This chart shows food assistance applications in March and April from the Washington Department of Social Health Services.

This chart shows food assistance applications in March and April from the Washington Department of Social Health Services.

Already on the edge, thousands seek help with food and rent

County residents are increasingly asking for government and nonprofit help to meet basic needs.

EVERETT — Lisa Hull knows the domino effect all too well.

A family that’s already struggling to get by experiences some setback — a car accident, a layoff, an ailment leading to hefty medical bills — that becomes catastrophic when they can no longer afford rent and other necessities.

Hull, who helps connect people with basic resources as the program manager for North Sound 2-1-1, is seeing the chain of events unfold more and more amid the coronavirus pandemic. People are losing their jobs — and with them, the money they need to pay for essentials.

“There’s a lot of households that are coming into that right now,” Hull said. “There’s definitely a sense of fear out there.”

In April, more than 3,600 people called the local 2-1-1 line looking for services such as rental and food assistance. That’s more than double the number of calls the agency fielded during the same month last year, Hull said. Applications for food stamps and other types of basic financial aid have surged, too, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services.

In the week that started on April 20, about 1,250 Snohomish County residents applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the state’s Food Assistance Program for legal immigrants. In a similar seven-day period in late April 2019, about 500 people in the county applied for those programs.

The numbers highlight a trend: Across the county, people who were working low-wage jobs before the pandemic have been driven into poverty as the COVID-19 crisis has taken hold, stifling the economy and resulting in layoffs and reduced hours even for workers who are considered “essential.”

“When people’s hours are cut like that — they’re already living sort of just over the edge of poverty. Now they’re pushed right back in,” said Babs Roberts, director of the Department of Social and Health Services’ Community Services Division.

As of late April, applications for programs that provide cash assistance to families in need were up in comparison to past years, the department’s figures for Snohomish County show. During the week of April 20, 410 households applied for programs known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and State Family Assistance — compared to roughly 110 for a similar time period last year.

This spring, the state has also seen a steady rise in the numbers of Snohomish County residents applying for its Aged, Blind or Disabled Cash Assistance Program.

“We are seeing a significant number of applications from Snohomish County,” Roberts said.

Similar trends are happening statewide, The Seattle Times has reported.

“These are what these programs are for,” said Marcy Bowers, executive director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network. “They’re to be a safety net to people to fall on during hard times.”

And while the federal government is providing $1,200 stimulus checks to many residents, advocates say that amount only goes so far.

“I think it’s helpful, but not enough,” said Mary Anne Dillon, executive director of programs in Snohomish County for the YWCA, which offers a wide range of services to women and families.

She added that the sum is barely enough to cover a month’s rent — “and maybe some food.”

“It will help, perhaps, with one month,” Dillon said. “But it will not help in the long term.”

In Snohomish County, the YWCA has seen more people asking for help with rent. The organization recently received $25,000 from a local coronavirus response fund, and most of it funded rental assistance, she said.

“That money went really quickly,” Dillon said. “People don’t have rent for April. They don’t have rent for May and perhaps will not have rent for June.”

Many county residents are also relying on food banks to eat.

The county’s food banks have seen a 40 percent increase in clients, according to Linda Neunzig, agriculture coordinator for the county executive’s office.

“There’s a consistent need for volunteers (and) a consistent need for food products and monetary donations,” Neunzig said during a recent media briefing.

Food Lifeline, a nonprofit organization that supplies food banks in Western Washington, on Friday delivered five semi-trucks full of thousands of emergency food boxes to local volunteers to be distributed to those in need, Neunzig said. More trucks will arrive each week for the next 12 weeks, she said.

Statewide, the number of people seeking services at food banks has more than doubled, from about 850,000 before the pandemic to more than 1.6 million, said state Food Assistance Specialist Katie Rains at a news conference last week. That number could swell to 2 million in the coming months, Washington State Department of Agriculture officials anticipate.

As food banks grapple with the unprecedented demand, hunger relief advocates are steering people toward food stamps. The federally-funded SNAP is designed to expand during economic recessions and shrink as more people get back to work, said Christina Wong, director of public policy and advocacy for Northwest Harvest.

Enrolling in the program allows people to not only better meet their own needs, but also pump money back into the economy by patronizing grocery stores and farmers markets, she said.

“SNAP is really well-positioned to be helping address the two sides of this crisis,” Wong said. “It’s keeping the engine running, so to speak, in our local economies.”

But other cash assistance programs that face increasing demand, such as TANF, are more dependent on state dollars, said Roberts, of the department of Human and Social Services.

“It’s one more thing that the governor and the Legislature are going to have to balance moving forward,” Roberts said. “They have some tough decisions to make.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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