2019 As holidays loom, need in Bucks is great

You can help your neighbors by supporting Give A Christmas, the charitable holiday drive run by The Intelligencer and the Bucks County Opportunity Council. All donations go to local families in need.

Income has gone up and poverty rates have gone down in Bucks County, but those numbers have not erased the ongoing need for homeless, hungry and low-income residents. The county’s human services budget continues to increase, and local non-profits are assisting more individuals and families than ever.

“Our numbers go up each year as more people come in with an array of issues trying to overcome the barriers for sustainable housing,” said Nicki Bedesem, director of communications for Family Service Association of Bucks County. “Our costs go up as well as we add more services and work to meet all their needs.”

The holidays are a particularly difficult time for those in need, but there are ways to help.

For more than 30 years, the community has stepped up to help, donating $3 million to The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas initiative.

Administered by the Bucks County Opportunity Council, with 10% of the proceeds shared with the Keystone Opportunity Center, the fund provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays.

Benefiting in-need locals in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

But the need is great year-round, social services agencies say.

FSA has assisted 479 people, including 172 children, at its shelter — the only 24/7 shelter serving individuals, children and families — between July 2018 and June 2019. The organization also provides numerous services out of its Bristol, Langhorne and Quakertown offices, including drug and alcohol treatment, mental health and wellness programs and medical case management for HIV and AIDS patients.

Combined, the organization has assisted 7,052 people in Bucks County in the last fiscal year ended June 30. It’s a number that goes up each year, regardless of the county’s demographic numbers.

The U.S. Census Bureau recorded a 6.1% poverty level in Bucks County for 2017, down from 6.6% in 2016. The bureau’s latest American Community Survey also shows the county’s median income went up 5% to $88,569 from $84,749. Additionally, the county’s annual homeless count held each January showed a 9.6% decrease from 2018 to 359 people.

The needs of the at-risk population have not gone away, however, with about 50,000 in Bucks County who are food insecure, 34% of which are children, according to numbers provided by the Bucks County Opportunity Council. The county also has approximately 38,000 people at or below the poverty threshold, or $24,750 household income for a family of four.

Bucks County’s Department of Housing and Human Services has seen its budget go up each year as it provides services to the county’s most vulnerable. The department’s preliminary 2020 expenses have gone up 4.4% from 2018, to $93.16 million. This year’s increase can mostly be attributed to regular increases in staff salaries and cost of services and not a sudden spike in the needy population, said Christina Finello, deputy director for the housing and human services department.

Bucks County’s social service agencies have become more efficient and better coordinated to handle the needs of the homeless and low-income population. Erin Lukoss, executive director of the Bucks County Opportunity Council, reached that conclusion in light of numbers showing decreased poverty in the county but an increase in the number of people assisted by organizations like the BCOC and FSA.

“What we are definitely seeing is more people doing a better job marketing and coordinating services,” said Lukoss from her Doylestown office. “In the past, someone would make five or six phone calls, and if they didn’t get anywhere they would move on or just give up. Now, all of the organizations are working together much better and more effectively to make referrals. We’ve become better at helping people.”

Lukoss and her team at BCOC work to keep the generosity of Give A Christmas thriving year-round to supplement the revenue from local, state and federal sources.

“The government funding helps us achieve our primary goals,” Lukoss said. “If we need to help somebody move into housing, government funding is the perfect match. There are limits on what we can use that funding, though. Private funding is where we can be more creative and think outside the box.”

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