the rent payment, even money to buy insulin and nitroglycerin - and sometimes they are turned away.
A slumping economy and a sharp decline in cash donations to the Salvation Army of Hill County over the past several months has seriously undermined the organization's ability to help the community's least fortunate, corps officer Ralph Guthrie said Wednesday. Money for the organization's assistance program is rapidly approaching the red, he said.
Since June, Guthrie has had to turn away more than 100 people asking for help, with requests such as a bus ticket to visit a sick family member or some help paying utility bills.
"When you have to turn them down because you don't have the money to help them - that's what hurts," said Guthrie. "When there's someone you know has a job and is working, but just can't cover all their bills making minimum wage - it hurts."
The number of people seeking assistance has risen slightly, but the resources available to help them has dropped, Guthrie said. The reason lies in sharply declining donations received through "mail appeal" letters - semi-monthly bulletins sent to county residents.
"Since June, more than 100 people were turned away because of lack of funding," he said. "If our mail appeal donations had not dropped off, we would have had ample funds to assist them."
The letters fund the assistance program for the Salvation Army, which pays for things like gas vouchers, meals, motel rooms during emergencies, bus tickets, and rent payments for the community's neediest residents.
The average return on the letters has fallen from about $1,200 every two months during drives earlier this year to just $200 in June and August, Guthrie said.
"I don't want to say that we don't receive generous donations, because all donations are generous. But they're not coming in right now," Guthrie said. "At all."
The Salvation Army of Hill County raises money in three ways - selling donated items in the store, collecting change in red kettles during Christmas season, and the mail appeal letters.
The kettle fund-raiser typically goes well, Guthrie said - last year it brought in $22,000. The majority of the money was used to buy toys for children of at-risk families and provide holiday meals for the poor. The remaining $1,000 went to the assistance program - enough to fund about one month's worth of requests, Guthrie said.
The Salvation Army store in Havre also generates a fair amount of money, Guthrie said. The revenues are used to maintain the building and pay utility bills and employee wages, Guthrie said. The store carries the rest of the operation, he said.
"If it wasn't for our store, we would be in dire straits," he said, "severe dire straits."
The money left over from the store after operating costs goes to the assistance program, Guthrie said, though the money is less than the mail appeal letters used to raise. The letters are the bread and butter of the program, he said, adding that the drop in donations has stretched the program thin.
"This is by far the worst it's been since I've been here." said Guthrie, who along with his wife, Peggy, has served the Salvation Army of Hill County for three years. "If we don't do something now, we are going to be in the hurting status."
Guthrie attributes the decline in mail appeal donations to a weak economy.
"It's something we're hearing from all over," he said. "People just have less money to give. But there are still people out there that need help desperately. We're usually their last resort. Normally when people come to us, they have exhausted their other sources. We're their last hope."