San Luis Obispo County's middle class hit hard by economic crisis

ebazar@usc.edu; jlynem@thetribunenews.comSeptember 16, 2010 

While the economic downturn has pummeled families across the county, its impact on the middle class has surprised community advocates.

In many cases, those families now are scrambling to provide the basics: food, electricity and clothing for the kids.

• The number of people going to food pantries countywide has increased 40 percent in the past two years, said Carl Hansen, executive director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County. Many of the new faces describe themselves as middle-class families. They are “in a state of shock,” he said. “Their whole identity is shaken to the core.”

• The Salvation Army helped 4,500 low- and middle-income San Luis Obispo residents with food, clothing, one-time financial assistance to prevent eviction and other aid last year, said Michael Coughlin, coordinator for the San Luis Obispo city chapter. That’s nearly four times the number it helped in 2006, he said. The group is on pace to aid 5,000 city residents this year. “With the downturn in the economy, we’re working with people who were upper-middle-income,” he said. “The people affected the most were the ones who were most leveraged.”

• The YMCA of San Luis Obispo County has seen a 70 percent increase in requests for financial assistance last year and this year, said CEO Jenifer Rhynes. For the first time, it started a waiting list for those needing help. “I get these heartfelt pleading e-mails I have never gotten before,” she said. “These are people who haven’t had to apply for financial assistance before.”

• The Community Counseling Center in San Luis Obispo, which provides therapy to people who are low-income and don’t have health insurance, saw the largest number of new clients in its 42-year history in February, said executive director Binah Polay. That month, 71 new people sought help, compared with 49 the month before.

She attributes the surge to the financial crisis, coupled with cuts to the county mental health system. Many patients can’t afford to pay $15 per session, the bottom of the sliding scale, and offer $1 or $5 instead, Polay said.

“People have lost jobs or are afraid of losing jobs. Clients are coming in and saying they’re going into bankruptcy. Some are coming in and saying they’ve lost their house or soon they’re going to lose their house,” she said. “There’s stress and fear, and they don’t know what to do.”

• Twice the number of families now line up at the bi-monthly food distribution at Cambria Vineyard Church compared with late 2008, said senior pastor Gary White. Marital counseling also has “increased noticeably” during that time, he said.

• At New Life Community Church in Pismo Beach, the number of congregants needing help with rent, utilities, gasoline and food has skyrocketed since 2007, said Vince Llamas, pastor of Care Ministry.

Last year, the church gave food to 60 families. In the first seven months of this year, it helped feed 120 families.

“It isn’t lower income or the working poor. It’s people who at some point were able to buy a home,” he said.

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