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Recession Takes Toll on United Way's Charity : Services: Local groups are receiving less money because the stalled economy and the national organization's financial scandal have slowed contributions.


SOUTHEAST AREA — To people who depend on United Way, the recession means more than worsening unemployment statistics, budget deficits and line-item vetoes.

To David Ibarra, 7, who lives in a poor neighborhood with few diversions, it means losing the Campfire club whose counselors taught him to swim. To a destitute mother on the brink of suicide, it means no therapist to talk to. To abused children, it means waiting weeks for an appointment with a counselor.

United Way, one of the nation's largest charities, helps those who depend on the kindness of strangers--from single, working parents without access to day care to Boy Scouts and drug addicts. But the recession and a national scandal has meant less money coming into the charity's coffers.

The result has been a 38% cut--from $5.5 million to $3.4 million--for United Way's 72 nonprofit agencies in the Harbor Southeast region, which includes Long Beach and communities from Whittier to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

David Ibarra's mother, who recently lost her cashier's job, learned only last week that her son's Campfire program at Fishburn Elementary School in Maywood will be canceled.

"That's the only place they have to go," Rina Mejia said. "The Campfire program helped keep him away from the problems. I was going to have him there the next three years. I don't know what I'll do now."

Although the Campfire program was only one day a week, Mejia--a single mother raising four children--appreciated the help the counselors gave children, teaching them basic skills from swimming to manners and safety.

United Way reduced its donation to the Rio Hondo region of the Campfire Boys and Girls from $87,300 to $50,600, leaving many children in impoverished neighborhoods without an after-school program.

United Way donations make up 56% of the Rio Hondo region's budget and the cuts "have reached crisis proportion," said Nancy Smith, director of the region, which serves 13 predominantly poor communities in Southeast Los Angeles. Campfire officials reduced programming and eliminated clubs at four schools, cutting the number of children served from 1,600 to 1,070, Smith said.

Other local agencies have responded to the cuts with layoffs, closures and massive reductions in services to the needy. At Family Service of Long Beach, where parents and children receive subsidized counseling, United Way reduced its donation this year to $124,000, down from $197,000 the previous year.

As a consequence, one Family Service office has been closed, salaries have been frozen and the retirement fund for employees has been eliminated.

United Way donations constitute only 8% of the agency's budget, but the cuts mean that 420 families will go without affordable counseling and those remaining will have hours reduced, Executive Director Don Westerland said.

"I had a call this afternoon from a utility company trying to find help for a family," he said. After the family paid their bill, they had very little money and only enough food for two days.

"The mother was practically beside herself, she was suicidal," Westerland said. "We couldn't take her. I don't know what happened to her. She has no place to go. It's a desperate situation."

At Cedar House, a treatment program for abused children in Long Beach, all 10 staff members took a 10% pay cut to prevent services from being drastically reduced. United Way makes up 16.5% of the Cedar House budget, so a reduction of funds from $55,000 to $34,600 "makes a big difference," counselor Robin Hampton said.

Hampton's weekly caseload increased by nearly 25% to 22 children per week because of an increase in demand, she said. The waiting list has grown to 50 names, with a six- to eight-week delay for an appointment.

Because of the wait, Hampton said, the children "are not getting the emotional support they need. They feel isolated. One child was running away from home a lot and Social Services was threatening to take her. If she had gotten therapy, she could have been stabilized and it probably wouldn't have become a crisis."

In the last decade, the government has depended on the private sector to provide the social services it has cut at the local, state and federal level. But the recession has meant more layoffs and fewer employees able to contribute to charities. At United Way, most donations are deducted from workers' paychecks, said Sandra Manning, spokeswoman for United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Also, recent revelations that William Aramony, former United Way of America president, had a six-figure salary, traveled on the Concorde and kept several expensive homes has led some people to stop contributing. (The local United Way continues to withhold $350,000 in dues to the national chapter in protest, Manning said.)

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