With unemployment reaching 12.6 percent in November, Santa Cruz County is floundering in economic distress, and the downtown Salvation Army donation center is seeling an influx of people seeking help.
“Because of the economy, donations are really at an all-time low, and people needing assistance is at an all-time high,” says Denise Acosta, who has worked as the social services director at the Laurel Street location for the past 10 years.
“It seems like ever since [Hurricane] Katrina, donations have gone down," says Acosta. "A lot of people who used to donate to the Salvation Army monthly have put their money toward disaster relief."
And people who have donated to the Salvation Army for years are having to ask for help themselves, she says.
In recent months, the Salvation Army center, at 721 Laurel St., has seen an increase in people who need assistance with their Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bills or whose unemployment checks have run out. People in need of rental assistance are referred to the office in Watsonville.
“People come in here, and we connect them to the organizations they need,” says Acosta, who helps people begin the process of applying for food stamps. The Salvation Army also works closely with the Second Harvest Food Bank.
“We donate 200 pounds of produce twice a month to the Salvation Army,” says Grace Galvan, operations director at the Second Harvest Food Bank. Second Harvest also donates 1,500-2,000 pounds of food to the Salvation Army Pantry after every food drive, including the Holiday Food Drive that's just wrapping up.
The latest project at the Laurel Street Salvation Army is to set up an afterschool program.
“We’re researching it right now," says Acosta. "It will probably get off the ground next year.”
The afterschool program was sparked by a recent influx of people who have lost their child-care vouchers.
Acosta thinks that the biggest problem facing Santa Cruz County right now is unemployment.
“People don’t have jobs, and it leads to a lack of hope,” she says. “Hopelessness leads to addictions and crime. We give out phone cards for domestic calls, and then they get traded for drugs."
Just a few blocks away, at 812 Pacific Ave., is the . Although part of the same organization, the thrift store's profit funds an Adult Rehabilitation Center in San Jose, and donations of clothing and household items have been consistent.
“We get a truck every day," says Liz Gilkie, who has managed the downtown Salvation Army Thrift Store for 21 years. "We’re busy all the time. We are like a little mini department store; we have everything—clothing, furniture, appliances, bikes, you name it.”
The donations that go into the store are sorted in San Jose by the residents of the rehab program.
“We referbish, recycle and clean up all of the donated items and then redistribute them to the stores,” says Vernie Gibbs, a graduate of the ARC program who now works as an intake coordinator, helping to keep the center at its full 96-person capacity.
“It’s a six-month-to-a-year residential program for men only," says Gibbs. "The residents work in the warehouse to defer the cost of the food, clothing, classes and counseling they receive.”
Men from all over Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties are eligible for the program. They are often referred by courts, but many refer themselves.
“It’s very important that people know that the thrift store supports an Adult Rehabilitation Center for drugs and alcohol,” says Gilkie. "It's a very comprehensive program, and it helps the patients who have outstanding warrants and makes sure their court matters are dealt with before they enter the program, so that when they get out they can step out into a new life.”
The men, who range in age from their late teens to mid-50s, also receive dental and eye care benefits. An post-care program provides a sober living environment for those who choose to stay connected to the program after they have graduated.
After expenses, 82 cents of every dollar goes into the Adult Rehabilitation Program.
Those who wish to donate to the Salvation Army can donate cash or food to the Laurel Street location or clothing and household items to the Pacific Avenue store.
“Wednesdays, all the clothes storewide are half off," says Gilkie. "The last Friday of the month, storewide, everything is half off, except mattress and box springs.”