Getting help is tricky for displaced

Gina Macpherson of Oceano woke to someone banging on the door of her home March 19. She sat up, swung her leg over the bed and touched water.

Macpherson picked up her 7-year-old son, grabbed some belongings and drove over to a friend’s house before calling the American Red Cross, which paid for her to stay in a motel until Friday.

“I’m trying to find a place to go, but I just need a little more time,” said Macpherson, 41. She’s rented a house on Fountain Avenue, near the Oceano County Airport, since the beginning of February.

Reports of flooding in Oceano and other areas of the county have been few and isolated during recent storms, said Ron Alsop, the county’s emergency services manager.

But Macpherson’s situation may be one in which other county residents might find themselves if they are forced out of their homes by flood, fire or any other natural disaster and don’t have insurance, savings or family to turn to.

“Unfortunately, in the overall big picture, there’s not a resource or protection system for dealing with something like that other than existing shelters” located in San Luis Obispo and Atascadero, Alsop said.

The Red Cross provides an overnight stay after a disaster, which can sometimes be extended for three to five days, and then supplies a list of resources to contact for further assistance, said Natalie Schaefer, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County chapter.

Rick London, chief executive officer of United Way of San Luis Obispo County, urges people to first call 211, a 24-hour referral and support services hotline, which would direct people to various places for help.

But whether those organizations and agencies can help depends on an individual’s income and assets, said Lee Collins, director of the county’s social services department.

A family could be eligible for CalWORKs, the state’s welfare-to-work program, but the maximum aid for a family of three, for example, is $694 (and dropping to $638).

“That’s not a security deposit on a new place,” Collins said. “These are very difficult times for low-income people and working people. The same economy that has dried up jobs has also dried up governmental revenues that help provide a safety net.”

Macpherson has called numerous agencies, churches and other groups asking for help.

On Friday, she learned that a division of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County was able to put her up for two additional nights in a motel, and she set up a meeting with a county social services employee for today.

But other potential places to go for help have limited funds. London is still waiting to hear how much money the county will receive for the federally funded Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which provides funds for food, lodging, rent and utilities.

Last year, the local United Way received about $176,000, and that is expected to be sliced in half this year. The money is allocated to various organizations, including the Salvation Army.

“We can’t keep up with demand,” said Beth Quaintance, the Salvation Army’s San Luis Obispo County field representative. “Unfortunately, the economy has made it so that most of the agencies don’t have much money to spread around.”

In the meantime, local residents in need should continue to call the various organizations, said Grace McIntosh, deputy director of the Community Action Partnership.

“Even though it feels very discouraging, these are discouraging times; we help where we can,” she said.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.