Expiring jobless benefits putting stress on food banks

SAN JOSE, Calif.

Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose Wednesday was buzzing with hundreds of clients lining up at the food bank, at the job search center and at its housing clinic. Executive Director Pancho Guevara says his organization, staffed mostly by volunteers, has seen a 70 percent increase in demand for services this year. Now that unemployment benefits will end at 26 weeks with no more extensions to 99 weeks, Guevara anticipates more and more people will be seeking assistance.

"With the dimunition of these benefits coming to folks, we expect these lines, which are really far more than we were ever prepared to handle, are going to grow dramatically, and that's something I don't know how we're going to step up and do it, and we're going to need the help from the entire community to make it happen," Guevara said.

"My unemployment is coming to an end; we were both laid off a while back and we come here to get food," San Jose resident Jack Robbins said.

The timing is particularly challenging with the holidays coming. Sacred Heart is also involved in a toy drive to make Christmas a happy time for children.

Pamela Carabajal was standing in line to get some groceries at the food bank. She was laid off six months ago and is about to receive her last unemployment benefit check. She receives $906 every two weeks. She was told she would qualify for an extension, but with Congress unwilling to re-authorize extended benefits, Carabajal spent the morning trying to reach someone at the unemployment office to determine if she is one of a projected two million Americans who were cut off as of midnight. She could not get through to anyone.

Community-based service groups have become large operations as a result of their transformation as primary safety nets for the unemployed. Sacred Heart, which receives 80 percent of its food from the Second Harvest Food Bank, is serving 20,000 individuals per month. It needs 150 to 200 volunteers daily to run the food bank, a clothing outlet and other services. Each volunteer typically puts in a three-hour shift.

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