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With rising gas and food prices, social service agencies see hard times ahead

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 19, 2008 - Chris Gebke knows her clients are starting to feel the pinch.

Trips to St. Louis for a Cardinals baseball game or an evening at the Muny are disappearing for the dozens of adults with developmental disabilities who rely on Community Link, a social service agency based in Breese, Ill.

Instead, spiraling fuel costs are forcing caregivers to find cheaper alternatives close to home, like minor league games or a local entertainment showcase.

"It has not hit them directly because we always protect them, but they're catching on," said Gebke, director of the agency's Community Living programs. "We're penny pinching. It's only going to get worse -- it's really scaring me as we get down the road."

A variety of social service and nonprofit agencies across the St. Louis area are staring down a similar path. Rising fuel and food costs coupled with the overall economic downturn have left many organizations with little choice but to scale back services, raise prices or stretch existing resources.

Community Link operates six small group homes for adults with disabilities. In years past, the agency needed to place five residents in each home to reach a financial break-even point. Workers are now putting six and seven people in a group home to meet the increased energy and food costs, Gebke said.

Instead of one-on-one trips to doctor's appointments and other necessary visits, staff members wind up taking a carload of people to various appointments, cutting back on one-on-one time with clients. The agency has also frozen salaries during the economic crunch, creating turnover with practical implications for the people served.

"People with developmental disabilities look for consistency," Gebke said. "They can't get that when there's staff coming in and out."

The agency expects to exceed its transportation budget by about 10 percent because of skyrocketing gas prices. Rising electric and natural gas costs will likely put Community Link about 33 percent over its fuel budget.

"There have been no increases in funding from the state to cover this, so we'll need to take it out of other areas," executive director John J. Sedivy said in a statement.

Meals on Wheels 

Much like the climbing cost of gas, Meals on Wheels of Greater St. Louis recently hit a foreboding $4 benchmark. One of the agency's 16 area food delivery programs had to raise the cost of its meals to $4.40 because of rising food costs.

The increase marked the first time meal costs have topped $4, said president Mary Risberg.

Only about half of the organization's clients pay the full cost of meals. Meals on Wheels of Greater St. Louis subsidizes the remainder.

"Right now, we have sufficient funds to cover the rising costs," Risberg said.

The agency also receives no government funding, meaning the all-volunteer force gets no reimbursements for gas or other expenses. So far, there's been no drop-off in volunteers because of rising fuel costs, likely in part because many volunteers deliver meals close to their homes, Risberg said.

"That cost is not horrendous at this point," she said. "Most of them are able to absorb it."


Meanwhile, the St. Louis Area Foodbank is struggling to absorb a doubling of transportation costs in the past year. In the first four months of 2007, the agency spent $60,000 in freight costs for food.

This year, through April 2008, the foodbank had already spent $122,000. The agency's six trucks travel a collective 25,000 miles a month, distributing food to 14 counties in Missouri, 12 counties in Illinois and St. Louis city.

The 100-percent increase in costs came with just a 10 percent increase in food donations over last year, said associate director Matt Dace.

"It's continuing costing more money to bring that same amount of food in there," he said. "We're just trying to cover a wound."

Rising food and fuel costs haven't led to any layoffs or volunteer impacts for the St. Louis Area Foodbank, but the agency has basically halted hiring. The search for a public relations specialist who could help boost the organization's exposure is on hold because of limited funding, Dace said.

Some organizations are looking for ways to keep staff and volunteers in tow during the downturn.

Lutheran Senior Services

To combat the rising costs, officials with Lutheran Senior Services created a gas card incentive program for some of their workers.

In-home services staff members who work a certain set of hours each month can earn up to $50 in free gas. Those who work at least three shifts in the more far-flung areas the agency covers can earn an additional $25 gas card, said Marcia Eckrich, administrator of in-home services.

The agency also had to raise its hourly rate for in-home services because of rising fuel costs. The 50-cent an hour increase went into effect June 1.

"We typically do not do a rate increase in the middle of the year," Eckrich said. "As agencies try and stay competitive and keep staff, they're going to have to adjust their rates and pass some of the costs on to the consumer."

Chris Birk is a freelance writer.

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