United Way cuts sting senior centers

EVERETT — Fights over money are seldom pretty.

United Way of Snohomish County finds itself caught up in an uncomfortable public dispute.

This year, it took on a new goal few would argue with: breaking the cycle of poverty for individuals and families. Money raised during its annual fund drive would be allocated to programs to support that goal.

But with that shift in priorities came shifts in which organizations were funded.

Area nonprofits had submitted requests for $4.4 million, more than double the $2 million United Way had to disperse. In all, 56 programs — just over half of the 107 programs that had asked for money — got it.

Food bank programs at Volunteers of America; low-incoming housing and early education programs at Housing Hope; and homeless, low-income and multicultural programs at Lutheran Community Services are examples of this year’s grant recipients.

Five area senior centers were among the groups asking for money. They submitted a proposal to better coordinate services for older adults countywide. They asked for $30,000 each, for a total of $150,000.

Some of the centers had received United Way funding for decades. This year, they were told, they would get nothing.

Executives of senior centers in Arlington, Bothell, Edmonds, Monroe, Snohomish and Stanwood signed a letter of protest, calling the decision “sad and outrageous.”

“My concern is this is a trend,” said Farrell Fleming, executive director of the Edmonds Senior Center. “If you look at United Ways across the country, they’re just ruling out seniors after being there for decades. It just seems to be really turning their backs on seniors.”

Poverty doesn’t just affect young families, said Bob Dvorak, executive director of the Snohomish Senior Center. “As the aging population continues to grow, the amount of people in that poverty level will rise.”

United Way officials seemed stunned by the criticism. “A sound bite that United Way is not serving seniors is an incorrect statement,” said Dennis Smith, chief executive for United Way of Snohomish County. “We want people to know we’re serving folks in poverty across the whole lifespan and seniors are very much in that.”

Every time United Way starts a new funding cycle, there will be a number of organizations that previously have gotten money that no longer do, Smith said.

Thirty-two of the 56 programs that were funded include services for people 65 and older, he said. “There really is a response to seniors in our community.”

“Helping those folks that are struggling among us makes a lot of sense,” Smith said.

Whom to help?

With the number of people living in poverty in Snohomish County, United Way thought it was time to make helping them escape a priority.

Nearly 75,000 people countywide live below federally defined poverty levels, according to a United Way analysis based on U.S. Census data.

For a family of four, that means trying to make $24,250 cover expenses for a year. This at a time when the county’s average two-bedroom, one-bath apartment costs about $1,346 a month, according to Apartment Insights Washington.

That would total $16,152 a year.

People of all age groups are living in poverty. According to United Way, roughly a third of those living in poverty here are under 18, while about 60 percent are 18 to 64. That means about 8 percent are 65 or older, according to United Way data.

Put another way, seniors are the smallest number of local people living in poverty, the United Way says.

A Snohomish County study on poverty, which included information on the needs of local seniors, was released in February.

It showed that the number of people age 60 or older had increased 55.5 percent in the decade ending in 2013. Growth in the number of seniors is expected to continue as the wave of baby boomers hits retirement age.

Older people have their own housing issues, the county report found, with expenses for utilities, taxes and insurance for renting a one-bedroom apartment totaling about $1,030 a month. Overall expenses, including food, transportation and health care, brought the estimated typical expense total for older adults to $2,176 a month.

Senior center directors say their programs provide far more than entertainment. A program in Monroe offers seniors and disabled adults transportation to doctor’s appointments and shopping. “This allows them to remain independent and in their home,” said Jacob McGee, executive director of the East County Senior Center.

The Stillaguamish Senior Center in Arlington has 154 units of low-income housing for seniors as well as a food bank, said Jo Olson, the executive director.

“There are seniors who are homeless and below the poverty level,” she said. “They should be addressed, too.”

The five senior centers that lost funding say they have no immediate plans to cut staff or programs, but they will have to find new ways to raise money.

“It’s devastating to have funding that we have relied on for so long and then having that stripped away,” McGee said.

The Snohomish Senior Center has a $425,000 annual budget, and was hoping to get $30,000 from United Way. “We do have reserve funds in the bank so we will be able to cover this year,” said Dvorak, its executive director. “But you can’t operate at a loss every year, either.”

Senior Services of Snohomish County had United Way money for senior nutrition programs cut from $34,000 a year to $25,000 a year. Aging and disability programs also were cut by $10,000, executive Steve McGraw said.

The average time on the wait list for home-delivered meals is six months, with some 250 seniors and disabled people hoping to get the service. The funding cut “will just add to the pressure,” McGraw said.

The funding changes come at a challenging time for nonprofits. The ways they raise money are undergoing dramatic shifts.

Fundraising in social media age

Nonprofits increasingly rely on social media to solicit donations, which can be made at the click of a mouse. Consumers get to select which organizations they want to support and when.

Annual workplace campaigns, which worked for decades for United Way, aren’t the reliable money raisers they once were.

Employees don’t necessarily work for the same employer for 15 to 20 years, Smith said. Younger employees typically don’t have the income of more tenured workers, he said. Moreover, some companies such as Kimberly Clark, which organized big, successful annual United Way campaigns, are gone.

Community Chest, a forerunner organization of United Ways, was founded so that there would be an organized way for the business community to respond to requests from charities, McGraw said.

Now companies are frequently choosing their own causes to back and promote as part of their marketing campaigns, he said.

These forces, in turn, have caused United Way to rethink how it does business.

“United Way recognized we just can’t function in the old model,” Smith said.

“And to be successful we have to be able to say: Here’s what we’re focused on, something people can get inspired by and rally around.”

United Way chapters locally and nationally have had to change with the times, recognizing that the most effective way to do business “is to be able to demonstrate a focused area in which we’re working,” Smith said.

For United Way in Snohomish County, the issue it faced was a desire to address an important community issue.

“That’s where they picked breaking the cycle of poverty,” Smith said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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