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Families need more than Christmas help

A Times Editorial
Published December 24, 2006


Salvation Army officials in Pinellas County have been shocked by the big increase in families seeking their help this Christmas. One official called the increases "mind-boggling."

As related in a St. Petersburg Times story Friday, both the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Salvation Army commands are alarmed by large jumps in numbers and the level of desperation among families.

Last year the Clearwater Salvation Army served 1,096 families through its Christmas assistance program. This year, the number rose to 1,337. That isn't individuals - it is families. Those families include 3,443 children, which is up 50 percent over the number of children served last year. The organization had to scramble to come up with enough toys and food to serve everyone approved for assistance.

At the St. Petersburg Salvation Army, the number of needy families also is up, but the increased number of children is staggering, said Janet McGuire, community relations coordinator there.

"We have served 900 families," she said, "and they are still coming in, desperate. This has never happened before."

These are not people just looking for a handout, but families whose true need has been documented by the Salvation Army staff in personal interviews in recent weeks.

The interviewers have been moved to tears by the stories they've heard. They also have been able to recognize some trends. They believe that higher utility costs, rising insurance rates, and the loss of public housing and affordable housing in Pinellas have driven more families to seek help.

They also noted that about a third of those who came to the Clearwater Salvation Army for help this Christmas are Hispanics.

There are some important socioeconomic, cultural and political messages in these numbers.

While the work of the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations is invaluable at this time of year, those who came to the organization seeking help need far more than a few toys and a box of food. With thousands of children suffering deprivation in Pinellas County because their parents cannot earn enough to survive, we cannot afford to leave the work of serving this growing needy population to charitable groups.

These families need jobs that pay a living wage. They need affordable child care, so both parents can work to support the family. They need professional guidance on health care, contraception, budgeting, improving their job prospects and finding a place they can afford to live, here or elsewhere. They - indeed, all Floridians grappling with financial stresses - need the help of politicians and government to address the out-of-control costs for insurance, housing and health care.

In other words, they need a safety net - a social underpinning to help them survive difficult times and raise their children to be healthy and productive adults who will contribute to society in the future.

The consequences can be dire if we fail to address the human needs of this segment of our society.

[Last modified December 23, 2006, 22:54:32]

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