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Laid-Off Workers Seek Social Services' Help

Michele Ransom is seeing more and more county residents who have never been to the Department of Social Services before.

"With the economic situation, I tend to think we will see an increase," said Ransom, emergency services supervisor for the Emergency and Support Services unit. The unit assesses the situation of new clients to determine whether they need a referral or direct crisis intervention services, such as utility payments, emergency food and housing, and medical assistance.

The number of requests the department handled for utility assistance increased from 317 requests in fiscal year (FY) 2001 to 329 requests in FY02. Emergency food requests also increased from 336 requests in FY01 to 368 requests in FY02, leading to referrals to food pantries and the issuance of grocery store gift certificates and food stamps. Requests for shelter and rental assistance showed the largest increase from 912 requests in FY01 to 1,120 requests in FY02.

"We tend to see a lot more people who were working and are not able to find jobs or as high of paying jobs," Ransom said, adding that several requests came from residents laid off from Internet technology companies or businesses indirectly affected by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. "Loudoun's unemployment rate may be below the national average, but the number of people coming through ... social services is on the rise following the Sept. 11 attack and the recession."

LOUDOUN'S UNEMPLOYMENT rate in October was the same as the state's at 3.8 percent, according to the latest statistics available from the Virginia Employment Commission. Unemployment in Northern Virginia was 2.8 percent that month and the national rate was 6 percent. Loudoun's rate a year ago was 2.8 percent.

"Loudoun is often described as a very wealthy community, but there were a great many people in need even when the economy was good," said Randy Collins, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. "Now with the economy turning a little bit and unemployment up, there are more people added to those rolls. I think we will see an increase in requests for services."

For instance, job seekers stopping at the Workforce Resource Center made 262 visits in February 2001, increasing to 417 visits the next month following several layoffs from Internet technology (IT) companies.

"It steadily increased since then," said Janis Chamblin, chief of Career Support Services. "I know that in the Workforce Resource Center, we're very busy. There's always somebody in there and often all four computers are [in use]."

Visits to the center increased from 450 visits in late 2001 to a monthly average of 550 to 600 visits in 2002.

"Several of the people coming in are IT people, but we're also seeing a lot of administrative assistants and positions that are being laid off from companies," Chamblin said, adding that those laid off make up about 75 percent of the center's clients. "We're seeing people from all industries. ... We have people from all income levels."

HOUSING SERVICES noted that some of the clients seeking services at the agency were laid off from the IT and service industry, including hotels and restaurants and companies associated with the area's airports. The clients sought services following the IT layoffs and the recession and two months after the Sept. 11 attack.

"The economy hasn't stabilized, so many people are laying off and cutting back hours," said Cindy Mester, director of Housing Services.

The Housing Intervention Program (HIP) through Housing Services assisted 120 families during FY02, compared to 80 families so far in FY03, a number that could increase to 160 families by the end of the fiscal year, Mester said. HIP provides financial assistance to prevent families from undergoing rental evictions and mortgage foreclosures and to provide security deposits for those who are homeless.

Families seeking help through the rental assistance program increased from about 50 new households in early 2002 to 80 to 85 households in late 2002.

"We're definitely seeing larger numbers of people applying every month," Mester said. "It's certainly a problem as the cost of housing is going up. We are seeing people whose income is being significantly reduced or [who are being] laid off, and they can't afford the housing they used to."

GOOD SHEPHERD ALLIANCE (GSA), Inc., which agreed to continue operating the county's three homeless shelters on Woods Roads until Jan. 31, saw an increase in the number of residents requesting housing. The alliance served fewer residents this year as part of its transition out of overseeing the program's operation and had to turn away more residents than in the past.

"We're dealing with not only a service class but middle class layoffs," said Mark Gunderman, vice-chairman of the board for the GSA.

The GSA housed 277 residents and turned away another 309 residents this year through November, compared to housing 327 residents and turning away 117 residents in 2001. The year before, the alliance turned away even fewer residents when statistics were not kept.

GSA provided the residents with 31,658 meals in 2002, compared to 31,015 meals in 2001 and 29,853 meals in 2000.

Loudoun Interfaith Relief provides meals for residents by giving them an emergency three-day supply of food. The Leesburg-based non-profit organization handled 4,044 orders for food so far this fiscal year, an increase from 9,308 orders in FY02 and 7,194 orders in FY01.

"The general cost of living is high here. We have plenty of people working full-time ... and still can't afford to live here," said Laura MacLaurin, executive director of Loudoun Interfaith Relief. "The majority of people we see are people who are working but don't make enough to make a living."